How to Clean a Dishwasher

The dishwasher is one of the best inventions of the last 150 years. Not only does it make handwashing your plates and silverware a thing of the past, but it is also a big timesaver that no current household should be without. However, like all appliances that we use on a daily basis, your dishwasher needs care and maintenance to remain efficient and dependable.

A dishwasher that is not cleaned will start to lose its washing power quicker than you may realize, but with about 20 minutes a week, you can keep it running at its best. Below is some information about this amazing device and the quick cleaning process that anyone can do.

Why is it Important to Clean my Dishwasher?

A clean dishwasher is a more efficient dishwasher, and if you want to save money on utility bills and help the planet, then efficiency is key. Although it uses electricity, washing dishes in the dishwasher saves more water than washing dishes in the sink, and due to the high-pressure jets, the stuff inside will also get cleaner with less effort.

When you don’t clean your dishwasher, the sprayer arms and the holes where water comes out can be caked with dirt and become clogged, which could result in a film of baked-on food and soap on your dishes. 

On top of that, when pieces of food are left in the dishwasher over a long period of time, the machine can start to smell, which can permeate your dishes and can be difficult to stand when loading the machine.

Long story short, it is important that you clean your dishwasher, and doing so is a relatively straightforward process.

General Dishwasher Cleaning

In order to avoid dishwasher odors and keep the machine running smoothly, you should do a general cleaning of your machine on a monthly basis with the following steps.

  1. With the dishwasher empty, pour a cupful of white vinegar (Goya or Heinz are great choices) into the detergent tray.
  2. You can save electricity by running hot water in your sink first so the machine starts hot.
  3. Then run a full cycle without interruption. 
  1. Once complete, take a cup of Arm & Hammer baking soda and sprinkle it over the bottom of the dishwasher, close the door and leave it there overnight or for at least eight hours.
  2. The next morning, run an empty cycle to clear out the baking soda and make the interior sparkling clean.
  3. Once that cycle is done, you can clean up any remaining stubborn stains with a damp rag or with a soft brush. If you stay up on this task every week, there should no longer be stubborn stains.

This is how to do a general cleaning. For a more in-depth cleanse, you should wash the individual parts using the steps below.

Cleaning the Individual Dishwasher Components


While giving the dishwasher a once-over is a smart idea on a weekly basis, spend time at least once per month to do a deeper cleaning of the components that make the device work. Doing so will ensure that they last longer and are more efficient when you run the machine.

Clean the Dishwasher Filter

If you have a newer dishwasher, then it is likely that your machine has a self-cleaning filter that is often unmoveable. If that’s the case, you’re done.

However, if you have an older model with a removable filter, you will want to clean that monthly. Remember to reference your dishwasher manual for product-specific steps.

  1. The dishwasher may have an upper filter, lower filter, or both. Wherever the case, unlock the filter and remove it.
  2. With the filter removed, clean out around the base and pull out any food particles that may be there. You can use a microfiber towel to wipe out the rest and finish the job.
  3. Next, fill the sink and use warm, soapy water to clean off any food or stains. You should be able to do this with only your hand, but you can use a soft brush for any stubborn stuck-on food.
  4. Once the filter is clean, you can dry it off and then place it back into the dishwasher. Remember to lock the upper filter in place so it doesn’t fall out during operation.

Clean the Dishwasher Drain

Cleaning the drain is essential to avoid clogs that can happen over time regardless of how careful you may be. A clean drain is important for the proper functionality of the dishwasher, but it is just as important for your sink and garbage disposal, as they are often connected. 

You will also want to clean your garbage disposal every 2-3 weeks, which is a quick process.

There are several ways that you can clean the dishwasher filter, depending on how severe the issue may be. Remember to reference your dishwasher manual for product-specific steps.

If you have been keeping up on your monthly maintenance, then you can do a quick cleaning with this 20-minute process:

  1. You will first need a drain cleaning solution. You can buy one at the store or make your own at home. All it takes is one cup of white vinegar poured into a microwave-safe bowl that is warmed in the microwave for 15 seconds at most. Once heated, add in two tablespoons of baking soda.
  1. Pour that mixture down into the drain and let it sit for 20 minutes.
  2. While that is happening, boil a couple of cups of water, and once that 20 minutes is up, use caution to pour the bowl down the dishwasher drain. The hot water will work with the vinegar-baking soda solution to clear out any remaining or stubborn clogs.
  3. Also, use a towel to clean the area around the filter to ensure that the food there doesn’t fall into your freshly cleaned filter.

