Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Dishwasher

Mid-adult couple looking inside dishwasher in store
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Many people don’t appreciate the convenience a dishwasher provides until they live without one. This common kitchen appliance saves you a lot of time and effort, as you’ll otherwise have to handwash all of your dishes and cutlery—a daunting task, especially if you have a big family. Plus, new, efficient dishwashers actually use less water than it would take to scrub all your dishes by hand.

How exactly do these appliances work? Every dishwasher uses a heating element to create the hot water that cleans your dishes. Once that water reaches its optimal temperature—usually around 140 degrees—jets spray both the water and detergent mixture onto dirty dishes. The resulting dirty water is drained out of the appliance, then another rinse cycle takes place. Finally, hot air is used to dry the dishes while they are still inside your washer. This whole cycle can take anywhere from 30 minutes for a quick cycle to two hours or longer, depending on the appliance.

If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, you’ll have to choose between common options like built-in, drawer, and portable models. You’ll also have to make decisions about which cycle options you want, where the control panel is located, if the racks can be adjusted, how loud it is, and more. Read on to learn more about all of these features and to figure out which model is best for your needs.

What to Look for in a Dishwasher?

As you shop for a dishwasher, there are several important factors you’ll want to consider, including things like size, features, and finish.

  • Size: Unlike other appliances such as refrigerators, most dishwashers are roughly the same size. Built-in dishwashers are typically 24 inches wide, 24 inches deep and around 35 inches high, as they’re designed to fit seamlessly in your kitchen counters. However, if you have a smaller kitchen, you can also find built-in models that are 18 inches wide. These dishwashers save you precious space, and they’re often big enough for one or two people.
    You may also come access “Tall Tub” built-in dishwashers during your shopping. These appliances have a larger inner cavity, allowing you to accommodate more dishes, but they typically have the same exterior dimensions as standard built-in models.
    In addition to built-in models, there are portable and countertop dishwashers that are ideal for smaller kitchens—such as those in apartments or even RVS. These appliances are smaller and typically accommodate significantly fewer dishes.
  • Cycle Options: Modern dishwashers come with a variety of cycles, and you’ll want to think about which (if any) are most useful for your needs. Normal wash, quick wash, and heavy duty are standard options on most dishwashers today, but you may also want an appliance that has steam clean, pots and pans, delicates/fine china, extra rinse, and/or sanitizing settings.
    Steam cleaning is a popular feature that can work in several ways. Some brands use steam cleaning in place of pre-washing, using hot air to break up residual food before washing. On the other hand, some dishwashers have steam-only cycles, which can be used to gently clean delicate dishes.
    Another popular cycle is sanitation, which uses high temperatures of around 155 degrees to kill bacteria on the dishwasher’s contents. This type of cycle is often used on baby bottles and cutting boards, as it kills more than 99 percent of germs.
  • Racks: All dishwashers have racks, but some are more versatile than others. For instance, many dishwashers today have adjustable or removable racks, which can allow you to fit bigger plates in the bottom or taller glasses up top. Further, high-end dishwashers may even have adjustable or fold-down tines, which allow you to pack your dishes in more efficiently, ensuring nothing falls over during the cycle.
    Another popular feature is a “third rack,” which is essentially a shallow drawer at the top of the dishwasher cavity. These small racks are perfect for oversized utensils and small items like espresso cups, and some can even be adjusted or reconfigured to suit your needs. The downside of a third rack is that it limits the height of the second rack, making it a challenging to wash tall items like wine glasses. Plus, it’s considered a premium feature that will increase the price of the appliance.
  • Control Panel: Another important consideration when purchasing a dishwasher is the location of the control panel. There are two common control panel configurations: on the front of the appliance or on the top of the door. When the controls are on top of the door, they may also be referred to as “fully integrated.”
    There are pros and cons to both of these options. When controls are on the front of the dishwasher, you can easily monitor the dishwasher’s progress throughout the cycle. However, you may accidentally press buttons if you lean against the appliance, and young children may like to push the buttons, as well. (Many front-control dishwashers include a control lock to mitigate these issues, however.)
    Top-control dishwashers, on the other hand, have a more sleek appearance and won’t accidentally be turned on, but you won’t be able to monitor the appliance progress during the cycle.
  • Noise Level: Does it drive you crazy when your dishwasher is too loud? If so, you’ll definitely want to consider the noise level of your new appliance.
    The noise a dishwasher makes is measured in decibel A-weighting, abbreviated dBA, which can make it tricky to gauge just how loud or quiet the machine is. After all, most people don’t know what 50 dBA sounds like offhand.
    In general, the quietest dishwashers available are around 38 dBA, while a standard dishwasher operates between 45 and 60 dBA. In general, experts agree you won’t be bothered by a dishwasher that operates at 44 dBA or lower, so don’t get too caught up on finding a model that’s in the 30-dBA range. On the other end of the spectrum, a dishwasher that’s above 50 dBA will likely be loud enough to interfere with conversation, so keep this in mind if you tend to socialize in the kitchen.
  • Efficiency: Many appliances today are designed to use less energy—you’re probably familiar with the Energy Star program, which can help you find more eco-friendly appliance options. When it comes to energy efficiency in dishwashers, what does this label actually mean?
    There are a few features that make a dishwasher energy efficient. For one, some have a soil sensor that can adjust the amount of water used and the cycle length based on what’s actually necessary, helping to save water and electricity. Further, some machines have half-load or eco-wash cycles for those times when you don’t have a full dishwasher. Finally, many appliances have a drying option that doesn’t use any heat, which can save energy.
  • Exterior: Once you’ve made all these decisions about the technical details of your machine, the final piece to consider is the exterior of the appliance. Modern dishwashers come in a variety of finishes, including black, white, bisque, and the ever-popular stainless steel. If you want a more seamless finish, there are also custom-panel dishwashers, which have an unfinished door, allowing you to attach a cabinet panel, so everything can blend in seamlessly together.
    Finally, you’ll want to think about whether you want the dishwasher to have a handle. Many models simply have a recessed or pocket handle, which makes it easier to clean, but dishwashers with bar handles can be a bit easier to grip and open.

