Explain dishwashers to me
November 6, 2019 6:04 PM   Subscribe

I've never had or even used a dishwasher. Now I'm living in a place that has one. What do I need to know about cleaning it (it really needs a good clean), using it, and getting my dishes clean?

Here is the dishwasher.

As you can see from the photos, it's not the newest unit in the world and it's got years of water stains (I think that's what they are). Of course, it was supposed to have been cleaned before I moved in. It wasn't, and this is as clean as building maintenance will get it. (It was worse before.) I'm tired of begging them to clean it, so I guess it's up do me. How do I do it?

After it's clean, then what? How do I use it? What kind of detergent should I buy? (I'm in Canada). Do I really need a rinsing or drying agent (or whatever it's called) to prevent spots? I don't mind wiping the clean dishes with a cloth before putting them away. I mean, I don't want to be all "woo, chemicals are bad," but I do try to limit my exposure to cleaners and solvents.

What are the best strategies for loading it to make sure everything gets clean? How much do I need to rinse or scrub the pots? Somehow I suspect the answer will be, "it depends on your machine"?

What else do I need to know about using a dishwasher or this dishwasher in particular?
posted by sardonyx to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Dont overload it. Figure out where the water is coming from and make sure not to block it.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:13 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Find the brand and model number (usually on the inside rim of the door) and search online for a manual for that model. It will tell you maintenance info and how to open and clean any drain areas or debris traps. You may need a tool like a screwdriver to open areas that catch debris (usually near the back/bottom). Wear gloves as it’s 1) super gross 2) may have broken glass.

There are various diy and store bought cleaners that can help with buildup but you do need to manually clean the traps / drains of more solid matter.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:26 PM on November 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

Ah, old friend. We had this exact dishwasher in our place at one point.

But it worked well. The "Short/Court" (it always sounds sexier in French, oui?) cycle plus "Normal Wash/Lavage Normal" is good for a light load of glasses and mugs (which should always go up top) plus a few plates (down on the bottom). You definitely want to use the regular full-length cycle (which starts at...uh, "Start") for a full load.

"Air Dry/Séchage Air" will leave you with slightly damp dishes while it's closed, so you might want to leave the dishwasher open for a bit to let them air dry (if you pay for hydro, this will be the less electricity-intensive option).

What kind of detergent should I buy? (I'm in Canada).

We just buy Quantum Powerball (available pretty much everywhere) when it's on sale for big containers of them. It can go on sale at No Frills, Canadian Tire, Shopper's, Rexall, etc. at various times. I just grab a big package of 72 (or more) of them whenever they're cheap.

Do I really need a rinsing or drying agent (or whatever it's called) to prevent spots?

It does help, but won't ruin your day if you don't use it, particularly if you're not fussed about giving glasses a polish with a tea towel.

How much do I need to rinse or scrub the pots?

In my experience (opinions on this may vary) pots are best done in the sink with a scrubbing pad. Personally, I don't put pots in the dishwasher or ever use the pot scrubber cycle.

But I do give everything that goes in that has solid bits of food stuck to it a rinse in the sink to get most stuff off it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:28 PM on November 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

You may need a tool like a screwdriver to open areas that catch debris (usually near the back/bottom). Wear gloves as it’s 1) super gross 2) may have broken glass.

Yes! In your seventh photo there's the trap assembly at the back. I took it apart and gave it a cleaning when we moved in. There were...some bits in there.

Seconding the use of gloves for that.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:31 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Use a product like Lemi Shine to clean the inside of your dishwasher. It uses citric acid to remove hard water deposits, grease, and odors so your machine will look better and run better. Dishwashing detergent is designed to work best if there is some food residue on the plates, silverware, etc., so scrape well but don't over rinse. Yours may be an older model, so you may need to experiment a little. Stick with powdered detergent.

I never put pots and pans in the dishwasher - they take up too much space.
posted by XtineHutch at 6:31 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would generally not wash pots in a dishwasher but that's just me, the dishwasher will hold more dishes if I hand wash pots. Some dishwashers are really heavy duty and some are not. Some are fussy and some are not.

