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How to Clean and Maintain a Dishwasher

Most of us don't think about cleaning the dishwasher very often. After all, if the dishes are getting cleaner, shouldn't the dishwasher get cleaner, too? Unfortunately, debris and deposits do build up over time, and some of them reduce the performance of the dishwasher. Fortunately, dishwashers don't need cleaning very often and it's not hard to clean them. Here's how.

Steps

  1. Use your dishwasher regularly. It will help to prevent food and other debris from building up in there, reducing the need to clean it.
  2. Run the dishwasher or wait until just after you've run it, then empty the dishwasher completely. Do the other steps with the dishwasher empty.
  3. A clogged hole.
    A clogged hole.
    Check all the spinning arms. Look to make sure all the holes are open so that water can run through them freely. The hole in this photo has accumulated some debris.
  4. You won't be needing this again.
    You won't be needing this again.
    Clear any debris out of the holes in spinning arms. Use fine pointed or needle-nose pliers if you have some. Otherwise, try a toothpick or something similar. Take care not to scratch anything if you're using a tool with a metal point.
  5. Spills and splatters.
    Spills and splatters.
    Wipe around the edges of the door and around the gasket. This space doesn't get washed during the dishwasher cycle. Use a damp cloth and, if you like, a bit of mild spray cleaner. An old toothbrush or other soft, household brush can help get into corners and up under the gasket.
  6. Under the door.
    Under the door.
    Clean under the bottom of the door. In some dishwashers, this is a dead spot where water doesn't go, so it can accumulate debris. Wipe this off.
  7. Inspect the drain for debris.
    Inspect the drain for debris.
    Inspect the bottom of your dishwasher around the drain. There will be a grate or grill around it, under the arm. This is where wastewater goes. Look for debris clogging up this area. You shouldn't have to clean this often if you're careful about what you put in your dishwasher, but you should remove any solid matter that builds up, especially bits of paper, shards of broken dishes, gravel, etc. You may be able to pick up solid objects accumulated on the outside by hand. If you think stuff has gotten down inside, you'll have to do some simple disassembly to get at it.
    • Start by unplugging. These outlets have been labeled to reduce confusion.
      Start by unplugging. These outlets have been labeled to reduce confusion.
      To remove accumulated debris, unplug the dishwasher. Look for a plug under your sink. Make sure to unplug the dishwasher and not the garbage disposal.
    • Unscrew the screws.
      Unscrew the screws.
      Carefully remove the screws, taking care not to drop them. The cover will lift off, leaving the area exposed. As you disassemble this section, take care to notice what you take off and where. Take photos along the way and set the pieces someplace safe, in the order they came off.
    • Place a piece of tape on the opening to prevent debris from getting in it as you clean it.
    • Use a cloth or your fingers to remove solid debris. Be careful of handling broken glass if that is part of what you find here.
    • Accumulated debris after removing a broken cup handle and other large solids. The blue tape covers an opening temporarily so this stuff doesn't get inside. Click to enlarge.
      Accumulated debris after removing a broken cup handle and other large solids. The blue tape covers an opening temporarily so this stuff doesn't get inside. Click to enlarge.
      Use a brush or a cloth to loosen and remove deposits.
    • Screw everything back together, doing the reverse of what you did to get it apart. Don't over-tighten the screws, especially if they are going into soft plastic.
    • Plug the dishwasher back in.
  8. Remove hard water deposits or scale, if needed. Run one cycle of your dishwasher empty, with a mild, food acid of your choice. Do this after you've done the other cleaning steps here, so that it will also take care of anything your cleaning missed or knocked loose. A "light" or short cycle is usually sufficient. Place powders into the detergent cup. Place liquids in a right-side-up cup or bowl in the top rack. Use whichever of the following is on hand or inexpensive:
    • Lemonade drink mix or lemon-flavored Kool-Aid mix. Don't use strong colors that might stain. There is no need to add the sugar.
    • Tang (powdered)
    • Lemon juice
    • Distilled white vinegar
    • A dishwasher cleaning product
  9. Remove mildew or mold with bleach. Run a separate cycle from any acid cleaners you have used and never mix bleach with other cleaners or with dishwasher detergent.
    • If mold and mildew is a problem, leave the dishwasher loosely open for a while after each cycle to allow it to dry out.
    • Avoid using bleach and detergents containing bleach if your dishwasher has a stainless steel interior or door.
    • Bleach is a very strong chemical, both on you and on your dishwasher, so use it sparingly and only when necessary.
  10. Tackle rust stains.
    • Use a dishwasher-safe rust remover [2] for the stains themselves, but ask how they got there in the first place.
    • If the finish is chipping or flaking off the wire baskets in your dishwasher, try a paint-on sealant made just for dishwasher racks. Pull out the racks and check the bottoms, too. If the damage is severe or widespread (not just a few tines but all of them), see if you can replace the entire rack. Online stores sell a wide variety of appliance parts, so your replacement part may be very easy to find.
    • If your water has a lot of iron or rust in it, rust may be beyond your control. If possible, address the problem at its source. If the problem isn't rusty pipes, water softeners can remove a limited amount of iron from water but they mostly work by exchanging minerals that are hard to clean off surfaces for salts that are relatively easy to clean. Filters do exist to remove iron from water and might be worth looking into if your water is extremely high in iron. [3]
  11. Wipe off the controls.
    Wipe off the controls.
    Spray the front of your dishwasher with a mild spray cleaner of your choice and wipe it with a sponge or soft cloth. Pay particular attention to the controls and the handle. Also, don't miss the little ledge between panels. It tends to collect dirt.
  12. Have you refilled this lately?
    Have you refilled this lately?
    Refill your dishwasher's rinse aid dispenser about once per month. Rinse aid helps to prevent spots on your dishes. Unscrew the round knob in the dishwasher door and pour in rinse aid according to package directions or your dishwasher's manual.
    • Don't use rinse aid if you have a water softener[4].
    • Solid rinse aids are available. If you forget to refill liquid rinse aid, the solid ones are more visible, so they may help you remember.
    • If you prefer, some dishwasher detergents now have built-in rinse aid.
  13. Clean the basket if it needs it.
    Clean the basket if it needs it.
    Clean the flatware basket with a brush if there is any accumulated debris. Liquid dish soap will help.


