Dishwasher despair - it it the soap, the machine, or the user?
January 4, 2012 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Why the heck is my brand new countertop dishwasher leaving a residue on the dishes?

We asked for and were given a countertop dishwasher for Christmas (Edgestar six place setting model). Since a bad measurement on my part resulted in it being about a half-inch too tall for our countertop, we have it on a cart so it can wheel next to the sink and then back to where it lives most days. I was at the co-op during a sale of cleaning products, so I picked up a box of CitraDish Automatic Dishwashing Powder (I like their orange spray, but otherwise don't have any objections to using more mainline brand-name stuff. This just happened to be on sale when I realized we needed some for the new dishwasher.)

The dishes have all been coming out of their wash with a white chalky residue on, for example, the exterior of bowls and glasses. My husband thought we needed the jet-dry stuff, so we bought a small bottle of that, but no difference. We just don't seem to be getting good, clean dishes out of our new dishwasher! Is it just that the super-crunchy-granola powder doesn't rinse off well enough? Amazon reviews seem to be mixed on the subject. Or is it more likely that something is wrong with how we're loading the dishwasher or with the dishwasher's function?
posted by PussKillian to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Go to the shops and get some dishwasher cleaner (yeah, there's a cleaner for a thing that's only function is to clean things). Use the cleaner on a full cleaning cycle and then try a load of dishes after that.

White chalky residue could also be your water, as in the water from your water pipes. Some dishwashers claim not to like certain kinds (that is, heavy or soft) water, though I don't know how true that is.
posted by tumid dahlia at 7:28 PM on January 4, 2012

It is going to be impossible for anyone to offer you much more than anecdotes here. Spend $3 on a package of plain jane dishwasher detergent and see what happens.
posted by ssg at 7:29 PM on January 4, 2012

Both the answers above are good troubleshooting steps.

Also, you say the dishwasher is on a cart. Is it really stable, and also level? Does it wiggle or sway while the dishwasher is running? That might cause the washer to run improperly. Will it reach to put it on the floor for a trial run? If not, it'd be worth dragging a good sturdy end table or something into the kitchen for one or two rounds and see if that makes a difference.

Last ditch complication could be drainage. I have no idea how these things drain - a hose into the sink? You might get in there with a flashlight and make sure nothing is obstructing the drain holes and that you're getting an expectably good flow out of the drain. If it's draining too slow between wash and rinse, it would leave soap in the machine when the rinse cycle started.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:47 PM on January 4, 2012

I was having unpleasant results with my super-natural dishwashing detergent and all problems were solved when I switched to the general, Cascade-type crap sold at most supermarkets. (I also have hard water, but I don't know if those two things are connected.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:48 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have consistently had this problem with all the "green" detergents I have used (in two different dishwashers). Switching to mainstream brands solved the problem.
posted by deadcrow at 7:48 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Last ditch complication could be drainage. I have no idea how these things drain - a hose into the sink?

It's usually preferred with dishwashers that the "out" hose goes up above where it is leading, as high as the top of the unit, and then goes back down to the drain hookup.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:55 PM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: About a year and a half ago, all the major brands of dishwasher detergent drastically reduced the amount of phosphate. This article from about a year ago explains why that matters, to you as a user:
One of the key ingredients in dish detergent is (or was) phosphorus. Phosphorus is a sociable element, bonding easily and well with others. In detergent, it strips food and grease off dirty dishes and breaks down calcium-based stains. It also keeps the dirt suspended in water, so it can’t reattach to dishes. Best of all, it prevents the washed-away grime and minerals from gumming up the inner-workings of your dishwasher. Traditionally, phosphorus was loaded into dish detergent in the form of phosphates, which are compounds of phosphorus bonded to oxygen. (PO4 if you’re keeping score at home.) Prior to last July, most detergents were around 8 percent elemental phosphorus. Now they’re less than 0.5 percent phosphorus.
And then it describes how the new low-phosphate detergents work, or rather don't really work. What you're describing is what happens when there isn't much phosphate in the detergent.

Your problem is that you can't buy high-phosphate detergent any longer. They don't make it, and all the old stuff has long since sold out.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:00 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The government in it's infinite wisdom has banned phosphates in dishwasher detergent. The 'industry' is having trouble making detergents that both clean your dishes and are phosphate free. More info here.

I've heard of adding trisodium phosphate to you detergent but never tried it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:01 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been adding a small scoop of TSP when I run the dishwasher (along with Cascade) and I'm not getting pre-phosphate free results, just so you know that may not help.

