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Dishwasher buying guide: how to buy a dishwasher to fit your needs

With every good meal comes the inevitable chore of cleaning up afterwards. While many people loathe the hand-washing and scrubbing required in cleaning dishes, converting dishware to paper plates and plastic utensils isn’t exactly ideal. Luckily, for us, appliance manufacturers design top-notch dishwashers to take the chore out of cleaning pots and pans -adding time back into our busy lives.

If your old dishwasher is in need of replacement, you can rest easy knowing that  dishwashers now clean better and run quieter than those of the past. Even so, in the world of dishwashers there are more manufacturers, options, and prices than ever before. That’s why we’ve designed this buying guide to help you ask the right questions and gather the information needed to select the dishwasher model that best fits your needs.

To begin, use the following questions to help navigate through the key components of buying a dishwasher. Find in-depth information on the topics listed below by simply clicking on any of the following links:

What dishwasher size will fit best in my kitchen?

tape measurer
With few exceptions, dishwashers have remained relatively standard in size throughout the years. In general, dishwashers are built to fit a 24″ wide and 34″ high opening within a 24″ deep cabinet. For smaller kitchens, there is a limited selection of 18″ wide dishwashers. In most cases, a new dishwasher can be installed into an existing opening with few, if any, modifications needed.

Occasionally, the cabinet opening may be less than 34″ in height. This is typically caused by new flooring being laid on top of old flooring, reducing the overall height of the opening. Sometimes counter tops are built slightly lower for handicap accessibility. Dishwashers of the past had a much greater variance in height adjustment compared to models available today. If your opening is less than 34″ in height, you will need to seek out a “short tub” or ADA compliant dishwasher.

Certain manufacturers provide dishwashers in a double or single drawer configuration. Double drawers can usually be installed into a standard dishwasher opening without any plumbing, electrical, or cabinet modifications. This configuration can be especially useful when a traditional dishwasher door – open 90 degrees – interferes with a walkway or extends into a kitchen island. Dishwasher drawers can often be purchased as single drawers, and installed individually or side by side. Single drawers can be particularly useful for kitchens with limited space or in those that require handicap accessibility.

In cases where a consumer wants a dishwasher but does not have the facilities for a built-in model, many manufacturers offer portable dishwasher models. Though less popular than they used to be, these units are designed with built-in wheels allowing for portability as well as a laminated top that can be used as a counter top. Portable dishwashers plug into a standard 110 volt electric outlet and include a built-in fill hose connection that adapts to most kitchen faucets. return to top

What colors and aesthetic options are available in a dishwasher?

color swatches: white, black, bisque & stainless steel
Like most appliances, dishwashers are available in black, white and stainless steel. Bisque (also known as off-white) is also available in a limited selection of models. Most dishwashers come unfinished on the sides and top and are designed to fit inside a cabinet beneath a standard counter. Many older models featured framed-in door panels that were reversible and available in multiple colors and tones. Today, most dishwashers come with a prefinished door panel, allowing for a more integrated appearance.

Many dishwashers feature an electronic control panel that is traditionally located on the upper front of the dishwasher door. However, an increasing number of dishwashers now offer hidden controls for a more seamless appearance. Some hidden control dishwashers offer small indicator lights on the front of the door to display how much time is remaining in a cycle. Other models shine small infrared beams or chime when the cycle is fully completed.

dishwasher finishes
For a truly integrated appearance, several manufacturers offer models with an unfinished door, able to accept a custom panel. In a fully integrated design such as this, a custom wood panel (built to the manufacturer’s specifications) is required to match existing kitchen cabinetry. Matching handles and hardware can be supplied by the manufacturer or from the cabinet maker of your choice. This results in a dishwasher that is “hidden” within the cabinetry. Some manufacturers also offer a semi-integrated design where the controls panel is visible with a custom wood panel installed on the lower portion of the door. return to top

How do dishwashers differ in terms of cleaning?

