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Dishwasher Not Cleaning Dishes

Updated on December 18, 2014

Getting a dishwasher to actually clean your dishes can be a bit of a hassle. It can be assumed that the dishwasher itself is to be blamed, and sometimes that may be true, but more often, clean-ability issues have more to do with other factors that even a brand new dishwasher will not solve.

One of the first things to consider when diagnosing a "no clean" condition is the hardness of your water. Minerals, such as Calcium and Magnesium that are dissolved in your water supply, will play a big roll in how well a dishwasher will be able to clean your dishes.

Soft water, which has little to no dissolved minerals in it, can pose problems as well. Although not as difficult to deal with, as with hard water, it can certainly give its fair share of trouble.

Both soft and hard water conditions pose challenges that can be overcome by simply understanding the relationship between water hardness and detergent.

The Problem

In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to get clean dishes, due to the fact that Phosphates have been removed from dishwasher detergents. Phosphates are a man made, inorganic chemical that has been proven to be a threat to the environment. Local governments have been phasing them out state by state, and as of July 1st, 2013, it is illegal to sell dishwasher detergent with phosphates in the US.

The benefits of detergents with phosphates were that they didn't react to the dissolved minerals in water, like organic detergents do, and they dissolved food on contact. The clean-ablity of organic detergents are compromised when they come in contact with hard water. The calcium and magnesium in hard water combines with organic chemicals in soap to produce another chemical altogether. The chemical produced by these two is lime, which shows up as soap scum, or a cloudy scale that coats the dishes and the inside of the dishwasher.

Phosphates were the perfect chemical additive for dishwasher detergents because they did all of the work. They were the ideal chemical for both neutralizing the effects of water hardness and for dissolving food matter. Since phosphates have been removed, it has become an endeavor for detergent companies and consumers to figure out how to get past these challenges posed by hard water and food residue.

Detergent Usage

Soft Water

One of the easiest solutions in dealing with hard and soft water is to change the amount of detergent used according to how soft or hard your particular water is. Simply, if you have soft water then you should use less and if you have hard water, you should use more.

Because little to none of the detergent is being converted to lime in a soft water condition, all of it is being used for cleaning the dishes. Manufacturers of dishwashers and dishwasher detergents engineer their product to account for some of it being wasted due to its reactions with average water hardness. Because some of the detergent will be neutralized by normal levels of water hardness, they design soap dispensers and detergent tablets accordingly.

If you use a normal amount of detergent, when you have soft water, then it will be too much detergent and will over suds in the dishwasher. If a dishwasher has too much detergent, it cannot rinse out all of the detergent and your dishes will come out with soap residue on them. Over sudsing also will compromise how well a dishwasher can spray the dishes. When water has too much soap in it, it will also weaken the cleaning power of a dishwasher's wash pump.

One easy way to see if your dishwasher is over sudsing is to turn it on without detergent. Let it fill and washer for a couple minutes. Open the door and see if there are any suds sitting on top of the water. If there are, then you are definitely using too much detergent for the type of water that you have. It would be a good idea to let it finish the cycle to allow the leftover soap residue to rinse out out and then start the next cycle using less detergent. This should greatly improve your dishwasher's washability.

Hard Water

Soft water is easier to deal with than hard water. Hard water is where the real challenges start!

Because the combination of hard water and detergent forms soap scum, it is important to understand that some of the detergent is going to waste. You will need to compensate for the wasted detergent by adding more to get a proper clean. This will vary based on how much mineral is in your particular water. The more mineral you have the more detergent you will need to add to balance it out. You shouldn't have to put any more in than your dishwasher's dispenser cup can hold.

The main difficulty with hard water isn't just cleaning the dishes, but rather preventing the white film from showing up. If you are experiencing cloudiness, that means you have a buildup of lime deposits in the dishwasher and it will need to be cleaned. There are many ways to do this. The easiest way is to run an empty cycle with about a cup of white distilled vinegar. This will dissolve soap scum build up and will also dissolve food particles that may have accumulated in the dishwasher as well.

Dishwashers that have an excessive amount of soap scum buildup will need something with a little more power. CLR is the best product to use to clean out heavy soap scum and lime deposits. The best thing to do is to start an empty wash cycle and wait until it starts to fill. Open the door and pour 1/2 cup of CLR into the bottom of the dishwasher and let it finish its cycle. The manufacturer of CLR recommends that you run another empty cycle after this to rinse the cleaning chemical out of the dishwasher completely. After using CLR to clean the heavy deposits, repeating the process once a month with white distilled vinegar should stay on top of the accumulation so that the heavier chemicals will not be needed.

The following video from GE has instructions on how to run a clean cycle with different product recommendations as well.

GE Instructional Video

Rinse Aid

It is also important to use rinse aid, especially with hard water. Rinse aid treats the outside of the dishes so that the water will sheet off of them thus preventing spots and filming. The product works a lot like Rain-X does on car windshields in the rain. By not allowing the water to bead on the glass, wind will keep the windshield clear so you can virtually drive in the rain without using your windshield wipers. Rinse aid works the same way by not letting the water bead on the dishes, gravity will cause the water to fall off of the dishes so they will not spot or film and will dry more easily.

It is also important to turn your hot water on at the kitchen sink before turning on your dishwasher. Newer dishwashers are built to be more efficient, which means that the functional parts, such as the heating element, are made weaker to save energy. The heating elements are not powerful enough to heat up cold water and rely on the water already being hot by the time it enters the machine. By starting the cycle with hot water, the dishwasher's cycle can finish at a higher temperature which will allow excess water to evaporate off of the dishes to better dry them and will reduce the potential for spotting and/or a cloudy film from appearing.

Detergent Enzymes

Detergent enzymes run the anchor leg of this race. Because of the removal of phosphates and their ability to dissolve food on contact, there was also a need to replace this action in an environmentally friendly way. Detergents with enzymes have proven to be the best way of handling the job, but like anything natural, they are not as easy to work with.

Phosphates did an amazing job at dissolving food with out us even needing to think about it, but enzymes need our attention to get them to work efficiently. Enzymes will do the job of dissolving food but the food matter can not be dry on the dishes. The enzymes need to react to food matter on the dishes that is fresh before they can do their work.

If the dishes have dried food on them, or have been completely rinsed off, then the enzymes will stay in their crystallized form and will not be utilized at all. In addition to them not being utilized, they can start to etch the finish of your dishes and glassware. When the dishwasher sprays water with crystallized enzymes in it then it can actually start to attack the finish surfaces with a sandblast like effect. The only way for them to dissolve is if they come in contact with organic food matter.

To get the best cleanability, it is recommended to scrape off solid food matter, without rinsing, and run the dishwasher before what is left on the dishes has a chance to dry. This will allow the enzymes to do the job that phosphates did in dissolving food matter. It can be a bit of a hassle to change old habits but getting an understanding on the kind of water you have can easily form new ones when you finally achieve clean dishes without the use of phosphates.

If you are unsure about the condition of your water, test strips can be purchased at most stores and they are easy to use. Knowing your water is the key to knowing how to best clean your dishes...


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