Dishwashers

Models selling for as little as $350 or so can excel at washing dishes, but they may not measure up to costlier models in quietness, water and energy usage, or features.

Spend $300 to $400 and you can get a dishwasher that does a good job cleaning dirty dishes without prerinsing, but with a bit of noise. To get the best of everything--cleaning prowess plus the quietest operation, convenience features, water and energy efficiency, and designer styling--you'll have to spend $500 or more.

A dirt sensor, once a premium feature, is now becoming standard, even on lower-priced models. Sensors are designed to adjust the water used and the length of the cycle to the amount of soil on dishes.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Frigidaire, GE, Maytag, and Whirlpool make most dishwashers and sell them under their own names, associated brands, and sometimes the Sears Kenmore label. Whirlpool makes high-end KitchenAid, low-end Roper, and many Kenmore models. Maytag makes the high-end Jenn-Air, midpriced Amana, and low-priced Admiral dishwashers. GE offers a wide range of choices under the GE label and also makes the value-priced Hotpoint. Asko, Bosch, and Miele are high-end European brands; Bosch also makes Siemens models. Haier is an import from China; LG and Samsung are Korean brands; Fisher & Paykel is from New Zealand.

Most models fit into a 24-inch-wide space under a kitchen countertop and are attached to a hot-water pipe, drain, and an electrical line. If you have the room, it's now possible to get a wider dishwasher from Electrolux, although you'll pay a hefty premium. Portable models in a finished cabinet can be rolled over to the sink and connected to the faucet. A "dishwasher in a drawer" design from Fisher & Paykel and KitchenAid has two stacked drawers that can be used simultaneously or individually, depending upon the number of dishes you need to wash. KitchenAid also sells a single-drawer dishwasher.

Price range: $200 to $1,300 (domestic brands); $350 to $2,000 (foreign-made brands).

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Most models offer a choice of at least three wash cycles--Light, Normal, and Heavy (or Pots and Pans)--which should be enough for the typical dishwashing jobs in most households. A few brands, including Kenmore, now offer power-washing features designed to remove heavy soil such as baked-on brownie batter. Kenmore's Turbo Zone has a section that's exposed to high-pressure washing to handle extra-dirty dishes. It worked well in our tests.

Rinse/Hold lets you rinse dirty dishes before using the dishwasher on a full cycle. Other cycles offered on many models include Pot Scrubber, Soak/Scrub, and China/Crystal, none of which we consider crucial for most consumers. Dishwashers often spray water from multiple places, or "levels," in the machine. Most models typically offer a choice of drying with or without heat.

All dishwashers use filters to keep wash water free of food that can be redeposited on clean dishes. Most such models are self-cleaning: A spray arm cleans residue from the coarse filter during the rinse cycle, and a food-disposal grinder cuts up large food particles so they can be washed down the drain. Some of the more expensive dishwashers have a filter that you must pull out and clean manually; these are usually quieter than those with grinders. If noise is a concern, see if better soundproofing--often in the form of hard, rubbery insulation surrounded by a thick fiberglass blanket--is available as a step-up feature.

A sanitizing wash or rinse option that raises the water temperature above the typical 140 F doesn't necessarily mean improved cleaning. Remember, the moment you touch a dish while taking it out of the dishwasher, it's no longer sanitized.

Most dishwashers have electronic touchpad controls. On more expensive models, controls may be fully or partially hidden, (or integrated) in the top edge of the door. The least expensive models have mechanical controls, usually operated by a dial and push buttons. Touchpads are the easiest type of control to wipe clean. Dials indicate progress through a cycle. Some electronic models digitally display time left in the wash cycle. Others merely show a "clean" signal. A delayed-start control lets you set the dishwasher to start later, for example, at night when utility rates may be lower. Some models offer child-safety features, such as locks for the door and controls.

Most dishwashers hold cups and glasses on top, plates on the bottom, and silverware in a basket. Racks can sometimes be adjusted to better fit your dishes. On some units, the top rack can be adjusted enough to let you put 10-inch dinner plates on both the top and bottom racks simultaneously, or it can be removed entirely so very tall items will fit on the bottom.