It's unclear from your photo if the dishwasher is dirty or if there was maybe some hard water in it. When our water softener would break, there was always a reddish tinge to the dishwasher which was hard to get out but not actually unclean.

Air dry will often use significantly less power than the heated dry so if you're inclined to save energy, that is the way to do it. I never got a lot of mileage from "pot scrubber" features. I usually would rinse major food off of plates but not otherwise pre-wash. Don't leave anything that is concave with the concavity up (cups, bowls) or they will fill with water and not get as clean as they could.

If you don't generate a lot of dishes, keep in mind that the dishwasher will start to smell funky after a while, particularly if you have coffee cups, milk glasses, or old bits of food in there. This is generally normal and can be avoided with better rinsing or more frequent washing.

The dishwasher may drain into the same place your kitchen sink does, so if you hear aloud burbling in the sink during part of the dishwashing cycle, it's probably normal, it's all connected.
posted by jessamyn at 6:32 PM on November 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Most dishwashers have a heater to heat the wash water and dry the dishes by circulating hot air through the compartment to dry the dishes. If your dishwasher does this wiping the drops off will not be possible since they will have evaporated, leaving spots. That's why people use rinse agents. I don't know about the chemicals involved, but I use one labeled as eco-friendly, though admittedly I may have been bamboozled.

There may be an option to avoid a heated dry cycle. If you don't have the owner's manual you may be able to locate one on line to give you some guidance about the features.

The detergent I use is a powdered generic dishwash powder, and I use about a tablespoon unless the washer is full of greasy dishes. Don't wash pots or knives in the washer! The heat and chemicals will strip your pots of their finish and the handles of their shine. Knives - never in the dishwasher!

I don't clean mine, ever, except wiping off the outside and the lip of the door. Make sure the gasket is clean, maybe a damp rag around it to wipe it off.

If you don't have a garbage disposer this drains through, I have heard that there is a filter to catch food scraps, but I have never had to deal with this. An owner's manual would help with this.
posted by citygirl at 6:33 PM on November 6, 2019

Don't make the beginner mistake I did and use regular dish soap in the dish washer when I ran out of dishwasher soap. My entire kitchen floor was covered in bubbles.
posted by ilovewinter at 6:41 PM on November 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the answers so far, although all the warnings about not putting pots in the dishwasher is depressing. That's exactly what I wanted to use it for as pots are always the worst part of dishwashing.
posted by sardonyx at 6:44 PM on November 6, 2019

Eh, just try it out. I always put pots in mine. Sometimes I soak them first, but still. Just experiment a bit.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:51 PM on November 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

We put EVERYTHING in the dishwasher. If the pots take up too much room, we leave some stuff in the sink and run the dishwasher a second time.

Finish makes a dishwasher cleaner I’ve had good results with in my very hard water home.
posted by hilaryjade at 6:53 PM on November 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

Try running a load with tang drink mix as the cleaner to clean the stains.
posted by spindrifter at 7:04 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Results will vary by the model being used, but I always put my pots in the dishwasher. 95% of the time it works fine, the other 5% some burned-on residue may survive but oddly enough that stuff generally wipes off with a towel after the fact, and I have never in my life used the "pots and pans" setting.

(otherwise, I concur with everything else said above)
posted by aramaic at 7:19 PM on November 6, 2019

We also put pots in our dishwasher without problems besides the large amount of volume they take up. We are often successful placing the pot over bowls or other small items.

We also put our stainless knives in by laying them on the top rack then put glasses over top. Carbon steel knives will rust IME if put in the dishwasher.

Dishes generally don't need to be rinsed clear; a scraping off into the compost bucket or garbage is generally sufficient.

Because dishwasher detergent is so highly caustic whatever is cheapest is generally fine. Keep in mind though that powdered detergent will go bad when exposed to air so don't buy more than you can use in a few months (I don't know about some of the fancy pods/tablets/etc. they have now as they post date my appliance servicing time).
posted by Mitheral at 7:38 PM on November 6, 2019

Yeah I put my pots in too and use the normal cycle. We use Cascade pods. I will say that the air dry often leaves water spots on things and heated dry does not.

