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Dishwasher Not Cleaning Properly? 5 Quick Tips to Make it Run Like New

Dishwasher Not Cleaning Properly?

Have you ever looked at a newly washed glass and seen gunk at the bottom?

My wife has noticed this on multiple occasions and even though our dishwasher is a few years old it’s cleaning efficiency has dropped off significantly.

Just today our daughters were complaining about mucky residue on their plastic cups. These are the same kids who can’t stand taking showers (their tone will surely change once they get old enough to date, at 25!!!)

I’m sharing these tips because a dishwasher not cleaning dishes is a frustrating problem. Hey, I don’t mind washing dishes by hand. But it’s nice to have a machine do this for you when both parents work full-time, coach softball & basketball, serve as a taxi service for kids, etc.

A dishwasher is like Alice from the Brady Bunch-an extra set of hands that makes your day a whole lot better.

After reading this post you’ll be able to remove your dishwasher’s spray arms & unclog them, understand how to thoroughly clean the inside of your dishwasher machine, and discover how to eliminate dirty dishes.

Here are the supplies you’ll need

  • Ratchet with 1/4 inch socket (but have all the sockets just in case)
  • White vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Putty knife
  • Fine steel wool (grade 00)
  • Sponge
  • Steel wire for hanging pictures or steel cable or wire hanger
  • Old toothbrush (or spouse’s toothbrush depending on your mood)

All the tips are easy and can be done in less than an hour.

You can do this, trust me. It’s not that hard and if your dishwasher isn’t cleaning properly you’ll thank yourself for performing this project :)

Tip 1: Remove and Unclog Spray Arms

Clogged spray arms have to be the #1 problem we encounter with our dishwasher. It’s a function of the hard water we have here in Pittsburgh and the new non-phosphate dishwasher detergent.

We have a stainless steel GE Cafe dishwasher with SmartDispense technology. The SmartDispense concept seemed like a good idea. You could dump in a ton of liquid dishwasher soap and not have to worry about manually filling up the soap cup every time dishes needed to be cleaned.

When we started using the SmartDispense dispenser the directions were followed and the correct soap was used. Then soap manufacturers changed their formulas and eliminated the use of phosphate. Which was good for the environment but bad for our dishwasher system.

The two different kinds of soap caused residue or scale to buildup in our dishwasher. There’s a good chance you have the same problem.

If your dishwasher is like our GE brand then you can remove the lower spray arm by turning it counterclockwise and pulling up at the same time.

Remove the top & middle spray arms by using a ratchet and appropriately sized socket, which was 1/4 inch for me.

Here’s a brief video to help you with removing your spray arms

 

Dishwasher Not Cleaning-How to Remove Spray Arms
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Check all of the holes in your spray arms for clogs. You can use three different methods to remove debris from the holes.

Steel wire (the kind for hanging pictures) or steel cable can be used like dental floss to thoroughly clear out the holes in the arms. If you’re unsure what size steel cable to use you can take the arm to the hardware store and test.

 

Dishwasher Not Cleaning Properly?-Use picture hanging wire to unclog holes in spray arms

 

You can also use a wire hanger, the cheap kind you get at the dry cleaner’s, to unclog the arms.

The next step will help neutralize any crud you missed with the wires or cables.

 

Tip 2: Soak Spray Arms in White Vinegar 

Mechanically removing scale or bits of food from the holes in the spray arms will help transform a dishwasher from not cleaning to one that works a lot better.

Since the arms are already removed you can soak them in a bath of white vinegar to clean them even more. White vinegar will naturally breakdown old dishwasher soap and scale buildup.

You can do this one of two ways.

The first option is to place the arms on a four-sided cookie sheet and add the white vinegar. The second option is to put the spray arms in a clean kitchen sink and soak them with vinegar.

In my video I put duck tape over the holes of the arms, but this didn’t work all that well. At least you can learn from my bone-headed ideas and save some time ;)

 

Dishwasher Not Cleaning-How to Get Your Dishwasher to Clean Better
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Tip 3: Clean the Inside of Your Dirty Dishwasher

Make it a habit to look inside and see if you have a dirty dishwasher. Once a month isn’t too much to ask, right?

