The Case of the Sparkling Dishes Automatic Dishwashing for the 21st Century

When it comes to household chores, there is perhaps no greater “grime” stopper than your automatic dishwasher. Talk about getting a huge payback for very little elbow grease!Before you can solve The Case of the Sparkling Dishes, you must first wage The Battle of the Stuck-on, Dried-up Food! And that means you need a bit of insider knowledge up your sleeve.Here’s a clue – there are four factors at work here:

  • The mechanical action of the dishwasher
  • The force and high temperature of the water
  • The chemical action of the detergent and rinse agent
  • And you, the one in charge, putting it all together. There’s a lot that could go wrong, unless you do it right!

So are you ready to get to the bottom of it all, and close the case on getting the most out of your machine? In the immortal words of Sergeant Friday, what follows here are “just the facts, ma’am . . .”



The preliminary investigation

How much detergent should I use in my dishwasher?

For starters, check the directions on the detergent label for the recommended amount. You can also refer to the dishwasher’s User Manual. Here’s an additional tip: if you have hard water, you may need to use a little more detergent to get the best “clean.” And if your water is soft, do the opposite and try using a little less detergent.

Should I use a powder, gel or tablet automatic dishwasher detergent?

Yes, yes or yes! All three of these are up to the job, so the choice is up to you.

Can I use liquid hand dishwashing detergent in my dishwasher?

No! Not only would this mean soapy suds all over your floor, but there’s also a technical reason why this doesn’t work. The suds created by a hand dishwashing detergent interfere with the mechanical action of the dishwasher. They “smother” the water action that’s necessary for effective cleaning. So leave hand dishwashing liquid at sink-side!

What’s a rinse agent, and do I need one?

A rinse agent is an additive that makes water “wetter,” meaning that the water sheets off dishes more readily and rinses away residue. That translates into fewer water spots, making a rinse agent especially helpful if you have mineral-rich hard water. And as an added bonus, rinse agents also help dishes dry more quickly.

Can I use automatic dishwasher detergent to pre-soak my dishes?

Normally, you simply scrape food particles from dishes before loading them in the dishwasher, making pre-soaking unnecessary. But if you’re dealing with dried-on, baked-on food or grease, try pre-soaking in a hand dishwashing detergent and water solution. Check the label on your automatic dishwasher detergent. Some of them are appropriate for pre-soaking, too.

Can I use automatic dishwasher detergent to wash other things like sinks, windows, floors, or clothing?

Simply put: no. While some household cleaning products are multi-purpose, automatic dishwasher detergent is formulated specifically for use in a dishwasher. In fact, it could damage other surfaces, so use it only as intended!

What’s the best way to store automatic dishwasher detergent?

If you’re using a powder form, you should keep it in a cool, dry place to prevent the detergent from picking up moisture. Otherwise, it could become caked or lumpy. But no matter what type you use – powder, gel or tablet – be sure to close the package tightly after use and store out of the reach of small children and pets.

Is automatic dishwasher detergent safe to use around children?

Yes, automatic dishwasher detergent is safe when used and stored according to the directions on the label. But because accidents can happen, it’s important to keep all cleaning products out of the reach of children and pets to avoid accidental ingestion.

Does automatic dishwasher detergent harm the environment?

No. Automatic dishwasher detergent is formulated to go down the drain with the wash water, and from there, it’s safely treated in both municipal sewage treatment facilities and home septic systems.

Can I put everything in the dishwasher or are there items that should be washed by hand?

As tempting as it is to throw everything in and get that load going, there will always be some items that are better suited to washing by hand. The force and heat of the water, and even the detergent, can damage fragile pieces. If possible, check with the manufacturer to see if the item is “dishwasher safe,” although this may not be easy in the case of older items. As an alternative, your dishwasher manual may give suggestions for the washability of delicate items.

Still in doubt?

To be safe, unless the manufacturer can tell you otherwise, you’ll probably want to hand wash these items:


  • aluminum utensils
  • cast iron
  • china (hand painted or antique)
  • crystal
  • cutlery
  • decorated glassware
  • hollow-handled knives
  • milk glass
  • pewter
  • plastics
  • silver
  • wooden items

How do I load the dishwasher?

“Let me count the ways!” Seriously, every dishwasher is designed differently, so the best approach is to check the manual that came with your machine. To get you started, here are some general guidelines:


  • Place the dirtiest side of the item facing the source of the water spray.
  • Don’t let large items cover small items, like cups or upside-down flatware.
  • Avoid stacking items together. If they are too tight, water can’t get to them.
  • Place sharp items with points down (safety first!)
  • Make sure delicate items are firmly secured on the rack to avoid toppling.

