How to clean and maintain your dishwasher

Achieve cleaner dishes and longer dishwasher life span with these tips

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Dishwashers are one of many modern appliances that make life much easier. Growing up in a home where every dish was washed by hand, I can certainly appreciate the time and elbow grease saved by a good dishwasher. If you share this appreciation, learning how to clean and maintain your dishwasher is a great way to keep it running both long and well.


Key insights

  • All dishwashers need monthly deep cleans.
  • Skipping cleaning and maintenance leads to poor dishwasher performance.
  • Proper dishwasher maintenance involves removing and cleaning certain parts like the filter individually and then running two separate cleaning cycles.

How to clean your dishwasher

Even if the inside of your dishwasher looks clean at first glance, chances are that it’s not. There are many places gunk, grunge, food particles and mineral buildup can hide, and that’s why regular deep cleaning makes sense.

Besides the obvious hygienic benefits, cleaning your machine will help it work better and last longer. “Cleaning your dishwasher allows better water flow to your dishes, so they end up cleaner,” said Doug Both, a dishwasher repair specialist and co-owner of Georgian Bay Chemical.

Think your dishwasher needs a good cleaning? Here’s what to do.

Remove and clean the dishwasher filter

Start by removing the lower rack from your dishwasher to gain easy access to the filter and screen at the bottom of the machine. The lower rack will probably slide right out of the washer easily.

  • Remove the bottom filter from your dishwasher and place it in your laundry sink or a large basin.
  • Use a tap to rinse any large, loose bits of gunk you find out of the filter, then spray it down with Clorox cleaner.
  • Use an old toothbrush to thoroughly scrub the inside and outside of the filter until it’s completely clean and gunk-free.
  • Give the filter a final rinse to remove the Clorox.

Remove and clean the dishwasher filter screen

Remove the small screen bordering the filter housing from your dishwasher. It should pop out with a light pull. Then follow these steps:

  • Rinse any loose gunk from the screen, then spray it with Clorox and scrub it with the toothbrush until it’s clean.
  • If you have hard water you may find mineral deposits on the filter and screen that the Clorox won’t remove. In this case, submerge both parts in a basin of 4% distilled white vinegar for a couple of hours, then try scrubbing them again. Any remaining mineral buildup should come off easily.
  • Give the screen a final rinse with water.

Remove food particles from the door crack

Fully open the door of the dishwasher. Find a cleaning rag, then stuff it between the bottom of your dishwasher and the bottom edge of the door. Pull the rag along the crack, keeping it firmly stuffed between the door and washer. Position a bucket or basin below the dishwasher and slightly to one side. Pull the rag free, and use the bucket to catch any food particles you’ve dislodged.

Scrub all inside surfaces

Pour some vinegar into a glass, then dip your cleaning toothbrush in it.

Use the vinegar-soaked toothbrush to scrub all interior surfaces that have grime, reloading it with fresh vinegar often.Pay special attention to the door seals, soap dispenser, spinning arms, filter housing area and door vent.

Run a vinegar cycle

Reinstall the filter and screen in your dishwasher if you haven’t already. Pour about a cup of white vinegar into a small glass, then place the glass securely on your dishwasher’s top rack. Run a standard wash cycle with the water temperature set to hot.

Wipe down inside surfaces

When the vinegar cycle is finished, open the washer and remove the bottom rack. Use a clean microfiber cloth to remove any particles of gunk dislodged during the cycle.

Run a baking soda cycle

Sprinkle a generous layer of baking soda onto the bottom surface of your washer, making sure to distribute it evenly. Replace the bottom rack in your machine, then run another hot water wash cycle. Your dishwasher should now be sparkly clean.

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Tips to maintain your dishwasher

Monthly deep cleans of the sort described above are certainly important, but there are a few other best practices you should implement to get the most from your machine. Here are some tips you can start using right away to keep your dishwasher running well for much longer.

Most dishwasher maintenance boils down to keeping your unit clean.

Keep the filter clear

Periodically remove the filter from the bottom of your dishwasher and get rid of any chunks of food waste you find there. “Cleaning the filter more often than once a month makes sense if you don’t pre-rinse dishes or you use your machine often,” said Both. “Maybe once a week for lots of dirty dishes.”

Pre-rinse dishes

Ensure less food waste gets into your filter and other parts of your dishwasher by pre-rinsing dishes before loading them. This might seem troublesome but will save you gross cleaning work in the future.

Avoid overloading

“Don’t load your dishwasher too heavy,” warned Both. “If there’s not enough room between dishes for lots of water to penetrate, you may need to re-wash some of them by hand. Overloading also means you’ll need to clean your dishwasher more often.”

Ventilate your dishwasher

“Leave the door of your dishwasher cracked open slightly between uses so a smell doesn’t develop,” recommended Both. “If you’d prefer to leave it closed, drape a towel over the top edge of the door before shutting it. This should let in enough air to prevent odor.”

Use the right detergent

Be sure to use the specific brand and type of detergent recommended by your washer’s manufacturer. Otherwise, your dishes won’t come as clean, and your machine will need cleaning more often. If you’re not sure which detergent to use, do some trial and error until you find the one that works best.

Common dishwasher problems

Even the best-maintained dishwashers will eventually have issues, and knowing which symptoms to watch for is important if you want to catch things early. Some dishwasher problems can have several different causes, while others are fairly straightforward to diagnose and fix. Either way, diligence is your friend. Here are some common dishwasher problems to watch for along with their most likely causes and what you can do about them.

Water not draining

If your dishwasher won’t fully drain after a cycle, chances are you’ve got a clog in the filter or drain hose. Shut the machine down, then remove the bottom rack to access the filter. Remove the filter from the bottom of the machine and check it for food waste buildup. Clean anything you find.

Next, remove any water stuck in the machine, then disconnect the drain hose. Use a drain snake or unbent wire coat hanger to dislodge the blockage from inside the hose, then reconnect it.

Poor cleaning performance

If your dishwasher isn’t cleaning dishes properly, the first step is to ensure you aren’t overloading it. Stuffing dishes in tightly might be tempting, but your machine can’t clean properly with this sort of setup. If you’re confident your loading style isn’t the problem, try a different detergent. Failing that, check your filter for food waste buildup, which could easily be keeping your dishes dirty.

Leaks and water puddles

If your dishwasher is leaking, try to pinpoint exactly where the water is coming from. If it’s dripping from the door during a wash cycle, your filter could be clogged, or your door gasket might need replacing. It’s also worth checking that your machine is sitting level on the floor. If you rule out these causes, check your drain line for a clog, and ensure your water supply line isn’t leaking.

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    Bottom line

    Like most great inventions, your dishwasher needs ongoing care to continue serving you well. Here’s the short version of everything we’ve covered:

    • Deep clean your dishwasher monthly
    • Clean the filter weekly
    • Don’t overload your dishwasher
    • Use a detergent that’s recommended by the manufacturer
    • Pre-rinse your dishes
    • Keep your dishwasher ventilated

    If your washer starts leaking or not performing its cycles properly, consider calling in a professional. I know from personal experience that DIY appliance repair can be a long, difficult journey.

    All that said, dishwasher cleaning and maintenance don’t have to be a huge pain. In fact, the only time it’ll get that way is if you neglect things for too long. Otherwise, following the simple steps laid out in this article will keep your dishwasher running well for many years to come.

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