You’d be surprised at what you might find: chunks of old food, glass from broken dishes, popsicle sticks, toys, you name it!!!

The obvious first step is to check the bottom of the dishwasher for debris. The mat-like thing you see is called the coarse filter and is meant to catch big particles that could prevent your tub from draining.

Feel around with your hand in areas you can’t see and remove the cover to the reservoir where the water drains. Reach down into this reservoir and take out any food or other muck. Yes, this is gross but you have to do it for the sake of mankind (and to prevent that dreaded call to the appliance repair person).

There was a plastic popsicle wrapper in my reservoir along with some other items that I won’t mention. Sure I’m a little embarrassed but this is life.

If these large bits are just floating around in the dishwasher water they can certainly be sprayed back onto the dishes, which defeats the purpose of having a dishwashing machine!!!

There is also a fine filter in your dishwasher. It looks like a circular spaceship that has fine mesh sections to it. Clean off the mesh with a sponge or run it under hot water. Our fine filter had what looked like coffee grounds on it.

 

Dishwasher Not Cleaning Properly?-Clean the fine filter

 

Again, this is the stuff that could be sprayed back up into your cups or dishes. So cleaning the fine filter should be on your to-do list every month.

 

Tip 4: Eliminate Residue & Scale Buildup 

In Tip 3 you will clean the top of the coarse filter and I highly suggest you take a look underneath it.

OH MY WORD!!!

I almost couldn’t believe how much crap was on the bottom of the dishwasher tub. And this stuff was caked on real good.

 

Dishwasher Not Cleaning?-Clean underneath the coarse filter

 

My guess is this crud is a mix of residue from our hard water and a result of using the new non-phosphate soap with the original soap that did contain phosphate. And the GE repairman (who replaced our lower spray arm for $100) confirmed that he’d seen this in other dishwashers not cleaning properly.

How do you clean off this buildup?

Mix up white vinegar and baking soda to make a paste. The consistency should be slightly thicker than pancake batter, but feel free to experiment. Spread this paste onto the buildup and let it sit for 15-20 minutes.

 

Dishwasher Not Working Properly?-Add a white vinegar & baking soda paste to residue buildup

 

In a prior post I used this formula to clean soap scum off my shower doors (it’s one of the most popular articles on this site and can be found by clicking on this link http://www.homerepairtutor.com/clean-shower-doors/).

You can use a plastic putty knife to scrape off the residue. Since our dishwasher has a stainless tub I actually used a regular putty knife and 00 grade (super fine) steel wool. Yes this is aggressive but I was careful and only scrubbed the surface of the mucky residue that surely caused our dishwasher to not work properly.

This procedure with white vinegar and baking soda may need to be done a few times to properly clean the bottom of the dishwasher tub.

 

Tip 5: Toothbrushify Your Seals and Door

Only use your spouse’s toothbrush for this step  if they really deserve it (but please don’t tell them I said this unless you absolutely have no other choice).

Admittedly we didn’t clean the seals on our dishwasher for a few years and it looked disgusting.

 

Dishwasher Not Cleaning Properly?-Use a toothbrush and sponge to clean the seals and perimeter

 

Use the toothbrush to scrub around all the rubber seals and perimeter of where the door meets up with the dishwasher tub. Then grab a wet sponge to sop up the loosened muck.

You can do this same procedure for the sides of the dishwasher door and soap cup. The soap cup itself can accumulate excess soap residue. Make this sparkling clean with the sponge. You should do this extra step and call yourself anal retentive at this point.

 

These five steps will make your dishwasher the Millenium Falcon of kitchen appliances. Okay, maybe it won’t have the capacity to travel at the speed of light but you’ll certainly be pleased with the improvement in cleaning performance.