If you have a major clog that is impeding the productivity of your dishwasher, then a more invasive process may be necessary, which will involve removing the filter and cleaning it by hand. You can again consult your product manual or try the steps below:

  1. Remove the bottom rack so you can access the drain and work with it properly.
  2. The drain will typically be attached by four screws. Use a screwdriver to extract them and remove the filter.
  3. Use the warm, soapy water that you have in the sink and rinse out the filter and use a sponge if necessary to remove any stubborn grease or debris.
  4. Reconnect the filter to the bottom of the dishwasher and ensure that the screws are reattached tightly.

If you have removed the drain and the water is still pooling in that area, then the clog may be further down the drain. At this point, you can call a professional, or you can try a helpful hack on your own with a clothes hanger.

The trick is to find a wire hanger and straighten it out. The ends will inevitably still have a curve to them, and you can use that hook to try and pull out the clog. The long shaft of the hanger will allow you to reach further down where your fingers cannot go.

Clean the Sprayer Arms

Your dishwasher will have at least one sprayer arm that shoots the water into the machine to clean the dishes. Some models have two arms. It is a smart idea to clean out the holes on these arms every time you clean the filter and drain. It is easy for food to get stuck here and block the holes, which is counterintuitive and will make your dishwasher worker harder and waste energy.

You may be able to remove the arms to clean them, but even if you cannot, you can clean them out with that warm, soapy water. For extra stubborn stains or hard water deposits, you can remove the arms and let them sit in a mix of water and vinegar, and then scrub them as necessary. 

Do this process once a month.

Cleaning the Outside of Your Dishwasher

Washing the exterior of your dishwasher is equally important, especially around the handle that most people hold with dirty hands as they load and start the machine. Again, refer to your owner’s manual for specific instructions.

Many dishwashers are stainless steel, and for those, you should use wipes made specifically to clean stainless steel. Wipes made by Weiman and JJ Care are always a dependable choice. Light to mild wiping will easily clean off the exterior, provided that you do so at least once a month.

If you don’t have a stainless steel exterior, then a soft, damp cloth and a mild detergent will work just fine. You can also fill a spray bottle with one part vinegar and three parts water and use that to spray and clean the dishwasher, even if it is stainless steel. 

Avoid using abrasive cleaning products and sponges that can damage or scratch the exterior.

You should wipe off the handle itself every day with a damp wipe.

How to Make Your Dishwasher Last Longer

While you should always clean your dishwasher on a monthly basis regardless of the level of dirtiness, there are tips you can follow to make your machine last longer and reduce the chance of clogs.

Proper Temperature

The first thing you want to do is ensure that your dishwasher is running at the recommended temperature. Most machines have an option between 100 and 140 degrees, but you want to keep it at 120 degrees. 

Not only will this help with the energy costs associated with heating the water, but the hottest temperature will eventually wear down the elements inside of the dishwasher.

Be Cautious of Rust

Most of the newest dishwashers are made of stainless steel, which is mostly resistant to rust, but some older models may have metal pieces that can rust.

If you have an older model, be on the lookout for rust, and if you see it, call the manufacturer to have that piece replaced. If not, that rust can fall off and clog the pump, and unlike soft foods, rust cannot be easily removed, which may result in a costly repair.

Only Wash Dishes

There are some sources online that will tell you about the perks of washing strange items like grooming tools, keyboards, and even car accessories in the dishwasher, but doing so should be avoided. 

The water spray in a dishwasher can be incredibly strong, and if the foreign object you put in the dishwasher has loose parts, they could break off and fall down into the filter or drain and again cause hard-to-remove clogs.

Pre-Washing Your Plates

On the topic of efficiency, there is always a debate about how much you should clean your dishes in the sink before running them through the dishwasher. In reality, spending a lot of time pre-washing your plates will only waste water at the sink.

Instead, clean off major chunks but let the dishwasher do the rest. These machines have advanced over the years, and the heat and water pressure will do their part to clean your dishes to your liking. Especially if you maintain the device every month.

In the end, the idea of washing your dishwasher can seem like another obnoxious chore, but by taking a few minutes once per month, you will have a fine-tuned device that will leave you satisfied for years to come.

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