Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. About a week ago our dishwasher started to issue a loud grinding sound from its hidden depths. After a few days I decided to call an appliance guy, and yesterday he came to have a look. Verdict: Replace the motor for $500+, or for about the same price get a new dishwasher.

(Incidentally, the repairman recommended a place to buy a new one, primarily on the grounds that “It’s a local business.” I took this as confirmation that those who really have to deal extensively with businesses whose responsibility matters to them can see quite clearly that local is better.)

This dishwasher is about ten years old. It must have been put in at about the time of a well-conceived kitchen renovation that turned a cramped kitchen and a cramped breakfast room into a roomy family eat-in kitchen with lots of natural light. Before moving into this Philadelphia house, we lived for ten years as a married couple (and then family of three) in an apartment with no dishwasher. In a life that has become busier as we’ve had a second child and now have two full-time jobs, it has seemed like a helpful bit of machinery to have handy.

Now an obvious oddity of this scenario is that it’s cheaper to buy something new than to fix something old; but that’s a commonplace these days. We also (by choice) obtained cell phones when we moved here. When the battery in mine became incapable of maintaining a charge after three years, I went to get a new battery, and found out that my phone replacement plan had me scheduled for an “upgrade” at a deep discount. My three-year-old model had become obsolete, and so had its battery. It was about the same price (and faster and easier) to get a new phone with a new battery than to get a replacement battery for my old phone. Cell phone technology “advances” a lot faster than dishwasher, but the same principle is at work: slight performance advantages via more complicated technology that generates incompatibility and obsolescence and waste.

The real question for us (since repairing it really doesn’t make sense) is whether we ought to replace the old machine or not. From a monetary point of view, not replacing it has obvious advantages. From the point of view of convenience, I can’t say I’ve yet missed the dishwasher. It doesn’t take so much longer to hand wash than to load. Besides, it occasionally happens that neither of us remembers to turn the machine on before we go to bed, whereas you can’t fail to notice whether you’ve washed up by hand or not.

The usual pro-dishwasher argument is that it uses less water. I’m not sure this is true if one is a frugal water-user. Certainly the machine uses non-renewable electricity and my hands do not.

But I think the stronger considerations are the household ones. Should we have machines doing work we can do for ourselves with not much more time and effort? My older son is ready to have more household responsibilities. Why not make dishwashing a collaborative family effort, letting us share in responsibility for the immediate consequences of our eating? This is one of those changes in habit that leads to greater awareness of and responsibility for the texture of one’s life more generally, as well as a sense that such responsibility is familial. Then we could also put the money we don’t spend toward buying something like a piano, that would be a delight to all for years to come.

Yesterday evening, when I told her the results of the repairman’s visit, my wife immediately assumed we would replace the defunct machine, and I did not pursue the question then. She grew up in a suburban home partly designed by her electrician father with all the modern conveniences. (My favorite feature is the 1970’s futuristic vacuum system, with apertures in the walls that activate the central suction apparatus when you snap the vacuum hose onto them.) On the other hand, she has just been re-reading Berry’s essay on computer non-ownership, which she considered recommending to a student assigned to write a “position paper” on computer use. I picked it up from beside her on the table this morning, and she asked me if I was looking for ammunition to make a case against replacing the dishwasher – which means that the thought had already been forming in her mind too.

So it looks like the old machine will stay and become just part of the decor. Or perhaps of the cabinetry: we’ve been needing more storage space for pots and pans anyway.

(Side note on tradesmen: My limited experience suggests that plumbers are better conversationalists than men who fix appliances. Might this have something to do with the fact that the latter are concerned with the gizmos of convenience, whereas plumbers are occupied with the more fundamentally human concerns of cleanliness and the outflow of bodily and household wastes? I suspect plumbers have something of a Rabelaisian comic perspective on the human condition and household life.)