Do you have additional tips? If so, please add them to the comment section below because I’m sure you have some awesome ideas that I missed :)

You can also provide me with before and after pictures via email. I’d love to post your pictures if you used these tips and had good success. Nothing makes me happier than helping you get what you want (in this case, clean dishes or a happy spouse). Send your pictures to jeff@homerepairtutor.com.

Thanks for dropping by, I really appreciate your time.

Make it a great day!

Jeff Patterson

 

 

 

 

 

BONUS TIP 6: Use Lemi Shine. If you’re looking for a great product please check out Lemi Shine because it might change your life. Here’s a link to their brochure that explains how to improve the function and life expectancy of dishwashers, garbage disposals, and washing machines. We used Lemi Shine Original and saw a huge improvement in the performance of our dishwasher.  http://www.lemishine.com/lemi-shine-guide-to-dishwashers-washing-machines-garbage-disposals

P.S. Here’s a another great article on how to clean your dishwasher. It’s by Jill Nystul over at One Good Thing by Jillee. Her post covers some tips I didn’t mention and is really helpful if your dishwasher needs to be freshened up a bit. Thanks Jill :)

http://www.onegoodthingbyjillee.com/2012/02/how-to-clean-your-dishwasher.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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36 comments… add one

  • Kristen @ Pink Toes and Power Tools January 14, 2013, 11:17 AM

    Great tips! We have had problems with our dishwasher’s cleaning ability. The tech who came out said we shouldn’t totally rinse our dishes when we put them in (which I am NOT guilty of!) and he recommended a rinse agent when our plastics had this gross film on them. I hate using unnecessary chemicals, but I do find that I have to use the rinse agent. I alternate it with white vinegar. I also use dishwasher magic every once in awhile. I absolutely need to check our spray arms like you suggested since we have hard water here too!

    • Jeff Patterson January 15, 2013, 5:28 AM

      Thanks Kristen for mentioning Dishwasher Magic. We’ve used it a few times with good success.

      For those of us with hard water the spray arms will always need to be checked (unfortunately). But I have been super pleased with the performance of our dishwasher since cleaning the inside and using the Finish tabs instead of Cascade gel.

      Hopefully others have seen the same improvement :)

  • Carla April 28, 2013, 12:12 PM

    The repair guy told us not to use liquid dishwashing soap to use the plain powder and never to use the gel packs that they are ruining peoples dishwashers the pouch doesn’t dissolve away completely and are clogging up and gunking up peoples dishwashers. Don’t use too much soap we fill up the soap cup and only about 1/2 the 2nd cup is what they told us . I was buying a rinse agent but started just using vinegar instead. All this worked great until recently I suspect the dishwasher needs cleaned. And is on the list of to do’s today. Thanks

    • Jeff Patterson April 28, 2013, 10:35 PM

      I agree with your repair guy Carla, we went to powder and have never looked back. Recently a family member used the liquid dishwasher detergent and we noticed immediately that the dishes didn’t get as clean.

  • Lois Davis June 22, 2013, 12:17 PM

    How to clean a fiberglass shower?

    • Jeff Patterson June 24, 2013, 2:32 PM

      Lois, I’ve used a mixture of white vinegar & baking soda. This worked well. Kaboom also does a great job. Finally, for long term maintenance I suggest Wet and Forget Shower since the surfactants in it help keep hard water, soap scum and other Nast stuff from sticking to any shower surface.

  • Patty Cake November 30, 2013, 7:41 PM

    Hi Jeff,
    My appliance doctor attempted to fix my dishwasher and after several vi$it$ my dishwasher was still making noise and not working at its best. The doc mentioned a possible shard of glass or nut shell could be the problem but he had no fix. After he left I grabbed my shop dry/wet vac and went to work. I unplugged the dishwasher and disassembled the sprayers and etc. I vacuumed out the drain and sure enough a pistachio shell and a few other hard bits were in the vac basin. I use my shop vac as a tool for many of my fix it projects.
    Patty Cake

    • Jeff Patterson December 2, 2013, 8:55 AM

      Isn’t that so frustrating when the repair person doesn’t have a good solution. And I’m sure it wasn’t cheap!!!