Other features that enhance flexibility include adjustable and removable tines, which fold down to accommodate bigger dishes, pots, and pans; slots for silverware that prevent "nesting"; removable racks, which enable loading and unloading outside the dishwasher; stemware holders, which steady wine glasses; clips to keep light plastic cups from overturning; and fold-down shelves, which stack cups in a double-tiered arrangement.

Stainless-steel tubs should last virtually forever, but even plastic tubs generally have a warranty of 20 years, much longer than most people keep a dishwasher. Light-colored plastic may discolor, especially from tomato sauce, but there's otherwise no advantage to stainless. Dishwashers with stainless-steel tubs typically cost $500 and up.

If you want a front panel that matches your cabinets, you can buy a kit compatible with many dishwashers. Some higher-priced models come without a front panel so you can choose your own, usually at a cost of several hundred dollars.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Our tests over the years have shown that most new dishwashers will do a great job cleaning even the dirtiest dishes without prerinsing, which wastes lots of water. But they differ in appearance, noise, loading, energy efficiency, and features. Here are points to consider when choosing a dishwasher:

Decide how many options you need. Adjustable racks and fold-down tines help dishwashers hold large bowls and other awkward items. But you may want to skip those features and pay less if you don' t cook big meals or entertain often.

We also suggest thinking twice about half-load cycles, which allow you to wash just one rack. Running two half-load cycles can use more water and energy than one normal load. Half-load cycles that use only the top rack also limit your options, since some top racks can't accommodate dinner dishes or silverware.

Check quietness and energy use. New dishwasher models are probably quieter than the one you have now. But you might want the quietest models we tested if you have an open kitchen near a dining or family room, for example. You'll also hear a lot about Energy Star labels, which cite dishwashers that are 25 percent more energy-efficient than minimum government standards. We suggest using the energy scores in our Ratings, which are based on much dirtier loads. Most of the energy a dishwasher uses goes to heating the water. Water usage, and thus the operating costs, vary greatly from model to model. In our recent tests, water usage ranged from about 31/2 to 12 gallons a load. Energy costs to heat the water and run the machine could vary by up to $65 a year for the tested models, depending on rates in your area. Over its lifetime, a more efficient model could be a better buy than a lower-priced model that is less energy-efficient.

Decide whether a self-cleaning filter is a must. Most dishwashers have self-cleaning filters, which can add to noise. The Asko, Bosch, Fisher & Paykel, Haier, Miele, and Siemens models we've tested have filters you clean yourself. That isn't a big deal: You simply remove the filter and rinse it off, typically every week or two. A clogged filter could affect wash performance.

Don't get hung up on dirt sensors. Most dishwashers have deleted the bottom panel below the door, adding space for taller items inside and allowing sleeker styling outside. Dirt sensors, which adjust water use and cycle time to the soil on the dishes, are also common. Some sensors don't distinguish well between slightly and very dirty dishes, however, increasing wash time and water use even if the load is lightly soiled.

Use rinse aids and enzyme-based detergents. Both tend to yield cleaner results. Rinse aids reduce spotting, while enzyme-based detergents help dissolve food starches and proteins.

Keep style in perspective. You'll pay a premium for a stainless-steel tub, which doesn't spot and should last virtually forever. But plastic tubs should outlast most machines. Hidden controls are another stylish feature, though cycle progress isn't obvious at a glance. A good compromise: partially hidden controls, which show that the machine is running and often display remaining cycle time.

If speed matters, check cycle time. The normal cycle (including drying time) ranges from about 80 minutes to 150 minutes, but longer cycles don't necessarily clean better. In our tests, models with cycle times of about 100 minutes did just as thorough a job as others that took 145 minutes.

Consider the cost of delivery and installation. Installation can run $100 to $200 or more. Sears, which sells roughly 35 percent of all dishwashers, charges on average $105 to deliver and install a new unit.

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