What temperature should the water in my dishwasher be?

In a word: hot! In fact, most newer dishwashers heat the water right in the tub, using a “heat booster.” Does your dishwasher have one? Check your User’s Manual to find out! If not, run the hot water at the sink for a few minutes before starting the dishwasher, to make sure there is hot water filling the dishwasher.

What is hard water, and how can I tell if I have it?

Hard water contains dissolved mineral salts like calcium and magnesium. These minerals can interfere with a detergent’s ability to clean, which is why you may need to use more detergent if your water is hard. Hard water can also cause spotting or filming on your dishes. Since water hardness varies from town to town, the easiest way to know if you have it is to call your local water company, public utility service department or Cooperative Extension Service.

Check it out!

You probably have hard water if:


  • You suffer from “ring around the bathtub.”
  • Soaps and shampoos don’t lather easily.
  • There is white residue around your faucets and drains.
  • Washed fabrics feel stiff, not fluffy.



Establishing probable cause – common dishwashing problems, causes and solutions

Problem: Bits of food left on dishes

Probable Causes

  1. Overcrowding is preventing water from reaching the dishes.Solution
    • Load the dishwasher correctly, and clean the filter periodically. (Check your User’s Manual to see how often.)


  2. Water temperature is too low.Solutions
    • No heat booster? (Your User’s Manual will tell you.) Run the hot water at the kitchen sink for a few minutes before starting the dishwasher.
    • If you DO have a heat booster but it’s not working, it’s time to call for repair service.


  3. Insufficient water fill.Solution
    • Water pressure is too low. Avoid running other water while the dishwasher is running.

Problem: Dishes not completely dry

Probable Causes

  1. Incorrect loading is preventing good drainage.Solution
    • Refer to User’s Manual and follow tips on proper loading.


  2. The “air dry/no-heat” cycle is preventing complete drying.Solutions
    • Be sure water is hot, then use the correct amount of detergent and add a rinse agent.
    • Choose the heated drying cycle instead.

Problem: Black or grey marks on dishes

Probable Cause

  1. Aluminum utensils rubbing against dishes during the wash cycle.Solution
    • Watch your loading! Be sure dishes and aluminum utensils don’t rub against each other in the dishwasher. This is particularly important with lightweight foil containers.TIP: To remove existing black marks, use a plastic scouring pad and a mild cleanser

Problem: Water spots on dishes

Probable Cause

  1. You have hard water.Solution
    • Use a rinse agent and/or a little extra detergent.

Problem: Detergent spots left on dishes

Probable Causes

  1. Water is not reaching the surfaces of the dishes.Solution
    • When you load the dishwasher, be sure that the spray arms are not blocked!


  2. Water temperature is too low.Solution
    • Make sure the water is hot. If you don’t have a heat booster, run the hot water at the sink for a few minutes before starting the dishwasher.


  3. You aren’t using enough detergent (sounds contradictory, but it’s true!)Solutions
    • Be sure to use recommended amount of detergent, and if you have hard water, use a little extra detergent.
    • Use fresh detergent that is not caked in the box or the detergent cup.


  4. The filter is dirty.Solution
    • Clean the dishwasher filter.

Problem: Dark spots on sterling or silverplate items

Probable Cause

  1. Wet flatware came into contact with undissolved or highly-concentrated detergent.Solutions
    • Close dispenser cup before running dishwasher.
    • Don’t sprinkle or pour dishwasher detergent directly on flatware.
    • Follow dishwasher manufacturer’s instructions for loading.
    • Place sterling or silverplate items as far away as possible from the dispenser cups.

    TIP: Remove existing spots with silver polish, then rewash.

Problem: Pit marks on stainless steel flatware

Probable Causes

  1. Flatware had prolonged contact with salty or acidic foods.Solution
    • Wash stainless steel items soon after use; run the “rinse-hold” cycle if they will not be washed right away.


  2. Wet flatware came in contact with undissolved or highly-concentrated detergent.Solutions
    • Avoid spilling or pouring detergent directly on flatware.
    • Make sure dispenser cup is closed.
    • Close dishwasher door slowly to prevent any loose detergent from landing on flatware.


  3. Stainless steel flatware touched the silver flatware in the dishwasher.Solution
    • Place silverware and stainless steel flatware in separate compartments in silverware basket so they don’t touch. Don’t overload the baskets.

    TIP: To remove existing spots, rub with silver polish, then rinse.