As a general rule, most dishwashers now clean better than they did in the past. Some of this has to do with the way they’re programmed. Although the dishwasher detergent we use today is more environmentally friendly than detergent of the past, it is not as effective in cleaning. So, while today’s dishwashers are more efficient in their overall use of water and electricity, the wash times have been substantially lengthened to compensate for weaker detergent. On the other hand, older dishwashers are now hard-pressed to clean properly, given how detergents have been reformulated over the years.

inside view of dishwasher, with dishes
Another factor that can make comparisons difficult is that some manufacturers are vague in what constitutes a wash level. While some of the very basic models offer just one or two spray arms, the most common configuration is to have a spray arm on the bottom, in the middle, and at the top of the dishwasher tub. These spray arms typically have a direct feed of water as opposed to the indirect tower design of the past.

Most dishwashers need a mechanism to dispose of any food that passes through the system. Very basic models feature soft-food disposers that eliminate small particles. The majority of dishwashers utilize a hard food disposer. Typically, this disposer system features a blade that spins at several thousand RPM, pulverizing any food particles into easily disposable particulates. These particulates are usually flushed out by a burst of hot, soapy water to prevent them from being re-deposited onto the dishes.

European style models, such as Bosch, ASKO, Miele, Electrolux, and others, employ a slightly different approach to cleaning. These models feature high wash temperatures (30-40 degrees more than comparable models) and increased water pressure. The increased water temperature and water pressure creates a more effective wash cycle, able to cut through even the toughest baked-on grease.

dishes loaded into bottom dishwasher rack
Due to the added heat and pressure of the European wash cycle, a hard food disposer is not required as food waste is emulsified into small particulates and washed away at the end of the cycle. By removing the need for a disposer, these manufacturers have eliminated the mechanically sophisticated and energy consuming device, which results in fewer breakdowns, quieter operation and more energy efficient operation. European style models contain a solid food trap which prevents more durable items, such as chicken bones, from getting into the mechanics of the dishwasher.

With any new dishwasher, regardless of its design, it’s not necessary to pre-wash dishes, and in many cases even harmful. Today’s detergent is designed to react with the proteins in leftover food. These proteins activate the enzymes that clean and remove soil. If there is little to no food on the dishes prior to being put in the dishwasher, the detergent cannot activate. It will largely remain in its crystal format, attacking your dishes, usually in the form of etching and fogging your glassware. With a new dishwasher, scrape any large food particles off the plate and then place the dirty dish into the dishwasher. Your faith will likely be rewarded. return to top

How quiet are dishwashers now compared to older models?

shhh, quiet dishwasher
Fortunately for consumers, dishwashers have improved greatly with regard to insulation and overall noise volume. Though in the past it was very expensive to purchase a dishwasher with near-silent operation, a mid-priced dishwasher now often exceeds consumer expectations when it comes to the noise factor.

Insulation is one of the primary components in making a dishwasher quiet. The type of material used for insulation is more important than the amount. Many consumers are surprised by – what appears to be – a small amount of insulation around their new dishwasher. However, the quietest models feature a baked-on synthetic compound (such as bitumen) on the tub exterior. Also, many of the dishwasher’s internal components are designed with rubber and other sound-dampening coatings.

The way a dishwasher cleans also affects its volume of operation. Some models use a hard food disposer to grind excess waste -which invariably generates additional noise. Other models feature a cleaning system that is effective enough to eliminate the need for a disposer, resulting in a quieter wash cycle. The best way to compare noise levels of various dishwashers is to look for the dB ratings and/or listen to showroom demos.

Generally, as the price of a dishwasher increases, its volume will decrease proportionally. Some manufacturers use an arbitrary numerical scale by which they rate noise levels. Other manufacturers use a decibel rating (or dB) to quantify the dishwasher’s volume. A change of 3 decibels is generally perceived as doubling the power or intensity of sound.

Here is a decibel scale for common sounds to help you interpret the noise level of a dishwasher:

quiet dishwasher

  • Rock Concert – 120 db
  • Chainsaw – 110 db
  • Outboard motor/motorcycle – 100 db
  • Food blender – 90 db
  • Garbage Disposal – 80 db
  • Vacuum Cleaner – 70 db
  • Restaurant/Office Conversation – 60 db
  • Quiet Suburb/Home Conversation – 50 db
  • Library – 40 db

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What rack options are available and what rack sizes best suit my needs?

