Dishwashing machine care

I recently inherited a dishwasher that was, well, not well cared for. Gunky gross, in fact. I’m not sure how a machine that’s made to clean what’s inside can get so dirty, but it did. And I guess they do, unless you take care of them. Since buying a dishwasher is low on the list of priorities for our new home, I set out to spiff it up and learn how to maintain it so it would last as long as possible — and do a good job cleaning our dishes! Here’s what I learned about how to clean a dishwasher and keep it in good shape:

Start by taking a look at the machine’s manual. Dishwashers differ, and directions for finding and removing parts, when necessary, can be very helpful! If you haven’t tidily stored the manual (join the club!) you can usually find one online.

Cleaning a dishwasher

Once a month, devote about 20 minutes to thoroughly clean the dishwasher, step-by-step:

  1. Take out the bottom rack and wipe the bottom of the dishwasher clean.
  2. If it comes out, take out the flatware basket and soak it in soapy water in your sink. Rinse it and let it air dry while you clean the rest of the machine.
  3. Using a washcloth dampened with water and dishwashing liquid, wipe the spray arms (they spin around and spray the dishes), and use a toothpick to unclog the holes, if necessary. Then make sure the arms swing freely, that nothing is blocking their trip around the dishwasher. 
  4. If there’s a trap under the lower sprayer, remove it and clean out any food or other debris. If it can’t be removed, just use a dishcloth to remove any debris or gunky mess around it.
  5. Take out the filter, if there is one, and discard anything trapped in there. Your owner’s manual can tell you if your machine has a filter, where to find it, and how to take it out. 
  6. Extra credit: To clean the drain, first unplug the dishwasher. (It’s probably plugged in under your sink, if it’s a built-in.) Remove any food that’s collected around the drain. To get smaller pieces, unscrew the cover and remove it. Clean out debris, then replace the cover and plug the machine back in.
  7. Inspect the racks and touch up any chips with touch-up paint made for dishwashing racks. You can order this paint from the manufacturer, or you can find it online. Simply match the color of your racks. If your racks are rusted, you can purchase replacement ones from the manufacturer (and sometimes from other, less expensive sources). Leaving rusted or chipped racks can cause your dishes to become chipped on the metal.
  8. Clean all of the interior and exterior surfaces with your damp cloth, including the detergent dispenser, the door, the seals around the door, and the edges of the machine. 
  9. Finally, replace the rack and flatware basket.
overloaded dishwasher

For best results when loading your dishwasher

• It’s not necessary to rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, but do scrape them off with a rubber spatula. Big chunks of food can clog the dishwasher and stick around.

• Don’t overload the dishwasher. (Guilty!) Cramming dishes and pans in there doesn’t leave room for water and air to flow between the dishes.

• Face dishes inward, toward the center of the machine.

• Put glasses and dishwasher-safe plastics on the top rack, face down. The temperature is cooler on the top rack, which will prevent melting of the plastic.

• Don’t put glasses over the tines of the rack. Instead, place them between the tines, to prevent water spotting.

• Make sure dishes and other items aren’t overlapping or nesting inside one another. Water needs to reach all surfaces.

• To make sure utensils don’t nest, resist the urge to group like utensils together. (I’m not the only one with this urge, right?) Mix up your forks, knives, and spoons. Knives placed next to each other can form a seal together, and spoons can, well, spoon.

• Alternate which direction you put utensils in the dishwasher, too — some headfirst and others head down. (Total chaos!) This will also prevent nesting. (Always load sharp utensils face down, though, to prevent cutting yourself.)

What not to put in your dishwasher:

• Wood items, such as cutting boards, wooden spoons, and wood-handled knives can warp and crack.

• Cast iron will lose its seasoning and rust.

• Silver can discolor.

• Aluminum can scratch and become dull.

• Dishes or crystal not labeled dishwasher safe, such as some fine china or crystal, may be damaged.

• Insulated travel mugs can have the vacuum seal ruined.

• Non-stick pans might have the coating worn off. Some newer non-stick pans are dishwasher safe; check the manufacturer’s information for the item. 


If you think your dishes aren’t getting clean, you’ll want to check to make sure the dishes are getting enough water. Place a glass right side up on the top rack of the dishwasher and another right side up on the bottom rack. At the end of the run, they should both be full of water.

clean dishwasher load of plates

If you see water in the bottom of your machine after it runs, it means that the machine isn’t draining well. Remove your machine’s filter, if it has one, and clean it off. Clean out any debris that’s collected in the bottom of the dishwasher, too. 

If your dishes and glassware are spotted, it’s probably because of hard water. If you don’t have a softener, try adding a cup of vinegar to each cycle. Jillee at One Good Thing swears by this trick. She simply loads her dishwasher as usual, then puts a small ramekin filled with plain white vinegar in the center of the top rack before running a cycle. To avoid spotting and deposits caused by hard water, she includes white vinegar in every load. 

A few more tips for dishwasher use:

• Run your dishwasher regularly to keep it clean and working well. Running it clears built-up food debris and keeps drains flowing.

• Make sure your water heater is set between 120 and 125 degrees F., for the best dishwashing temperature. 

• Run the hot water in your kitchen sink before you start the dishwasher. This will ensure that the first cycle will be hot rather than warming up when it starts.

• Don’t use too much soap. It’s tempting to add extra soap when things are extra dirty, but don’t! Your dishes can wind up with soap spots, and your machine can overrun with suds like in the cartoons!

I admit, cleaning and maintaining a dishwasher is one of those household tasks that’s easy to ignore — until you realize how dirty the dishwasher is, or until your dishes aren’t getting clean. Be proactive by loading your dishwasher properly and by cleaning it once a month or so. It doesn’t take long, and the reward is both clean dishes and a longer-lasting machine. Just imagine all the work it saves you by washing all those dishes! A little TLC isn’t a lot to ask in return.

You might also like: Clothes dryer care and Washing machine care.

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