Problem: Silver is discoloured

Probable Cause

  1. Silver and silverplate may not be dishwasher-safe.Solution
    • You’ll have to hand wash these items!TIP: To remove existing discolouration, clean using a silver polish

Problem: Aluminum pots turn black

Probable Cause

  1. The aluminum is not dishwasher-safe.Solution
    • Check and follow cookware manufacturer’s cleaning instructions, or clean by hand with a metal cleaning product recommended for aluminum.

    TIP: To remove existing stains, use the pot to cook an acidic food, such as tomatoes. This will remove stains from the aluminum without affecting the food.

Problem: Foggy, white film on glasses

Probable Causes

  1. Hard water build-up.Solutions
    • Clean the glasses with vinegar from time to time.
    • Use a rinse agent to prevent build-up.


  2. Etching.Solution
    • There is none; unfortunately, this condition is irreversible.
    • Check with the manufacturer of any new glassware to make sure it’s dishwasher-safe.

    Is it temporary Build-up or permanent Etching?

    Here’s how to tell:

    1. In a glass pie plate, soak one side of an affected glass in some vinegar for one hour.
    2. Remove glass, rinse and dry. Hold the glass up to the light.
    3. If the side soaked in vinegar looks different from the unsoaked side, the film is probably the result of hard water build-up.
    4. If there is no difference between the two sides, the film is due to a chemical reaction between some types of glassware and the water and/or the detergent. This means your glass has permanent etching.

Problem: Rings on glasses

Probable Cause


  1. Glasses placed too close together in the rack.Solution
    • You guessed it. Leave more space between glasses.

Problem: Detergent cakes in the dispenser cup

Probable Causes

  1. The detergent is being used/stored improperly.Solutions
    • Make sure the dispenser cup is dry before filling with powder detergent.
    • Do not overfill detergent in the cup.
    • Don’t let gel detergent sit in the cup too long.
    • Use detergent within one to two months of purchase.


  2. The washer is not loaded correctly.Solutions
    • Be careful not to let large items, such as platters, block the dispenser cup.
    • Close dispenser cover tightly. (If the cover doesn’t fit, it may need to be replaced.)


  3. The machine itself has a problem.Solution
    • If solutions to numbers 1 or 2 don’t resolve the problem, contact a repair person.

Problem: The dishwasher smells funny inside

Probable Causes

  1. Unwashed dishes have been in the dishwasher for too long.Solution
    • Use “rinse/hold” cycle at least once a day until you are ready to run a full load.


  2. The filter is dirty.Solution
    • Clean dishwasher filter following manufacturer’s instructions.



Closing the case – the final scoop on safety, energy and disposal

Be Smart! Be Safe . . .

It’s a cinch to use your automatic dishwashing detergent safely! Here’s how:


  • Like all household cleaning products, store automatic dishwashing detergent out of the reach of small children and pets.
  • Don’t fill the dispenser cups until you’re ready to run the dishwasher. Otherwise, curious children or pets may get into them.
  • Don’t mix dishwashing detergent with other cleaning products, as irritating fumes could result.
  • Keep detergent in original container with the label intact, and never reuse the container.
  • Avoid direct contact between gel detergent and skin or clothes.

Over and Out – Product and Package Disposal

You’ve done it all right, now be sure to properly dispose of any leftover product and the empty container. Here’s how:


  1. Use the product up.
    • If you can’t, give it to someone who can. Be sure the label is intact!
  2. If you have to dispose of an unused product:
    • Read and follow label directions for disposal.
    • Pour powder, liquid and gel detergents, or rinse agents down the drain with plenty of running water.
    • Put tablets and solid rinse agents in the trash.
    • Do not mix products when disposing.
    • Do not reuse containers for any other purpose.
  3. Recycle empty containers in a covered recycling bin.

Energy Saving Tips

The number one energy tip is to do it right the first time to prevent re-washing! For energy efficiency, follow these simple guidelines:


  • Run the dishwasher only when you have a full load. In between loads, use the “rinse-hold” cycle or hand rinse dirty dishes before loading them.
  • Don’t overload the dishwasher.
  • Dishes aren’t too dirty? Use a cycle requiring less water.
  • Use the recommended amount of detergent.
  • Skip the drying cycle whenever possible. It can save about 15% on your total operating cost. If your machine doesn’t have an “energy saving” or “air/no heat” cycle, move the dial to the “off” position after the final rinse. Use a rinse agent to help promote drying!
  • Clean the filter regularly according to manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • If necessary, insulate water heater and delivery pipes to avoid heat loss between the hot water supply and the dishwasher.