Tackle Big Messes Better With a Sparkling-Clean Dishwasher

You might think it’s self-cleaning, but your dishwashing machine needs regular upkeep to keep it working hard for you

It may seem redundant to clean a dishwasher, but that’s exactly what housekeeping experts advise to ensure that your hardworking machine stays in top shape. Cleaning every four to six weeks will help reduce the buildup of lime scale and soap scum and eliminate food particles that can diminish the machine’s effectiveness and clog the little water spouts that rinse your dishes. Bottom line: A clean machine means cleaner dishes. Here’s how to clean a dishwasher.

1. Check your heat. First, check your hot-water heater, says consumer advocate Lucinda Ottusch of the Whirlpool Institute of Home Science. To best clean and sanitize your dishes and the inside of your dishwasher, set the temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (about 49 degrees Celsius).

Clyde Yahnke, who’s been fixing home appliances for 25 years as Clyde the Appliance Guy, has a good rule of thumb for testing water temperature: “If you can hold your finger there for more than two seconds, you need to turn up the temperature,” he says.

2. Empty the filter. Over the years, consumer demand has led manufacturers to design increasingly quiet dishwashers. Good news, right? Until you learn how the machines are being silenced.

In the past, dishwashers were equipped with a part called a macerator, a food-grinding component that operated along the same lines as a garbage disposal, and made almost as much noise. The food fell into the macerator and was ground up and disposed of with the wastewater.

Newer models have eliminated the macerator and instead use a detachable cylindrical filter located on the bottom of the machine. When food is washed from dishes, the large particles are captured inside the filter to avoid clogging the drain, a much quieter process.

The problem is that the large particles remain trapped inside until the filter is cleaned. Forgotten filters can become clogged with large pieces of debris and may even start to smell. If there is a funky odor coming from your dishwasher, this may be the culprit.

Finding the filter. For most dishwashers, removing the filter requires little more than turning it counterclockwise and gently pulling it out. However, since there are a variety of models, your best bet is to locate the owner’s manual either in print or online.

If your owner’s manual has gone missing (no judging!) or you never had one in the first place, you can access the information by calling an appliance store for guidance or searching the brand and model online using the keywords owner’s manual.

Once you know where to look and what to do, most manufacturers say emptying and cleaning the filter is a simple task that should take only a few minutes to complete. Be sure to remove the Pac-Man-shaped screen inside the filter and rinse it under a faucet. Then put the filter back in properly. If it’s not locked into place, food can get through and clog the spray arms.

Ottusch recommends checking the screen once a month if you tend to leave a little food on dishes. If you pre-rinse, check the screen every three months. “If you see that with normal habits your dishes are not coming out clean, they have food soils on them or feel gritty, then it’s time to check the filter,” she says.

Yahnke recommends cleaning every week if you use your appliance daily. “The more you keep it clean and free of debris, the longer it’s going to last,” he says. “If you let it get scummed up with dirt, it’s going to break down.”

3. Inspect the interior. Since you will be removing the bottom rack and silverware container to access the filter, it’s a great time to survey the condition of the interior. Once the rack is out, inspect the floor of the machine, especially the area nearest the drain, where there may be a buildup of debris.


4. Avoid introducing hand soap and detergent into your machine. Ottusch says you can wipe down the inside of your machine with a cloth or sponge, but make sure it’s not something you’ve used in combination with hand soap or dish detergent. Even a small amount of residue left behind on a sponge can cause foaming inside your dishwasher. Suds and foaming can loosen the seals inside your machine’s filter and other components and cause leakage.

Instead, make a paste with powdered dishwashing detergent or use your automatic dishwasher detergent with a clean, damp cloth or sponge.

5. Prevent and remove hard water deposits. Notice white streaks inside your machine? Those are hard water deposits, also known as limescale and calcium carbonate, which appear as white residue. Over time this buildup can clog the holes in a dishwasher’s spray arms and filter components. White vinegar can help remove these deposits (see No. 10 on home remedies for more info).

6. Use quality detergent.High-quality detergent will keep your machine’s interior and your dishes clean. Ottusch says her team has found that all-in-one products work best. These are the pods or packs you place in your dispenser. Look for different colors and a mix of liquid and powder inside the pack. They release components at different times throughout the wash cycle, introducing enzymes and rinse aids.

“I’m not fan of the powdered detergents,” Yahnke says. “I prefer gels or the packs.” He says cheaper detergents have a more difficult time breaking down and liquifying in water. This might then gum up the insides of your machine’s parts and motor. He also suggests using a liquid pre-rinse aid.

7. Watch what goes into your dishwasher. Check plates for things like toothpicks, bones, olive pits and fruit pits, paper labels stuck on jars and sticky pricing labels left on newly purchased plates. “Paper and water create papier-mâché in filters and clog them,”Ottusch says.

If you pull a glass dish out that’s been chipped, check immediately for broken pieces or shards in your dishwasher. If small enough, broken glass can start breaking down and get inside the system.

8. Use your machine’s options. “One thing we often see and hear from consumers is that they don’t use those options and all those different cycles,” Ottusch says. The pots and pans setting, for example, isn’t just for washing pots and pans, but is for tackling a higher level of food soil. Don’t be afraid to use the cycles and options to see what works best for targeted cleaning.

If you don’t run your dishwasher every day, Ottusch recommends using the short wash and rinse cycles until you’ve got a full load. For example, if you load up your dishwasher at night but still have room for dishes after breakfast and lunch the next day, run a rinse cycle. This will rinse food soils out of the system before you run a regular cycle, and will help cut down on odors.

9. Load dishes well. Many people don’t know how to properly load a dishwasher, unsure of what all those prongs and slots mean. Check your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website to see loading tips.

For one, make sure you spin the spray arms before turning on a cycle. If the arms can’t rotate because they’re getting hung up on a protruding spatula or pot handle, neither your dishes nor your machine will get adequately cleaned. “If anything goes above the handle on the silverware basket, it should be laid down instead,” Ottusch says. Secure measuring spoons and cups that can slip between racks and block the filter.

9. Check the hose on new installations. Ottusch notes that service incidents are often reported in new homes where a dishwasher hasn’t been installed correctly. Homeowners or installers may hook the machine’s drain hose to a garbage disposal without realizing there’s a knockout plug that needs to be removed first. This is a metal piece about the size of a nickel that’s easily removed with a screwdriver to allow the dishwasher to drain. If your newly installed dishwasher is backing up, this could be the culprit.


10. Try these home remedies to remove odors and stains. Many homeowners swear by white vinegar. Once you’ve cleaned out your filter, place a dishwasher-safe container with one cup of white vinegar on the top rack of your empty dishwasher. Run a hot-water cycle. This should wash away grease, gunk and odors.

Next, sprinkle about a cup of baking soda on the bottom of the inside of your machine. Run a short cycle. This will keep your appliance free of stains and smelling fresh.

GE suggests using citric acid crystals for stains, but Yahnke says he’s got the best-kept secret: “People laugh at me, but nothing works as well as the powdered orange juice Tang,” which contains citric acid. He suggests filling up your machine’s detergent dish with Tang and running a cycle every three months. “It keeps the inside clean and gets rid of soap buildup,” he says.

Broken and needs repair?

No problem. Don’t just throw it out and order brand new, there are many companies near you that would be more than happy to come out and offer a repair!