Dishwasher Buying Guide

Few things can be as frustrating and grating as washing dishes by hand. You scrub and you scrub, but you can never quite get all the grease off or remove every last speck of food without some serious elbow grease. Luckily, we live in a world of technological marvels, and one of the great unsung heroes of the modern world is the dishwasher. The world may never know how many man-hours this humble appliance has freed for more noble pursuits, or perhaps just for some extra Internet time. But when you need to buy a new one, be it for a new kitchen or to replace a long-trusted friend that's finally kicked the bucket, you might find yourself a little overwhelmed. Where do you start? Do you need a stainless steel tub? What exactly makes a dishwasher energy- or water-efficient? What sort of control panel do you need? It can be maddening. Well, fret no more, kemosabe. Below you'll find a comprehensive dishwasher buying guide to help you make the right decision.

What's the best dishwasher for me? Which dishwasher should I get?

There isn't a whole lot of variation in basic dishwasher installations, so this shouldn't be a terribly hard question, and ultimately comes down to personal preference. Your basic categories are drop-door dishwashers, countertop dishwashers, portable dish washers, and drawer dishwashers. These are generally constructed as two drawers stacked one atop the other, which you pull out to load. These can be very useful if one is keeping kosher and feels they can't wash both meat and dairy dishes in the same dishwasher. This keeps your washing processes separated without requiring separate dishwashers, making it an ideal space-saving kosher solution.

Absent that, within standard drop-door dishwashers, there are three principal different styles, each pertaining to different control panels. Full console dishwashers feature standard front-facing control panels, which may be either digital or analog. These are functional and easy to use, but the panel might jut out, which could hurt any efforts you might be taking toward a nice, clean, flush look for your kitchen.

On the other end of the spectrum is the fully integrated-style dishwasher. Here, the control panel is entirely hidden on the top edge of the panel, completely invisible during normal operation or any time the dishwasher door is closed. These allow for that clean, flush look I described above, but tends to be a bit more expensive, and the controls can't be accessed without opening the door. On some level, these sacrifice function in the name of form. A good compromise is a semi-integrated dishwasher, which moves most of the controls to the top, but maintains some display and controls on the front, while keeping the front panel flush with the cabinetry. These combine both form and function into a good, solid whole, both elegant and effective.

But I live in an apartment. Didn't you say something about portable or countertop dishwashers?

I certainly did. For people in apartment rentals, small spaces, or anywhere they don't have the ability to install a full-size dishwasher in their kitchens, it may seem like you're condemned to the drudgery of manual dishwashing. But fear not! Because the appliances industry and their vast cadre of R&D scientists have miniaturized the dishwashing experience and liberated both the dishwasher from its undercounter installation and you from having to clean up after dinner. So let's talk countertop dishwashers. These are small, single-load dishwashers usually limited to around six place settings. They're great for small households of one or two people where the dish load isn't excessive, and they're profoundly less expensive than a full-scale dishwasher. And with their easy installation -- you just plug them in and hook up the water hose -- they're ready to go with minimal effort.

Portable dishwashers are similar small-scale appliances like the above, but have a vertical form factor and are usually on rolling casters, allowing them to be easily rolled away when not necessary. These are great for small kitchens with limited counterspace, as countertop dishwashers tend to be space hogs.

How loud is a dishwasher?

Most dishwashers run at about 55 decibels, which is roughly as loud as a normal speaking voice. For comparison, a telephone dial tone is 80 decibels and a jackhammer is 95 decibels, so we aren't talking about anything particularly loud. Some can run as high as 60 to 65 dBa, but the difference between them isn’t enormous. The quietest dishwashers can run as low as 40 dBa, so if you're looking for a quiet dishwasher, you'll want to look in that direction.

How big a dishwasher do I need?