      Good for you to experiment a bit and clean out the dishwasher. I’m sure it’ll perform a lot better.

      Gotta love the shop vac, it’s awesome.

  • isaac December 10, 2013, 6:37 PM

    Hi, one question about your dishwasher, does the smart dispense really work? It looks like a nice feature, but can it clean real dirty dishes. I’m gonna buy a dishwasher and i am interested in a ge with the smart dispense or a maytag dishwasher, what dishwasher do you think are the best? Thanks. Sorry for my english but i am from mexico, again thanks for your answer.

    • Jeff Patterson December 13, 2013, 4:50 PM

      Hi Isaac, thanks for your questions.

      The SmartDispense wasn’t that great with our dishwasher. But our GE works just fine. I can’t speak for Maytag since we’ve only owned a GE or Kenwore. Well, actually I think Kenmore is made by Maytag!!

      I like our GE Cafe but look at the reviews. Whatever dishwasher you get make sure to stay away from the gel detergents. DON’T USE GEL!!! I’ll say it again. DON’T USE GEL.

      We use the PowerBall powder tablets and they are awesome. And I’m not a spokesperson for them or anything like that.

      Let me know which dishwasher you choose Isaac. It’s a nice perk for the kitchen for sure :)

      • isaac December 14, 2013, 12:47 PM

        Hi, thank for your answer .
        I think that the smart dispense are not so smart. Actually I have a frigidaire dishwasher and works great but has no quality material and I don’t think that it will last longer. I will use the powerball tablets, the gel detergents works good but leave stains behind and for this reason i don’t used it .The dishwasher that I chose is between a maytag or a ge- they look better and appear to last longer.

        • Jeff Patterson December 15, 2013, 6:59 AM

          Sound like a plan Isaac. Hope your purchase lasts for years to come.

  • Leah January 7, 2014, 12:49 PM

    Thank you so much. Most of mine were fully clogged. You just made this girl very happy.

    • Jeff Patterson January 12, 2014, 3:19 PM

      Awesome Leah. Glad you were able to get your dishwasher clean :)

  • Ian January 7, 2014, 4:41 PM

    Hi Jeff,
    I have a dishwasher nearly identical to yours – it’s a GE pdwt380r10ss. How did you remove the bottom arm and filter assembly to get the filters out to clean them? Part of the arm assembly blocks me from just pulling the filter out to clean it on mine and I see no way to remove the parts to get at the filters. Would appreciate any tips!

    • Jeff Patterson January 12, 2014, 3:19 PM

      Hey Ian, I just turned the lower sprayer arm counterclockwise while gently pulling up on it. It should lift off the assembly with no problem. But if you have any issues just let me know. Once you get to that point, you can turn the mount counterclockwise and access all the filter stuff!!

  • Sandra February 7, 2014, 2:25 AM

    When you use your vinegar and baking soda, sprinkle the baking soda on the dirty areas (especially like lime buildup). Then using WARM/HOT white vinegar, heavily mist it or pour it over the baking soda. Be prepared — it will Fizz. But It appears to work harder (in my opinion). When hubby cleans out his coffee pot with the vinegar, I usually try to get double duty out of it. I put baking soda in the toilet, then add the hot vinegar. Shut the lid and come back in a few minutes. All you have to do is swish it gently.
    We live in “lime” country (hard water). Not only does it leave white marks on appliances, it also lives rusty stuff as well (Iron). The Hot white vinegar and baking soda work wonders.

    • Jeff Patterson February 7, 2014, 3:03 PM

      Fantastic tips Sandra. Thanks for sharing. I’m an advocate of trying vinegar and water for most everything. Then moving on to more serious solutions if need be.

      Good job of pulling double duty with the coffee pot and toilet.

  • Sandra February 7, 2014, 2:26 AM

    PS, can’t wait to try this on our dishwasher!

    • Jeff Patterson February 7, 2014, 3:01 PM

      Let me know how it works out Sandra and if you have any questions along the way.