I don't know if it matters, because I think my husband doesn't do this, but I always put the leakproof lids on the top because I think it helps them keep the seal longer.
posted by sm1tten at 7:47 PM on November 6, 2019

dishwasher detergent is so highly caustic

Yeah, be careful not to spill any on your clothes -- holes may form.
posted by Rash at 7:58 PM on November 6, 2019

I put pots and pans and knives in mine with no worry, though I admittedly don't have any that are particularly nice and I largely don't care about rust stains and stuff from other things. Anything with stuff caked on gets soaked first.

The pod detergent things work no better and no worse than normal liquid/powder detergent for cleaning efficacy in my experience; I like the pod things a bit better because overloading the soap cup thing can sometimes mean the door doesn't open and/or it gets caked up with hardened soap (a somewhat minor annoyance but something to watch out for).

Cheap wooden spatulas or spoons are good for holding down plasticware on the top shelf; if I've got stuff up there that sits somewhat loosely, I try to remember to unload the bottom rack first in case anything's tipped upright and thus collected water and bits. This is especially true of plastic cups, notably the screen printed restaurant kind; they tend to fly around up there unless they're wedged pretty firmly into place.

Some things Do Not go on the bottom rack - or in it at all - and are usually marked as such. If I have plastic in the bottom rack that's not heat-resistant cooking utensils and such, I explicitly turn off the hot dry cycle so that it doesn't melt anything that might have fallen on the element (the black thing in the bottom is what that is). To that end, I have two metal bladed spatulas: one that's all metal, and one that's metal with a plastic grip that got familiar with the drying element in the dishwasher and is now ergonomic only for a very oddly constructed hand. (Which is my own hand, I guess, since I like it better now.)

Be mindful of how the sprayers in the thing work - if you've got a giant pan in there and a plate behind it, the pan is going to get the brunt of the cleaning power; a lot of the admittedly few times i've seen people complain about their dishwasher not working comes back to it being either totally packed or the things in it being placed haphazardly, and there's just no path for the detergent and water to get to things to clean them.

Pointy things go either flat on the top or point down in the cutlery basket thing. Unless you like stabbing yourself.
posted by mrg at 8:00 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can totally put pots in the dishwasher. Avoid putting nonstick pans in there, but stainless steel and glass cookware can all go in the dishwasher. Since it's an older machine, definitely give things a good rinse or a soak to remove any chunks of food, and space things out so you're not overloading it and water can get at them from different angles. A lot of people avoid putting cookware in the dishwasher because then there isn't room for plates and some models are bad at getting on the inside of pots and baking dishes. You will find out after a while what yours is good and bad at.

If you wash plastic things in the dishwasher (like food containers and plastic cups) you will find that they do not dry like other dishes. You can just pull them out, knock off the excess water and leave them to air dry in your dish rack, especially if you don't care about some spotting.

When putting cutlery in the wash basket, put forks and spoons in both upright and upside-down. Intersperse knives (and in my case chopsticks) among them. This keeps the cutlery from nesting and lets them get cleaner. You put all the knives pointy-side-down so you don't stab yourself when unloading the dishwasher.

Things to avoid putting in the dishwasher include: cookware with nonstick coating (the increased agitation and detergent can degrade it faster), cooking knives (dulls the edge and can make some of them rust), anything made from plastic that can't withstand high temperatures (if you wouldn't put it in the microwave because it might melt, don't dishwash it), cast iron (rust), unsealed aluminum kitchen gadgets like my meat tenderizer (weird patina). Most everything else should be okay.
posted by Mizu at 8:00 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