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Mark Shiffman
Mark Shiffman was born in north Florida to the son of expatriated New York secular Jews and the daughter of small town, pillar of the community southern Presbyterians. After spending much of his childhood in Alaska and California, he discovered in his Tennessee adolescence, first reluctantly and then gratefully, that more than half his heart belonged to the South. He occasionally rediscovers this viscerally when his body descends below the Mason-Dixon line from his northern exile in Philadelphia, where he has also brought his wife into exile from her lifelong home of Chicago. They live in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia with their two sons, having moved from one of the more successfully racially integrated neighborhoods in America (Hyde Park) to one of the most. Mark received his education from the McCallie School in Chattanooga and the surrounding mountains and trees, St. John’s College in Annapolis and the Santa Fe desert, Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia and the woods around Crum Creek, the University of Chicago and the icy prairie winds, and the Catholic Worker House and grimy streets of New York City. He is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions and affiliate faculty member in Classical Studies at Villanova University. He has also taught at Brooklyn College, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. His current projects include books on the political philosophy of Plutarch and on the meaning of modern individualism, as well as a translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul (Focus Press).


  1. Dishwashers use less water and sterilize the dishes. Labor costs are the big reason it’s cheaper to buy new. These machines aren’t supercomputers, you probably need a new pump or motor. Buy parts and spend some quality time with your son dismantling and rebuilding the machine. You may even learn some prol skills you can put to use when your clothes washer dies.

    My Dad nursed 22 years out of his old Maytag.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I’ve lived both with and without a dishwasher, and while I find it useful when I have one, it’s not high on my list of essential appliances. (I’d definitely put a piano first.) That’s not to say I wasn’t thrilled when our appliance repairman (a fine conversationalist) “fixed” our ancient and apparently failing dishwasher’s problems with the recommendation to quit using ineffective gel detergent (put rather less delicately) and go back to powder. Worked like a charm.

    It’s interesting to ponder what appliances we consider essential. Microwave? I’d definitely replace that ahead of the dishwasher, if I had to choose, yet I had no trouble living without one for a good chunk of my life. Refrigerator/freezer and stand-alone freezer? They’re at the top of my list, along with my stove — but the European branch of our family is managing with an appliance that would look more at home in a college dorm here. Our child who has lived in both Europe and Asia hasn’t had a clothes dryer in years, even though living in prosperous countries, so it’s clear many people don’t consider it the important appliance that I do.

    Get the piano.

  3. Good post. Could you buy a motor and have a friend help fix it?

    As an argument for fixing the old one, we buy all our appliances from a local family business. Recently they have warned us that newer appliances of various manufacture and price are more likely to use the same increasingly cheap and shoddy components.

    Dishwashers are really superior for washing and storing jars during canning season. It is an actual case of appropriate use of technoligy doing something better.


    Why dishwashers can be more energy efficient.

    I pumped for a Bosch dishwasher in my last two houses. The first had all the bells and whistles. The second (current) one is the bottom of the line, basic-basic. Does the exact same job (not as quiet, but you cannot hear it anyway!). It sterilises my stuff and it’s extremely efficient as it 1) has it’s own internal water heater (so it intakes cold water) and b) utilises a stainless steel tub and rinse aid so the final, very hot water rinse evaporates, thus drying the dishes. There is no heating element that switches on to dry. You can put plastic *on the bottom rack*. Wow. iii) It measure the soil level of the dishes and reduces the amount of water used…like my clothes washer. Very cool.

    It’s pricey. More than $500. But worth it in what I’ve saved between it and the Bosch washer-evaporative dryer I have.

    A good piano will also cost more than $500. Make sure you find one with a solid pinblock (the wood bit that holds the metal pegs that the wires wind around). Otherwise, your piano will not stay in tune. Ever.

    The soundboard, ideally, should be spruce. In cheap pianos it is plywood. Try to pump for spruce…

    Have fun!

  5. I have 9 kids. I love my diswasher. We got our first dishwasher afer praying a novena to St. Zita, who was a scullery maid. In a time and place when grandparents, older nieces and nephews, and unmarried aunts and uncles aren’t available to help with the work of raising children and everything falls to the nuclear family, the diswasher helps make time available to do things like play the piano.

    Replace the dishwasher. Use the time you save to bring more love into your home.

    P.S. You might try praying to St. Cecilia for the piano, that is what we did. She got us one for free. It’s older, about 90, but it does have a spruce soundboard.

  6. I’d replace the dishwasher and learn another useful skill, like sewing, or woodwork or pickling. If you think you may want to can, a dishwasher will make your life 1000x easier. (okay maybe a bit of hyperbole but its a lot easier than boiling the dang jars.) I cook from scratch a lot and the dishwasher makes that easier because I don’t have to then wash the dishes – I just load it as I use.

