How to Use Your Dishwasher

CR helps you get most out of enhanced features and state-of-the-art tech

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On the outside, dishwashers look pretty much the same as they have for decades. Inside, however, technological innovations such as electronic sensors and filters have revolutionized how today's dishwashers work.

“Manufacturers are constantly trying to improve these appliances,” says Larry Ciufo, the engineer who oversees CR’s dishwasher tests. “But they already do such a good job at cleaning that new features don’t often change our test results much. What they probably do affect are predicted reliability and owner satisfaction ratings.”

These ratings, based on data from CR’s member survey, show whether you’re likely to run into problems with a dishwasher, and whether members like a product from a given brand well enough to recommend it.

More on Dishwashers

At least two factors may help explain the differences in these scores: an increase in repairs and the learning curve for actually using the dishwashers themselves.

“Innovation is always somewhat of a risk because the more gadgets you put on a machine, the more there is to break, and the more it’ll cost to fix,” says Ciufo. And having to adapt to new technology—especially when it comes to something as routine as doing the dishes—could also affect a consumer’s satisfaction.

Here are CR's tips to make the most of these features so that your dishes come out squeaky clean every time.

Remember to Clean the Filter

Dishwashers that rely on a built-in grinder to pulverize food scraps that get flushed down the drain can sound like a construction zone inside your cabinets. Models priced under $300 generally still use a grinder.

But models that use a filter to capture scraps are exceptionally quiet.

CR recommends you clean the dishwasher filter once a month or so, depending on how often you run your dishwasher. If you don't, the filter can get clogged with food, keeping the dishwasher from cleaning well. You might even notice an odor from decomposing food in the filter.

Simply remove the filter and rinse it under running water until it’s free of debris. Your dishwasher will clean better, and this simple chore will also help it last longer.

A Filter Downside
Some dishwashers are so quiet that you can’t even tell they're running—that is, until you open the door and water spills out everywhere.

“Manufacturers have responded to customer complaints by adding an indicator to tell them the dishwasher is running, like a light that shines onto the floor,” says Ciufo. “Still, it takes time to adjust your habits and train the entire household to look at the floor before opening the dishwasher.”

There are other types of status indicator. Some models, for instance, have a countdown timer that tracks the wash cycle, and others have a light on the front of the dishwasher that changes colors to show which part of the cycle it's at.

Skip Prerinsing

Up until about a decade ago, you had to prerinse dirty plates, bowls, and glasses in the sink before loading them into the dishwasher to ensure your dishes came out clean. Now, most dishwashers work better if you don't prerinse them. Electronic soil sensors scan how dirty the water is at the beginning of a load and automatically adjust the wash cycle based on the amount of grime they detect.

“Prerinsing tricks the dishwasher into thinking the dishes are clean so that it cuts the cycle short, which may leave your dishes dirty,” says Ciufo. He's aware that prerinsing may be a hard habit to break. Even he had a difficult time getting his own mother to stop hand-rinsing. “People are creatures of habit!” says Ciufo.

Need more convincing to let dirty dishes be? When you prerinse, you’re wasting 20 gallons of water; your dishwasher uses only 4 to 5 gallons during its entire wash cycle. New dishwasher detergents are also formulated with enzymes that eat away at food residue, so you can bet your dishwasher—if it performs well in our ratings—will have no problem removing smeared sauce and mashed potatoes.

Don't Bother Scrubbing

It used to be that you had to scrub pots and pans by hand, but many of today's dishwashers add a "turbo jet" function to the wash cycle to do the job for you.

So go ahead and toss that lasagna pan into your dishwasher—it can handle it, and your hands will thank you.

“Targeted spray jets have had a big impact on cleaning,” says Ciufo. In CR's dishwasher tests, when we add these concentrated jets to a Normal cycle, the machine removes baked-on food better than the Normal cycle alone.

To take full advantage of a turbo/heavy cycle, check the owner's manual so that you load heavily soiled pots and pans properly.

Be Prepared to Wait

Dishwashers made before 1994 used 10 to 12 gallons of water per cycle per load. Today’s dishwashers use less than half that amount of water, due to federal standards. That's a plus for your water bill and the environment, but it also boosts wash time on the Normal cycle: from 1 hour, max, for earlier models to 3 hours for some of today's dishwashers.

You can cut cleaning time by choosing a shorter wash cycle, such as Half Load or Quick Wash.

“A Quick Wash may be all you need, for instance, when recycling appetizer plates as dessert plates during the same meal," Ciufo says.

Save the Normal cycle for when time is not a concern.

Stay Connected—It Has Its Perks

Smart home integration is an increasingly common feature for dishwashers. The latest generation of machines can connect wirelessly to the internet and let you use a smartphone app to check on a wash cycle’s progress and download software updates or special cleaning cycles that are not already programmed into your machine.

Some dishwashers will alert you when the detergent or rinse aid is low. Alexa-connected models can even automatically order refills on Amazon for you.

Though you can turn off the smart functions on a dishwasher—you might not want Alexa to shop for you automatically—some of this tech is pretty useful.

For instance, smart dishwashers can detect malfunctions or leaks, and notify you. They can also run diagnostics and report a problem, telling you exactly what hardware is broken so that the repair service brings the right parts.

To save money, you can also monitor energy use in your area so that you can start a preloaded dishwasher during off-peak hours, when electricity rates drop.

CR members with digital access can read on for ratings and reviews of three models with the latest technologies that perform well in our dishwasher tests. You can also check our dishwasher ratings for information on more than 130 models.

Dishwashers With High-Tech Bells and Whistles

3 top-performing dishwashers from CR’s tests

How to Wash Your Dishwasher

It's hard to imagine cleaning a machine that cleans other things, but dishwashers can get smelly from built-up food. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Sara Morrow explains how to keep these appliances sparkling fresh.

Headshot of Perry Santanachote, editor with the Home editorial team at Consumer Reports

Perry Santanachote

A multidimensional background in lifestyle journalism, recipe development, and anthropology impels me to bring a human element to the coverage of home kitchen appliances. When I'm not researching dishwashers and blenders or poring over market reports, I'm likely immersed in a juicy crossword puzzle or trying (and failing) to love exercise. Find me on Facebook