      I can tell you that we continue to get compliments on how clean the inside of the dishwasher is!!!

  • Craig March 16, 2014, 3:25 PM

    Hi,
    I want to replace the course filter on my GE PDW8200N20BB. I have the bottom sprayer arm and the filter already removed. I also have the upper water line disconnected and the fine filter out. My unit currently looks like the picture you have under Tip#4. Does the mat just lift out as it seems to be held in place by the rim of the item that’s pictured in the back of your Tip#4 above.

    • Jeff Patterson March 16, 2014, 8:39 PM

      Craig, you’re right about the mat being held in place by the reservoir to the back of the dishwasher.

      I unfortunately don’t know the exact way to remove the reservoir. You’ll have to take a look at your dishwasher’s instructions because I’d hate to give you bad information that would damage the mat.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful but I try to only give good info.

      Let me know how it turns out, I’m curious to learn this myself :)

  • Kevin B. March 17, 2014, 6:26 PM

    Bought a brand new Kenmore from Sears. Hasn’t cleaned dishes good once. Called Sears and sent a tech. He said everything checks out. We had soap stains dripping down the sides. He thinks we just aren’t getting enough water, that’s what it sounds like. High efficient machine of course. What are our options? He ordered a new inlet valve, if that’s not it he said not much you can do. Should have kept our 17 year old model.

    • Jeff Patterson March 17, 2014, 9:08 PM

      Sorry to hear about your Kenmore Kevin. I’ve had great experiences with Kenmore and am surprised your dishwasher has worked so lousy.

      Have you used gel detergent in the past? If so, switch to powder tablets like Powerball. They work great.

  • Richard March 21, 2014, 4:16 PM

    Loved the article. Here is my additional two cents. I have same dishwasher and I took the lower spray arm off, the white ring below it and removed the metal “grate” (that in the photo you have folded up a little) and looked at the sump and cover assembly (drain area). It was full of residue. I took it out and all apart and cleaned and put it all back together. Also the fine filter had really small stuff stuck inside it. A new one was installed (couldn’t clean it). I was also told to take all glasses that have a haze on it and use citric acid powdered cleaner. I also have hard water so I was told to use Lemi shine to help get the glasses cleaner and to run the hot water tap before using dishwasher (seems like waste of water to me). Haven’t tried it yet, wish me luck.

    • Jeff Patterson March 22, 2014, 7:21 AM

      Awesome job Richard, let me know how it all works out for you because I think you’ll get good results. You may have to be patient. It took us about 10-15 dishwasher cycles before we started seeing the fruits of our labor.

      Keep me posted :D

  • Robynne Catheron March 23, 2014, 7:04 PM

    Really good info here, including in the comments, thank you! Many decades ago, a dishwasher repairman told me to leave the grease/oil/butter on a dish once a week to give the built-up detergent residue something to work on. I never verified that, so I have no idea if it works, but I still do it.
    I just read about running the kitchen faucet until it’s hot before turning on the dishwasher, otherwise the first cycle is mostly cold water. It makes sense to us, because our kitchen sink is the farthest distance from the water heater, which is down in the basement and the entire length of the house away. Just my .02.
    We filled the rinse agent compartment with white vinegar, but we’re still getting a haze on glasses. We’ll switch to powder and see if that helps. It’s also probably cheaper.
    I never thought of soaking the spray arms in vinegar. I soak the shower head in it and clean the coffee maker once a month with it, so I already know how well it works!
    This whole process is now on the to-do list. Thanks, Jeff!

    • Jeff Patterson March 23, 2014, 7:38 PM

      Glad to help Robynne. I think you’ll see a huge difference in your dishes being clean once you switch to powder. It’s so much better than the gel.

      Be patient with the transition to powder but if you dishes don’t look better after a month or so it might be better to replace the spray arms. I was surprised that ours were only $30.

      Let me know how it all works out.