 Tips

  • See that spoon?
    See that spoon?
    Promptly pick up any objects that fall to the bottom of the dishwasher.
  • Run the garbage disposal before starting the dishwasher. The dishwasher drains into the same pipe as your sink, so that drain must be clear.
  • Run a bit of hot water in your sink before running the dishwasher. You will get cleaner dishes if the water starts hot. You can collect the water you run and use it for watering plants or other purposes. Run the water until what comes out of the tap feels hot.
  • Make sure your water starts hot enough. Set the thermostat on your water heater to 120F (50C) [5]. Water that is cooler than this won't do a good job cleaning. Water that is hotter could scald.
  • Load your dishwasher properly, stacking items facing downward and inwards. Check that all the arms can spin freely before running the dishwasher.
  • Run full loads to conserve water and energy, but don't pack dishes too tightly. Dishwashers wash dishes by spraying water over them, so the water needs to be able to get to the dishes to clean them.
  • Don't wash containers with labels that could come loose. Scrape heavy debris and large particles off dishes before placing them in the dishwasher.
  • Don't pre-rinse too much. Dishwashers and detergents have both improved. If you haven't tried putting dishes in dirty lately, try it again. You may be pleasantly surprised.
  • Not all dishwasher detergents work the same. The next time you buy a new container of detergent, try a different brand and see if you get better results. Look for ratings and reviews, too. At the very least, favor powders and tablets over gels and liquids, and keep them dry and free of excess moisture prior to use.
  • Wash small items in the basket with your forks and knives so they don't slip through the racks and end up in the bottom. Some dishwashers even have enclosed baskets just for small items.
  • For dried-on gunk, get the area wet or spray the cleaner, then let it sit and dissolve for a few minutes before wiping. You'll save yourself a lot of scraping and scrubbing.
  • Wear gloves if you prefer not to touch the cleaner or the debris.


Warnings

  • Never mix household cleaners, especially bleach, with other cleaners or chemicals.
  • If you're not comfortable doing some simple disassembly and reassembly, don't unscrew the stuff in the bottom of the dishwasher. It doesn't need frequent cleaning.
  • Use only detergents designed for use in dishwashers, not the liquid dish soap (washing up liquid) that you use to wash dishes by hand. The dishwasher is designed to contain water spraying from certain directions, not a thick layer of suds. You'll only make a mess.

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