dishwasher with clean dishes

7 Things You Need to Know About Your Dishwasher

I would like to thank Josephine Cochrane of Illinois. I’d like to, but I can’t. She’s been dead for more than a century. But if I could, I’d thank her for inventing the dishwasher. Personally, I’d give up just about anything before my dishwasher.

Dishwasher and Washing

I’ll admit to being a stickler when it comes to properly washed dishes, glassware and utensils. If they come out spotted, gritty or cloudy I’m not happy.

If your dishwasher is not turning out beautifully clean, cloudless, spot-free, sparkling dishes, pots, glassware, and flatware—without handwashing them first—don’t assume the dishwasher is broken. If it runs, you can make sure it runs well. And you can stop that pre-washing.

Years ago before we remodeled and sold our home in California, I’d lived with a low-end, plain wrap, well-used, 18-year old dishwasher. All was well until I began noticing that it was just not doing well. Dishes came out feeling gritty, glasses were streaked and cloudy, food remained stuck to flatware. Ugh. It was really bad. I assumed my Tappan had lived out its useful life and deserved to be put down.

Not feeling up to a kitchen remodel right then (you know how that goes … new dishwasher cries for new cabinets and that means new countertops which leads to new flooring … ), I set out to find a solution. I learned the problem wasn’t the dishwasher so much as it was the owner operator.

At a total cost of about nine bucks and a crash course in dishwasherology, I had good ol’ Tappan working like new in no time. And I didn’t resort to pre-rinsing. I still refuse to pre-rinse.


Just like a car, a dishwasher needs routine maintenance. From time to time you need to get rid of limescale, soap scum, iron, and grease that builds up in your dishwasher. You may be able to see stains and another crud, but much of this is hidden in the hoses and other out-of-sight places.

Your dishwasher needs a monthly “acid bath.” You can do this with unsweetened lemonade Kool-Aid, Tang powdered drink mix or a product called Dishwasher Magic  or Affresh. All of these products contain citric acid.

Dishwasher Magic and Affresh safely and effectively remove lime scale, iron, soap scum, grease and food stains that build up inside the dishwasher. Unlike the drink powders, Dishwasher Magic also kills 99.9% of germs and extends the life of your dishwasher while improving its cleaning performance.

If you use the drink powders, fill both detergent cups with Tang or pour one package of the lemonade powder into each of the cups. Run the empty dishwasher through a complete cycle. If you opt for Dishwasher Magic follow the package directions.

I credit Dishwasher Magic with getting another 6 years of service out of that Tappan dishwasher.

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Water temperature

To effectively clean dirty dishes, a dishwasher needs 140 F. water. And it must enter the dishwasher that hot. If you raise your water heater temperature, beware of the hotter water’s potential for scalding at sinks, showers, bathtubs and in your washing machine. (You can get scald protection devices for sinks and tubs that children use.) The single most important factor in getting good results is hot water. Water should enter the dishwasher at 140 F*. If your dishwasher is newer, it may have its own in-line water heater. Check your manual.


It’s difficult to beat the Cascade lineup of powdered products, but Costco and Walmart store brands come pretty darn close. Gel detergents of any brand, however, are troublesome. They create more problems than they resolve.

Gels contain chlorine bleach, never really rinse off the interior tub, clog the detergent dispenser, don’t work well in hard water and leave spots—in my opinion.

I recommend that you stick with fresh powdered automatic dishwasher detergent, like Cascade Complete. It loses its ability to clean properly when exposed to humidity and air. Unless you are a heavy user, don’t opt for the largest box of detergent and never store it under the sink.

Do not rinse

Scrape food to remove all the chunks, but don’t pre-rinse items for the dishwasher. Automatic dishwasher detergent is highly alkaline and needs the acidity of the food to reach optimum cleaning action. Besides, rinsing wastes time, energy and water.

Detergent alternatives

I’ve done a lot of experimenting but have not found a reasonable substitute for commercial dishwasher detergent. In a pinch, I’ve used a 50/50 mix of borax and baking soda with acceptable results. But on a regular basis, it does not produce good results.

Rinse agent

A rinse additive like Jet-Dry improves the sheeting action of water and leaves dishes sparkling clear, but it can be pricey. Hint: White vinegar is a reasonable substitute. Fill your rinse additive dispenser with straight white vinegar. Occasionally toss in a cup of white vinegar to the last rinse.

Save water

It takes between 6-10 gallons of water to run your dishwasher compared to 9-24 gallons you would consume doing them by hand. So give yourself a break and let your dishwasher do the job Josephine intended for it to do.

*Caution: Water in excess of 120 F. can cause scalding in children and elderly adults. If your dishwasher does not have its own heating device, take proper precautions by installing anti-scald devices or consider installing an in-line water heater for the dishwasher.


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15 replies
  1. Jayne says:

    Any thoughts on a dishwasher (in a house we just bought) that appears reasonably newish… draining the rinse agent each wash. It’s very tiny, but it’s rather ridiculous. Have to keep filling it especially as this house has hard water, so yuck without the agent.

  2. rose freitas says:

    To get hotter water in your dishwasher without turning up your water heater, run hot water in your sink until it is hot. then start the dishwasher

  3. Heidi says:

    I used to use the gel packs, but became concerned about how they might be detrimental to the dishwasher. I started using Walmart’s GV powder and have been very happy with how clean my dishes are coming out. My glasses were getting cloudy with the gel packs, now my glasses are beautifully clear. The price is right too!

  4. Char says:

    I have not rinsed my dishes for over 10 years and only run it every 2-3 days and have very clean sparking dishes. Consumer Report ranked Walmart dishwasher powder #1 several years ago and I have used ever since. I only fill cup 1/2 to 3/4 full. I never have never had a problem with clean dishes! I use Finish, Using pods is to strong and will pit your dishes.

  5. Judy B says:

    I’ve found that putting a very small amount ( 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon) of citric acid in with a Finish detergent tab (the cheap one) in the dispenser cup keeps my hard water off the dishes. In fact it will remove old build up too. You can find it in the canning supplies or on line.

  6. Jeannie says:

    In a prior column, you gave a tip that made a huge difference in my dishwasher’s performance…running the tap until the water is hot. When I do this, I know my dishwasher is dispensing very hot water and my dishes come out super clean.

  7. David Reinke says:

    Just a note; I live in an area where we have Iron Magnesium in the water. If you use a dishwasher detergent that contain chlorine bleach, it will leave brown stairs in dishwasher over time. So I found that Finish detergent is free of chlorine bleach and problem is solved with brown stains in dishwasher.

  8. Mary says:

    You say not to pre-rinse items for the dishwasher but when I only run it once, possibly twice a week, I don’t want the food to be stuck on and the dishes to still be dirty after the wash. Do you have a comment/trick for this? T/Y

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Well … to me that means you don’t want a dishwasher. You want a dish “sanitizer.” What you are saving in energy by not using the machine but twice a week, you are more than using up in hot water to do all that pre-rinsing. My advice is to remove chunks with a rubber spatula, load it during the day, and run it every evening. Modern dishwashers use so very little water, you’ll come out the winner!

      • Anne says:

        Perhaps Mary and Lou have a small household, or live alone like me. It takes me most of a week to fill the dishwasher!

      • Bryana says:

        It’s ok to run a dishwasher that isn’t full 🙂 I run mine every evening, whether it’s full or not. Like Mary said, they use such little water these days that it’s still more efficient to run one cycle every day than it is to wash dishes by hand.

      • M E Frederick says:

        I read and followed your recommendations …I now have a functing dishwasher…YEA this is my fist dishwasher. Learning curve. THANK YOU

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