Most dishwashers come in two basic sizes, 18" dishwashers and 24" wide dishwashers, but capacity is usually measured in terms of place settings, which consist of a dinner plate, soup plate, dessert plate, a glass tumbler, tea cup and saucer, a knife, fork, soup spoon, dessert spoon and a teaspoon. Small dishwashers can usually handle somewhere hovering around ten place settings, and truly high-capacity dishwashers -- 24" and up -- can handle more than fourteen.

The larger your family, the larger your new dishwasher will need to be to adequately handle everything you throw at it. Remember, a dishwasher isn't just for handling the dinner dishes, but everything you used to cook as well, and if your house is anything like mine, those can pile up faster than you anticipate.

Do I need hard food disposal?

A hard food disposer in your dishwasher spares you having to rinse off your dishes before you load them up, letting the hard food particles wash off during the cycle, after which they're ground up and washed away. These can be great time-saving devices, making your cleanup quicker, more efficient, and easier for everyone. Many of them even feature self-cleaning filters which ensure hands-off maintenance and a clean dishwasher.

Do I really need a stainless steel tub?

Stainless steel tubs are a great investment that can dramatically increase a kitchen dishwasher's overall performance in several areas, including better sound dampening and quicker drying due to an overall superior heat transfer rate. While not strictly necessary, these tubs resist staining and rusting, and are longer-lasting and more durable than plastic. That being said, while plastic is not a high-performance material, plastic tubs do their jobs well and are themselves very long-lasting. These are plastics designed to be strong, durable, and reliable for the long haul, so you don't need to worry about failure caused by cheap components when you buy a good dishwasher that happens to use a plastic tub.

What are my color or decorative options?

While a dishwasher is a pretty utilitarian piece of equipment, there’s no reason you have to settle for something ugly. The most common colors for dishwashers are white, black, bisque, and stainless steel, and some even allow the installation of custom panels designed to match your cabinetry.

Do I need an energy-efficient and water efficient model?

All major appliance categories can be energy hogs, especially because these are items we use frequently. And with increasing concerns about carbon footprints and sustainable home living practices, there is a greater emphasis on efficiency trumping waste. Luckily, most major appliance manufacturers offer products that are both energy and water efficient, as well as offering eco-friendly options on more robust items that tend to hog resources under normal operation.

Be sure to check for Energy Star certification when you purchase your new dishwasher, and to consider all available information for water consumption. Most dishwashers tend to use upwards of six gallons of water per load, as compared to the average EnergyStar dishwasher using four gallons per load. And, for what it's worth, almost any dishwasher beats handwashing your dishes in terms of water-efficiency in a landslide, as well as beating the ole' hand and sponge in soap and electricity usage as well. That means that dishwashers, where they're Whirlpool dishwashers, GE dishwashers, Bosch dishwashers, Frigidaire dishwashers, or any other manufacturer, are great ways to exercise responsible conservation of the planet’s resources.

What are some useful features I might want to look for?

While no manufacturer is likely to completely reinvent the concept of the dishwasher, which is pretty fundamentally sound, each of them likes to put their own spin on it, be it in increased efficiency, in luxury configurations, in particular high-quality components, or in a bevy of cycle options. But here are a few useful features you should keep an eye out for.

  • Adjustable racks: These let you change the rack height to accommodate different dishes in the event, for example, you want to have a deep top for highball glasses and a narrow bottom for bowls, or a deep bottom for lobster pots and a narrow top for lobster forks. The sky's the limit with adjustable racks!
  • Third racks: Third racks let you ramp up the versatility of your dishwasher pretty dramatically, letting you find even more configurations to accommodate whatever dinner it is you're cleaning up from. These are great for large dinner parties with lots of utensils, because the third rack can take them all, letting you remove the utensil basket to allow for more space for plates and whatnot. Manufacturers offering third rack designs included Bosch, Maytag and Asko.
  • Child locks: Don't want your mischievous little toddler to open the door during the middle of a load? It can be a huge mess when it happens. Child locks use simple locking mechanisms to keep this from happening.
  • Flood and leak prevention: These can operate under different brand names, but they boil down to systems that detect pooling water and shut down the cycle before it gets out of control.
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