It may have been mentioned above but don't put cutlery with wood handles in the dishwasher. The hot water expands the wood, and that eventually pushes out the rivets which hold the wood to the metal.
Plain wood spoons seem to survive fine, though.
posted by anadem at 8:37 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Non-anodized aluminum pans and baking sheets will get an unattractive white surface film if you dishwash them. I don't tend to put pots and pans in, because mine are mostly cast iron/enamelware, but I'll put any kind of glass or ceramic casserole or baking dish in there. Handwash your wooden spoons if you love them—they'll develop a sort of soft fuzzy surface in the dishwasher. Scrape off food chunks, but leave some schmutz on your dishes if you're using a modern enzyme-based detergent.
posted by mumkin at 8:41 PM on November 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I get pots, pans, and knives that are dishwasher safe - because I'm disabled and can't be bothered to hand wash that stuff. Note, non-dishwasher safe rated things may get ruined/discolored in the dishwasher. You may also be able to arrange a pot more on its side depending on the layout of your dishwasher which helps water move around the unit rather than getting stuck under a pot.
posted by Crystalinne at 9:53 PM on November 6, 2019

At first impression, dishwashers can give the impression of being comparatively profligate with hot water - we can hear it sloshing around during the cycle after all. In fact they are much more efficient than hand washing. Dish washers also heat water to over 60 degrees C - enough to kill off bacteria. Note that this is hotter than your hands would be able to bear when hand washing. To make the most of that efficiency, you will want to make sure the machine is running on a full load - and that it is running on an efficient cycle (again, counter-intuitively, the most efficient cycles are normally longer than less efficient ones).

If you are able to trace the model - and manual - of your machine - then you should be able to find out more about its energy consumption. More modern dishwashers are quieter, more efficient and somewhat better and cleaning than their older cousins: which may make it worth replacing an older one.
posted by rongorongo at 9:55 PM on November 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

Dishwasher detergent is quite harsh and also contains bleach. You could pull out the racks and use a plastic scrubby, and you can use any drink mix or cleaner with citric acid in a wash cycle to make it look better, but it will get your dishes clean and sanitary in any case.

Don't use extra detergent. It's bad for the plumbing and doesn't help. When I wash roasting pans, they don't get fully clean, but the crud is much easier to scrub off right out of the air-dry dishwasher. Or I let them stay in and have another ride, no charge.

Anything wood will be destroyed by hot water and harsh deterg., plastic goes on the top shelf. I have silver-plated cutlery; it gets hand washed.

Powdered dishwasher detergent is great for soaking fabric with stains, as long as it can tolerate bleach.
posted by theora55 at 4:43 AM on November 7, 2019

In the 4th picture, I'm guessing one of those openings is for the detergent? That opening may have a rubber seal or gasket on the underside of the lid, to keep the opening closed until the part of the cycle where the detergent is released. If the seal is deteriorated such that the lid doesn't close tightly, the detergent might leak out too early, and end up in a puddle at the bottom of the main unit, where it doesn't get circulated. And then your dishes don't get clean.

Ours had some kind of scale built up on the gasket, and the gasket was getting kind of hard and no longer sealing well. We removed the gasket, cleaned it with some descaling cleaner and soaked it in hot water for a while before putting it back. The difference in how well the dishwasher cleaned our dishes after this was quite noticeable.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:59 AM on November 7, 2019

we have very hard water and use plain white vinegar in the rinse agent dispenser (instead of actual rinse agent) to keep limescale from building up inside.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:24 AM on November 7, 2019

I don't wash expensive, beautiful pots and pans that I care about in the dishwasher. The cheap, ugly ones? Hell yes.
posted by grouse at 6:46 AM on November 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you can totally put pots and pans in the dishwasher. The problem is that they can greatly impede the water flow to all the other stuff in there, but a shallow skillet or roasting pan is no problem. You want as much of the stuff in the lower rack to be oriented as vertically as possible, so put bowls and the like on their side as much as possible. Also, put the business end of cutlery facing up in the basket, except for very pointy knives. It's grosser to load them that way, but they get much cleaner, also, be careful to kind of mix them up as much as possible, otherwise the spoons can end up spooning and not getting fully washed.