We have very hard water, lots of minerals. Our glasses and clear glass plates are all a bit cloudy from that. I've not found a solution (other than the occasional vinegar soak in the sink).
posted by hilaryjade at 8:27 PM on January 4, 2012

HilaryJade, you may not be using enough. Old-style effective product was about 9% phosphorus. TSP is only about 21% phosphorus. You'd have to use about as much TSP as detergent to get the proportion up.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:59 PM on January 4, 2012

We had this exact problem, turns out it was hard water residue. Try a load with your dish soap and splash some white vinegar in there too. That fixed our chalky residue problem.
posted by katypickle at 9:20 PM on January 4, 2012

(I meant to say "hard" of course, rather than "heavy". "Heavy" water is not, repeat, not a new invented third type of water.)
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:27 PM on January 4, 2012

TD, Heavy Water is a real thing, it would be a silly but harmless thing to run through your dishwasher. I doubt it would improve your washing experience, but it might get you arrested.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:42 PM on January 4, 2012

I think that Lemishine stuff is probably Citric Acid. In places with lots of calcium in the water, citric acid would probably do a pretty good job preventing it from building up on glasses and such. But it isn't going to do all the other things that phosphorus does -- or did, before they took it out.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:45 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

A cup of white vinegar in each load solved this problem for us.
posted by LarryC at 9:48 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

So after reading your answers, my initial thought was 'why was phosphorus reduced from detergents?"

I checked it out and it looked like the reason why the laws were made was to try to reduce algae blooms in bodies of water that get a lot of phosphorus runoff. The algae blooms are toxic to people and bad for the ecosystem as well. so, based on that, I am thinking I am not going to put TSP into my dishwasher, although I am having this same residue issue with my dishes.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:05 PM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

The full article linked by Chocolate Pickle is enlightening if infurating:
Last month the University of Washington released a study suggesting that some of the phosphorus being discharged into the Spokane River never actually worked as fertilizer for algae to begin with. It seems that not all phosphorus is alike. Some of the effluents making their way into the river contained phosphorus in complex molecular forms which are not bioavailable. Algae lack the enzymes necessary to break down this phosphorus, meaning it is essentially harmless. The study was a useful reminder that all science is settled. Until it’s not.
Oh, and:
The ban itself, it turns out, has helped the river very little. A year after it went into effect, supporters conveniently forgot their promises of reductions in the 15 percent to 20 percent range and trumpeted news that phosphorus flowing into the city’s water-treatment plant had declined by 10.7 percent, to just 181 pounds per day. Buried in the accounts was a remark by the plant’s manager admitting that because the new phosphorus filtration system was so efficient, nearly all of the in-flowing phosphorus was getting filtered out anyway. So the reduction of phosphorus actually making it into the river as a result of the detergent ban is much, much smaller. Still, he chirped, “Any phosphorus reduction you can see there is going to have benefit to the river.”
Not to mention that it fucks up dishes for those of us in Arizona who don't have anything approaching a phosphate problem but now have to wash our dishes with more water.
posted by disillusioned at 12:13 AM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: +1 ChocolatePickle. A tablespoon of citric acid crystals in the second wash is just the ticket if you have a lot of calcium or magnesium carbonate in your water. I have been using this fix for years. Citric acid can be had pretty cheaply (USD3/lb from places like and 25 lb lasts for several years. We also use it to wash down tiles in the shower.
posted by jet_silver at 4:53 AM on January 5, 2012

Switch to a liquid/gel detergent.
Also, make sure you are delivering water under adequate pressure and at a proper temperature.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:30 AM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: When I first got a dishwasher, I did some google searches on what kind of detergent to use. There were a number of sites that said that gel detergents end up clogging the spray jets and drain tubes. I have no idea if this is true or not.

But yeah, it's the soap. I saw a Consumer Reports review of diswashing detergents, and they highly recommended Costco's Kirkland stuff. I tried it and it was utter crap. I returned to my old standby of Cascade Complete powder.

Also, and this might be confirmation bias on my part, I found that the commercial Cascade at GFS worked even better.
posted by gjc at 6:05 AM on January 5, 2012

Where do you put a cup of white vinegar or these extra tablespoons of citric acid crystals or TSP?
Just in the bottom of the dishwasher, or do you reduce the amount of detergent in the door reservoir to make it all fit in there?
posted by aabbbiee at 7:39 AM on January 5, 2012

For citric acid, I think you'd put detergent in the open cup, and a mix of citric acid and detergent in the closed one.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:10 AM on January 5, 2012

I had this problem with my ordinary, under-counter dishwasher after they stopped with the phosphates. The stuff that comes in little packets of liquid/gel works much, MUCH better than the powder that comes in a box. No idea why.
posted by kestrel251 at 3:47 PM on January 5, 2012

I live uphill of a clean lake. Rural enough to have a septic system. I didn't realize Dishwasher deterg. had phosphates. On behalf of the lake, I'm glad it's mostly gone. My dishes are plenty clean.
posted by theora55 at 4:25 PM on January 5, 2012

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