    We rarely use our dryer (purchased at a thrift store with my mother’s senior discount.) I could do without that. Probably the microwave. Not the dishwasher. (Or the refrigerator, or the heater.)

  7. Mark: your fourth paragraph interests me the most. It is an accurate description of our economy, I think, to say that we use the world up by making things and poison it when we throw them away.

    This, apparently, is okay.

    Recycle what parts from the Old Abomination you can and use the cavity it leaves to store books and pots. Need space to hang-dry herbs? You’re set.

  8. Mark said: “My older son is ready to have more household responsibilities. Why not make dishwashing a collaborative family effort, letting us share in responsibility for the immediate consequences of our eating? This is one of those changes in habit that leads to greater awareness of and responsibility for the texture of one’s life more generally, as well as a sense that such responsibility is familial….”

    That’s the best reason to not replace/repair the dishwasher. Be aware that most teens have sports and activity schedules that interfere with the normal rhythm of family meals. All the more reason to encourage these types of parent-child interactions while the children are younger and more willing to do household chores. The time spent with one’s family in a cooperative activity is never wasted or “lost.”

    Some of the best conversations I had with my Mum were while we were clearing the table and doing the dishes after our evening meal. The times I spent doing mundane chores with my children were always the time when we talked about almost everything. In retrospect, it was the richest time of my life.

  9. We are moving for the first time in seven years next week, and are having this same dilemma but regarding the clothes dryer. We agreed to leave our current dryer with the current home. Per my wife’s request, we’re going to get one of the umbrella shaped hangers for out of doors drying, and rely more on that. But we appear to be nearing a compromise and will also buy a cheap used dryer off Craigslist sometime after we move. We get plenty of hot sunny days here in SE Texas, thought he humidity tends to extend the line drying process; and there’s nothing like a pair of socks or skivvies which, after months of washing and line drying, have lost their elasticity, to drive one back to a good old natural gas fired dryer. Plus warm pants on a cold day…anyway…its a bonus.

    Agree with most here on the pros and cons of a dishwasher. Though I’m partial to hand washing myself, as a measurable task, easily well done.

    Moving is mostly a burden, but brings unexpected blessings as well. Oddly enough, today, I appear to have scored a used baby grand for a tithe of the price of a new one. What better time to get a (relatively) inexpensive piano than the move to a new home!

  10. Not much more time and effort? You’re kidding right. My husband and I used to spend an hour a night doing the dishes by hand. Now that we have a dishwasher, we spend that time together!

  11. That Planned Obsolescence you smell has already mortgaged your humanity too. But, fear not , plunging one’s hands into warm sudsy waters is a Briar Patch easily handled. Put some Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker on the stereo and sing along low.

    Somewhere around two or three years ago, the Cuban Government inked a deal with the Government of China for a bunch of brand spankin new refrigerators. The Cubans, long adept at keeping any mechanical device running on baling wire and a love of repairs were stubbornly defiant about switching out their old “Generals”….the 1950’s vintage General Electric fridge. Embarrassed in front of their Chinese Benefactor, the Government actually had to pay the people of the Revolution to switch, thus starting a minor ruckus over people lining up for photos and saluting at the camera with their el jefe machina, the still running General Electric before they were hauled off to Chinese Scrap Metal Ships. Needless to say, the Chinese ice boxes became quickly caliente and the locals tried as hard as possible to claw back their beloved “Generals”.

    Meanwhile, every nation but the United States is moving into Cuba, a scant 100 miles south of Key West as the Fishing boat sails. At least we’ve got Guantanimo.

  12. I suspect the “saves water” argument only applies to people who leave the water running the whole time they are washing. I wonder if the folks who say their dishwasher “sanitizes” their dishes actually have checked the manual? We just bought a dishwasher (Maytag) off of Craigslist, and it specifically says that its “sani heat” button doesn’t sanitize the dishes. I’m not quite sure what it does then, and certainly looks to be marketing fraud at best.

    It is also a “quiet plus” model, and its probably the second loudest dishwasher I’ve ever heard.

  13. I’d say replace the dishwasher: remember, “ending is better than mending.”

    Mustapha Mond

  14. Dear Mustapha,

    Thanks for that gem of hypnopaedic wisdom from Brave New World. You might also have added “Civilization is Sterilization.”

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