The clean-plate club: Is your dishwasher a member?

January 26, 2011

The dishwasher, long the workhorse of the kitchen, is getting quieter and more powerful, energy-efficient and stylish. Part of the 1950s American trophy kitchen, early dishwasher models rattled plates as they chugged through cleaning cycles. Today, dishwashers operate with barely a sound. With some, you can't even tell they're washing, even though they're blasting jets of water at baked-on goop bonded to your cassoulet pan.

What's new?

Quiet models. Dishwasher manufacturers post decibel levels, ranging from 40 to 65. Usually, the quieter the machine, the higher the price. Dee David, a Falls Church kitchen designer, says European manufacturers such as Asko, Bosch and Miele first offered quieter dishwashing with less water. "My favorite is actually the Miele," she says.

Efficiency. Most new dishwashers are Energy Star compliant, using less water and electricity. If a machine is more than 10 years old, it might use six to nine gallons more water per load. Now, very efficient models use about two gallons. Using a delayed start and running the machine at night might save money if your utilities have off-peak rates.

Sensors, design. With newer models, scrape but don't pre-rinse dishes. Some machines have soil sensors that set off powerful sprays or rack designs that maximize performance, says Jill Notini, vice president at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "People's natural inclination is to want to help, but you should just let the machine do its job."

Operating tips

Loading.Proper loading is the key to successful dishwasher operation. Unless you have a recent model with a deep top rack (tall tub design) that accommodates plates, place all plates on the bottom facing the center. Load cutlery compartments with some flatware handles up and some down; otherwise you risk the dreaded "nesting" and they won't all come out clean. Put knives in the flatware bin with points facing down.

Rinse aids. These assure optimum sparkle, industry experts say, by allowing water to sheet off dishes rather than dry in droplets. It is particularly helpful if you are using a heat-free drying cycle to conserve energy.

Saving energy. Run the dishwasher only when full, and use only the amount of detergent recommended by the manufacturer. Consider skipping the heated drying cycle in favor of air dry.

Detergent. See if your dishwasher's maker recommends a specific detergent: powder, liquid gel, tablets or gel packs. Powder should be stored in a cool, dry place, not under the sink where warmth and moisture can cause it to clump, according to the American Cleaning Institute.

Shop smart

There are more than two dozen brands of dishwashers on the market, and hundreds of models, in white, black and stainless. A few still come in bisque. Prices range from about $200 to more than $2,000. Keeney suggests asking yourself these questions when shopping:

1. How big a concern is noise for you? Do you run the dishwasher while entertaining? (Then study decibel levels.)

2. Do you put your baked-on lasagna or potatoes au gratin pans directly in the machine? (Look for a designated spot on the bottom rack for dirty pans.)

3. Are you passionate about design or aesthetics? (Seek out sleek models with contoured handles and hidden control buttons on the top edge of the door.)

Tell us

Poll: How old is your dishwasher?

This is the first in a monthly series on household appliances. Tell us what machines you want to know more about by e-mailing localliving@washpost.com with "appliance" in the subject line. Next month: toasters.

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
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