  • Marie Mailman Sheridan March 27, 2014, 6:27 AM

    use a package of tang juice crystals to clean your dishwasher…sprinkle in bottom of empty dishwasher and run a cycle…you will be amazed at how clean it comes…been doing this for years….and my dishwasher is 22 years old……imagine what tang does to your system if you drink it……

    • Jeff Patterson March 28, 2014, 3:47 PM

      Thanks Marie for your Tang tip.

      I remember Tang as a kid and it was acidic for sure. Yah, I wonder if any research has been done to see if Tang actually does a good job of cleaning our systems, lol.

  • Lisa March 27, 2014, 2:59 PM

    Jeff,
    Just had to say, “Thank You!” for the great tips & instructions on how to clean a dishwasher. I have very hard water & have not been able to use my dishwasher for months because the water would not drain. Well, today after reading this article, I decided to just go for it. What could I hurt, it was already not working! I took everything out of the bottom of the dishwasher that I could, found 3 VERY clogged filters! I’m shamed to say it but some of the white build-up was 1/2 to 3/4″ thick. The drains were completly clogged! After I took all the pieces of drain, washer arm, lower basket, etc out of dishwasher, I ran a rinse cycle, still wouldn’t drain. Got out the shop vac and sucked the standing water out of bottom, ran another rinse cycle, still standing water, sucked all the water & debris out of washer again, then I thought to check the drain hose on dishwasher. I unscrewed a clamp on drain hose where it was attached to sink drain, drainage was slow, so, lol, I put the shop vac hose on the end of dishwasher drain hose & sucked all water out of dishwasher again. I had big chunks of sediment, calcium/lime build up. I repeated the rinse cycle & when it was time for the cycle to drain the water out of washer, I sucked the water out of the drain hose with the shop vac. After doing this about 3 times, my dishwasher works perfectly now! I did add bleach to 1 rinse cycle, and vinegar to one rinse cycle. I am so proud of myself for fixing it myself! I couldn’t wait to say “Thanks”. Now I have to go put it all back together…..lol

    • Jeff Patterson March 29, 2014, 8:57 AM

      Lisa, this is quite possible the best DIY effort I’ve read about!!!

      TOTALLY AWESOME!!!!

      Great job figuring things out as you go.

      Did you finally get everything put back together?

  • Greg March 30, 2014, 7:50 PM

    You are missing the #1 problem and exacerbating it with the solution – I see you lifting the coarse filter by the edges to clean underneath it. That makes your problem worse. The plastic coarse filter warps over time with use and lifting. Foods gets into the spray mechanism by getting under the coarse filter. GE doesn’t even sell the plastic coarse filter anymore. It took me two years to figure it all out – but a 10 minute repair fixes the clogged spray arm problem. Step 1: Order the GE coarse filter from their website – it is now stainless, not plastic. Do all the disassembly you describe, but also remove the resevoir/sump that holds down the coarse filter. You remove the sump by squeezing the long edges and lifting (need to put some force into it) – it just pops out. Put in the new stainless coarse filter and re-assemble. No more food in spray arms! Lastly, use the detergent single use gel packs – not the liquid or powder. The gel packs are much more effective. Problem solved!!

    • Jeff Patterson March 31, 2014, 7:15 PM

      Thanks Greg for your tips. If you saw the residue under the coarse filter you’d likely want to clean it, too. It was terrible. The grime was from switching from the detergents changing to phosphate-free.

      Great job describing how to remove the sump, I’m sure others were trying to figure out how to do that :)

      Do you not like the powder detergent for a reason?

  • Robert April 12, 2014, 7:33 PM

    I have the SAME dishwasher, and every one of the SAME problems. I really appreciate your posting these tips…..I think it is a service to mankind…

    • Jeff Patterson April 16, 2014, 5:00 AM

      LOL, thanks Robert. I try to keep mankind in mind when doing the tutorials.

      Isn’t it a shame that these dishwashers are new and still have all sorts of problems. Goes to show that engineering isn’t a perfect endeavor. But that’s okay, we can fix this stuff, right!!!

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