Suppose you don’t have any water in your house, but you have a stack of dirty dishes you want to get rid of.

In that case, you might be tempted to run your dishwasher despite your lack of water. But is this possible?

Running a dishwasher without water can damage the heating elements and the pump, causing a stall error. Therefore, you risk permanently damaging the dishwasher.

In the rest of this article, I’ll describe in detail what will happen if you run your dishwasher without water.

I’ll also offer suggestions for how to clean your dishes without much water.

Let’s get started!

What Happens When You Run a Dishwasher Without Water?

An open dishwasher with dry dishes and utensils without water
It’s a bad idea to run a dishwasher without water. You strain the machine and don’t clean anything!

To understand why running a dishwasher without water can cause significant damage, you have to know how dishwashers work.

Here’s the step-by-step process of what typically happens when you run a dishwasher:

  1. Water fills the basin at the bottom of the appliance.
  2. The internal heating elements bring the water up to a suitable temperature.
  3. A motor pump forces water into the machine’s spray arms so the components can distribute water throughout the racks on all the dishes.
  4. Rotating arms in the dishwasher clean the dirt from the dishes.
  5. Dirty water is drained away.
  6. The pump brings in fresh water to rinse the dishes.
  7. The dishes are dried.

However, if you attempt to run a dishwasher without water, the heating elements won’t have any water to heat up. So the pump will move nothing through the machine and into the arms.

Therefore, much of the machinery will operate without any lubrication and purpose, which causes unnecessary wear and tear on the machine.

Many modern dishwashers will only start if there’s water; even if they do start, they’ll stall and display an error code.

In most cases, running a dishwasher without water for just a few minutes won’t cause any lasting damage.

However, you should refrain from making a habit out of it if you want your dishwasher to last a long time.

Furthermore, the primary reason to run a dishwasher is to clean dishes. Your dishes won’t get cleaned if you run them in a dishwasher without water.

Why Isn’t My Dishwasher Filling With Water?

Most of the time, you’re not intentionally running your dishwasher without water. Instead, some other issue impacts your dishwasher’s ability to function properly.

Here are some potential reasons why your dishwasher isn’t filling with water.

Your water supply line is closed. My first recommendation is to check the water supply line. If it’s closed, water can’t flow through the supply line and fill your dishwasher.

Your door switch isn’t working, or the door isn’t closing properly. Most dishwashers don’t fill with water unless the door switch is activated, so the machine won’t fill with water if your door switch isn’t working or the door isn’t closing.

The water inlet valve isn’t working. A malfunctioning water inlet valve can prevent water from entering the machine. You should always unplug the dishwasher and disconnect your water supply before you check the water inlet valve.

The water float is stuck. Dishwashers have a float valve that rises when water enters the machine and turns the water off when it reaches an upright position, similar to a toilet. However, if the water float is stuck upright, your dishwasher will think it’s full of water when it’s not.

If you check all these issues and still can’t determine why your dishwasher isn’t working correctly, I recommend contacting a professional for assistance.

How To Wash Dishes Without Much Water

A woman's arms washing dishes in a kitchen sink with a green sponge
You can reduce water usage even when doing dishes by hand! Pre-soak your dishes in bins and then scrub them.

Dishwashers can use as much as 14 gallons (53 liters) of water a load, and hand-washing dishes can use 20 gallons (76 liters) or more.

If you don’t have access to a lot of water, this can be a serious problem, especially if you’re running out of clean dishes.

For more information about dishwashers, hand washing, and water usage, check out my article on dishwasher water usage.

If you can access at least some water, you can still clean quite a few dishes by making a three-bin cleaning line.

Here’s how to do it.

  1. Gather three bins or buckets.
  2. Fill the bins with water. If you don’t have running water, ask a neighbor if you can fill the bins at their house.
  3. Line the bins up in a row.
  4. Scrub the dishes as clean as you possibly can without using any water.
  5. Put dish soap in the first bin.
  6. Place the dishes in the first bin and allow them to soak for at least ten minutes.
  7. If any dishes have grease or stubborn residue, scrub them until they’re completely clean.
  8. Place the dishes in the second bin to remove all of the suds.
  9. Next, put the dishes in the third bin to get them completely rinsed off and clean without any bubbles left behind.

This dishwashing method is an excellent way to ensure you have clean dishes to use, even if you don’t have running water and therefore can’t run your dishwasher without causing damage.

Water-Saving Tips for Dishwasher Use

If you want to save water while using your dishwasher, here are some tips to help you achieve just that:

  • Scrape, Don’t Rinse: Scraping off food scraps from dishes instead of rinsing them under running water can significantly reduce water usage.
  • Wait for Full Loads: Run the dishwasher only when you have a full load. This ensures that you are maximizing the use of water for each cycle while reducing the number of times you run the dishwasher. 
  • Load Dishes Properly: Load dishes efficiently and ensure they are arranged to allow water to reach all surfaces. Avoid overloading the dishwasher to prevent poor water circulation.
  • Choose the Right Detergent: Select a high-quality, low-foaming detergent designed for use in dishwashers. Using the right detergent enhances cleaning performance, allowing you to use less water for the same results.
  • Regular Maintenance: Keep your dishwasher in good working condition by cleaning the filter and checking for any clogs or buildup. A well-maintained dishwasher operates more efficiently, ensuring that water is used effectively.
  • Fix Leaks Promptly: Check for and fix any leaks in the dishwasher as soon as you notice them. Leaks can waste a significant amount of water over time.
  • Use the Eco or Light Wash Setting: Most modern dishwashers have an eco-friendly or light wash setting that uses less water and energy. These settings are suitable for lightly-soiled dishes.


You can’t safely run a dishwasher without water because doing so can damage the heating elements and the pump, decreasing the machine’s overall longevity and health.

There are many potential reasons why a dishwasher might not fill with water, including a closed water supply line, a malfunctioning door switch or water inlet valve, and a stuck water float.

You can clean your dishes in a three-bin cleaning line if you don’t have running water.

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