Dishwasher racks have been revolutionized due to the new tall tub dishwasher design. In the past, dishwashers were made with one large motor encased at the base of the tub. New dishwashers, in contrast, utilize two flat motors that require less space at the base. This improved design allows for the internal dishwasher tub to be taller while still maintaining standard exterior dimensions.

dishwasher racks
All in all, the tall tub design has given way to varying depths and versatility in dishwasher racks. Some racks are designed with close-set tines to allow for more plates and bowls while others spread the tines out to accommodate large dishes or pots. Some feature fold-down tines, fold-away stemware caddies to lock in wine glasses and special cutlery areas. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to visit a retail store and consider bringing a bowl or plate from home to use as a sizing guide, ensuring that your favorite dishes will fit into the model you choose.

Many dishwashers also feature an adjustable upper rack. This feature provides increased versatility making it easy to add or subtract space depending on the style and size of the dishes being washed. In some models, the upper rack can be removed altogether for consumers who wish to wash air filters or other tall, bulky items.

The majority of dishwasher racks are now constructed of metal and coated with nylon. The nylon-coated design is most durable against chipping, scratching and peeling. In some upgraded models, an extra coat of nylon is applied to the rack tine tips to minimize wear & tear. Vinyl-coated racks, though commonly used in the past, are now found only in the most basic of dishwasher models.

miele dishwasher with door open
Size, location and configuration of silverware baskets vary from model to model. Traditionally, silverware baskets are located front and center in the lower rack, but some models feature a long basket on the side of the lower rack. In many cases, these long baskets can be split into sub baskets which can be placed into different areas of the dishwasher or removed. Some high-end dishwashers offer a flat, dedicated silverware tray at the top of the dishwasher. This design is the most effective for cleaning due to the proximity of the silverware tray to the top spray arm- it also frees up more space in the rack to be used for more dirty dishes.

While most dishwashers feature a standard upper and lower rack, an ever increasing number are sporting unconventional rack designs for unique applications. Some models offer three racks, the middle rack is completely adjustable and nearly removable -designed to increase dishwasher capacity by making use of space that is otherwise wasted. Other models feature racks shaped specifically to handle large amounts of glassware -perfect for the frequent entertainer or as a second dishwasher. return to top

How can an energy efficient dishwasher benefit me and the environment?

In the last decade, appliance manufacturers have focused on improving the energy efficiency of new dishwashers – and it seems they have succeeded. According to Energy Star, replacing a dishwasher built prior to 1994 with an

Energy Star appliances - logo
Energy Star model can save more than $30 a year in utility costs. Many dishwasher models now use much less water than they used to, with the best in the industry using as few as four gallons for an entire cycle.

With each passing year, more and more dishwashers are Energy Star certified. An Energy Star certified dishwasher uses 41% less energy than the federally mandated amount. New dishwashers use less hot water than conventional models which helps to reduce the amount of energy required to run the wash cycle. Aside from saving water and reducing energy usage, an Energy Star dishwasher can save you $90 over its expected life-time.

Here are some additional things you can do to help reduce your dishwasher’s energy consumption:

  • Wait until the dishwasher is completely full before running it through a cycle or choose the half-load wash option for smaller loads (if the option is available).
  • Run the dishwasher in the evening and use the air dry option – dry dishes will be available the next morning.
  • If the dishwasher has an “on/off” (power button), keep it turned off unless in use. return to top

What are some new and unique features available in dishwashers now?

In addition to improved cleaning performance, quiet operation, and versatile racking, a multitude of improved features are now available in new dishwashers.

Dish Drawer Design

An increasingly popular dishwasher style is the dish drawer design. This innovative design allows for flexible installation options as drawers can be purchased as single or double units. In a double drawer application, each drawer runs independently – providing for convenient flexibility. The operation of one drawer requires 1/2 the water and electricity of a standard dishwasher. The drawer design also helps to reduce bending -great for those with back or knee problems. Finally, the dish drawer design offers a sharp and distinctive appearance to fit any kitchen.