We used pods for a while, but I really and truly think the old powder style is much more effective.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:52 AM on November 7, 2019

A few things I don’t put in the dish washer:
- nice chef knives
- cheap peelers and such
- wooden anything (prolonged exposure to hot water will cause it to absorb said water and expand, any varnish will crack etc)
- nice dinner table knives that are not made of one piece of metal but have a separate blade and handle
- food - if you scrape off any leftovers/debris and perhaps rinse these bits of food won’t get into the dishwasher, won’t clog things or get stuck on other items you want to clean and if you live alone your dw is less likely to start to stink before you manage to fill it up
- some (parts of) travel mugs/water bottles- read the labels and don’t put stuff in that shouldn’t
- too much stuff, if the stuff is touching and blocking water flow the water can’t get at the dirt

Things I do put in:
- cheap paring knives
- pots, pans, cooking dishes, plastic chopping boards, all glasses, cups, crockery and cutlery
- the plastic brush that lives by my kitchen sink get a spin in there if it gets gross
- food storage containers
- plastic spoons, spatulas and such

I normally use the glass & crockery cycle with a quantum powerball, nothing else.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:29 AM on November 7, 2019

Regarding pots and pans in the dishwasher: In general it pays to pay attention to what the manufacturer says about dishwasher safety, but I wash most of my pots and pans in the dishwasher. If you have teflon non-stick pans, you can usually still put them in the dishwasher, but they'll almost certainly wear out more quickly, and you'll likely want to skip the heated dry. (That said, they're usually easy to clean by hand anyway.) Cast iron pots and pans should generally be hand-washed, especially if they're not enameled (and probably not even then). Aluminum cookware, especially non-anodized aluminum, may discolor or stain in the dishwasher, but it shouldn't affect the performance of the cookware.
posted by Aleyn at 1:30 PM on November 7, 2019

Wow. I think this is the best (or at least the most voluminous) response I've ever got to an Ask. Thanks everybody.

I'll go through the answers a bit more thoroughly before I mark best answers, although really everybody was helpful. I likely won't get around to cleaning the traps and attempting to remove the hard water stains until the weekend. I guess I'll have to take a better look on the unit to see if I can find a model number then hunt around the Internet for a manual.
posted by sardonyx at 6:14 PM on November 7, 2019

RepairClinic has a pretty good video on how dishwashers work and how to fix common problems with them. .

One word about buying dishwasher detergent: the price seems to vary considerably by brand and container size. Look for a retailer that lists the price by weight - the most direct way of spotting a good deal.
posted by rongorongo at 2:21 AM on November 8, 2019

As promised, I'm reporting back.

My first step after reading through the thread again was to attempt to find a manual online. No luck. If anybody wants to point me to the instruction for a GE VRD2204X05WW that would be great.

I did however, find a video where a repair guy explained how to clean and take apart the interior of one that looked remarkably similar to mine. It seems in order to get access to the trap you have to remove the washer arm and to do that you've got to pry up a plastic tab with a screwdriver (from behind, so you're working blind). That's the point where I decided I don't want to be responsible for breaking an appliance that doesn't belong to me, so I reluctantly decided to skip this step.

Because the interior of my unit is plastic, not metal, I was a bit reluctant to try the Tang/orange-powder drink cleanse for fear that it would stain the plastic orange, so I purchased a bottle of Finish dishwasher cleaner and ran that through. Boy did it make a huge difference. It's obvious the apartment maintenance people didn't bother to do anything to attempt to remove the hard water stains.

After checking the sales I ended up with a box of Finish-something-or-other (ultra, max, super-duper I can't remember). It was the cheapest for the most amount of detergent by weight.

I ran a small load (I guess it was small) on normal (not the pot scrubber mode). Four or five plates, a pot, a frying pan and a small roaster, and maybe a dozen or so pieces of flatware. The dishes came out really well, the flatware was fine. I was disappointed in the cookware. The pot had that white ring around it that happens when you boil vegetables. The small roaster had some bits that needed to be scraped off and rewashed. The frying pan really, really needs to be treated with vinegar to get rid of the white spots and the worst rainbow sheen I've ever seen on any or my pans.

I can't say I'm going to use the dishwasher every day, but I'm definitely going to use it when I'm sick. That thing really produces hot water. Even after sitting for a while I could barely pick up the dry dishes, so I can imagine it will be great for killing germs. I can also see myself using it when I've got really big loads, but for the most part, I suspect I'll be hand washing most things.

Thanks for all the answers, they were a big help.
posted by sardonyx at 8:14 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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