Anti-Leak Safety Feature

An important feature to look for when shopping for a new dishwasher is a safety drip pan. In the case of an internal leak, water will be contained within the pan, shielding hardwood floors from damage. Many models feature sensors within the safety pan that, when activated, shut down the wash cycle of the dishwasher to prevent further damage.

Internal Water Softener

Some dishwasher models offer a built-in water softener. When utilized with special dishwasher salt, the internal water softener ensures that soft water is available for use in the wash cycle. This not only reduces fogging and etching to glassware, it also makes dish soap substantially more potent.

Automatic Detergent Dispenser

For consumers who use liquid dishwasher detergent, SmartDispenseâ„¢ technology by GE Profile is a great feature to consider. The way it works: an internal reservoir is filled with thirty days worth of liquid detergent; the detergent is dispensed automatically when the dishwasher is activated. Not only does this unique feature provide an immense convenience for the end-user, it also helps to conserve detergent.

Tub Material

Dishwasher tubs can differ greatly in their material make-up. Most high-end dishwashers feature a stainless steel tub while many of the average & basic models feature a plastic tub. Stainless steel is less porous than a plastic, and therefore less likely to absorb odors or stains. A stainless steel tub can also help to aid in the drying process. Internal moisture and steam condense on the stainless steel (which cools quicker than most dishes) resulting in a quicker overall dry time and less need for a heated dry.

Wash Time

A large number of dishwashers now feature LED electronic read-outs to show the amount of time remaining in a cycle. It is important to note that wash times are longer today than they were in the past. A normal wash, while at one time between 45- 60 minutes, is now generally between 90-135 minutes, depending on the model. This increase in wash time is designed to offset the use of today’s environmentally-safe dishwasher detergent (which is far less potent than the detergent of the past). return to top

What types of specialty cycles are there, and how do they work?

Most dishwashers include these standard wash cycles: Normal, Pots & Pans, and Rinse & Hold. Normal is generally the default cycle for everyday dish-washing needs. Pots & Pans offers a longer wash time with higher temperatures – ideal for removing hard-soiled pans. Rinse & Hold is simply a short rinse, designed for dirty dishes that will likely sit in the dishwasher a while prior to the wash cycle.

Aside from the standard wash options, several other cycles are offered to enhance the performance & energy efficiency of the dishwasher.

  • Quick Wash / Economy – can handle lightly soiled dishes at lower temperatures conserving time, water, and electricity.
  • Half Load or Top Solo – uses a fraction of the water and energy resources to efficiently clean a smaller-than-normal load.
  • Auto Wash – a unique cycle which utilizes either a turbidity or pressure sensor to determine how dirty the wash water is throughout the wash cycle. The dishwasher then automatically shortens or lengthens the wash time accordingly for maximum cleaning results.
  • China / Crystal Cycle – a few dishwashers feature a variable speed motor capable of lowering water pressure for delicate cycles. This feature is useful in minimizing damage to glassware or stemware. For consumers who want to wash their delicate glassware and china in the dishwasher, Miele dishwashers offer a cold-water only wash allowing for the most ideal delicate wash temperature.
  • Sanitize Rinse Cycle – based on NSF certification, the water in a sanitize rinse cycle must reach higher 160 degrees or higher for several minutes- providing a truly sanitizing environment for the dishes. This feature can be used to sanitize baby bottles or plastic cups. Many models wash at over 160 degrees for the entire cycle, and the term “sanitized” rather than “clean” will display at the end of the cycle. return to top

How can I further protect the investment of my new dishwasher?

Product performance guarantee - service plan
Most manufacturers offer a one year limited warranty on their product. For as little as $50 Warners’ Stellian offers a Product Protection Guarantee designed to keep your new dishwasher operating as efficiently in the future as on the day you purchased it.

Our Product Protection Guarantee covers all functional parts and labor on your new appliance for up to two, three or five years. We offer in-home service anywhere in the continental United States and service personnel are available 24/7, via phone or web chat to assist you with your service needs. return to top

We hope you found this buying guide to be useful and informative and we appreciate the time you took to read through it. If you have any questions that were not answered by this guide, please feel free to contact us.