What Is the Best Type of DIshwasher for Me?

In addition to all these various features, there are also several different types of dishwashers to choose from. These models vary in terms of size, style, and installation requirements, so choose the one that’s best for you.

Built-in

kitchenaid-dishwasher
Courtesy of Home Depot

Built-in dishwashers are the most common type appliance, and as the name suggests, these models must be installed in your kitchen. They generally fit underneath your kitchen counter, and if you’re not handy, you may need to pay a professional to complete the installation.

Built-in dishwashers come in a variety of styles, including top-control, front-control, third rack, and more. Because there are so many variations of built-in dishwashers, they range in price from around $300 to upward of $1,500.

Drawer

fisher-paykel-dishwasher
Courtesy of Lowe's

Dishwasher drawers are a less common but increasingly popular style. This type of dishwasher comes in either single or double drawer styles, and while they are typically pricey, they offer several benefits that homeowners love.

For one, dishwasher drawers are a great solution for smaller kitchens, as they’re usually 24 or 36 inches wide and just 19 inches tall. Plus, you can stack two on top of each other for additional space. Even if you do have two drawers, you can operate them separately, which saves both water and energy. Plus, their doors are smaller than those of a traditional dishwasher, which can help save space in a tight kitchen.

The downside of dishwasher drawers is that they’re not as tall as standard dishwashers, making it challenging to wash large platters. Plus, they’re generally pricey, costing around $700 for one drawer and upward of $1,200 for double drawers.

Front Control

bosch-ascenta-dishwasher
Courtesy of Home Depot

Dishwashers are often categorized by the placement of their control panels. Those with front controls provide easy access to the buttons, allowing you to pause or monitor the cycle with ease. However, the downside is they might get turned on more easily, whether by being bumped or by curious little kids.

Budget-friendly front-control dishwashers can cost as little as $300, while more high-end models with extra features may reach $1,000.

Top Control

whirpool-dishwasher
Courtesy of Lowe's

The other common style is top-control or integrated dishwashers, which have their controls hidden on top of the door. Some people prefer the streamlined look of this type of appliance, and it’s also a good choice for those with small children, as little ones will have a harder time accessing the buttons.

The downside of top-control dishwashers is that you can’t monitor the cycle, and this style is typically more expensive, costing $700 or more.

Portable

whirlpool-portable-dishwasher
Courtesy of Best Buy

No room for a built-in dishwasher? Then you might be interested in a portable dishwasher, which you can simply hook up to a faucet to run.

Portable models are popular for apartments and RVs, and they typically measure either 24 or 18 inches wide, giving you roughly the same space as a traditional dishwasher. Most are mounted on wheels so they’re easy to move, allowing you to stash them away in a closet when not in use. When you do need to wash dishes, simply wheel the appliance out and hook it up to the sink faucet—no complex installation required.

Portable dishwashers typically start at around $400, but can cost up to $800, depending on the make and model.

Countertop

spt-dishwasher
Courtesy of Home Depot

If you’re really pressed for space or simply don’t generate that many dirty dishes, a countertop dishwasher might be the perfect solution for you. As you may have guessed, these appliances are incredibly compact and designed to be placed on your kitchen counter.

These appliances are typically the size of a microwave, ranging from 18 to 22 inches in depth, height, and length. They typically have one rack that can hold around six place settings, making them a great option for two-person households. Like portable dishwashers, they hook up to your kitchen sink to run, so no complex installation is necessary.

Countertop dishwashers are generally in the $200-$300 range, making them an affordable option for those who have a small kitchen.

Leading Manufacturers

Certain dishwasher brands are known for their performance and reliability—always a plus. Keep an eye out for these manufacturers while you shop.

Bosch: This European brand makes a wide variety of dishwashers, including both simple and high-tech models. In addition to being reliable, Bosch dishwashers are typically very quiet, operating in the 40 dBA range.

GE: GE is a popular appliance brand that you’ll be able to find at most home improvement retailers. Their dishwashers are known to be a solid choice and affordable, making them a popular choice for many homeowners.

Whirlpool: The Whirlpool Corporation not only makes Whirlpool dishwashers but those labeled as KitchenAid and Maytag, as well. Whirlpool products are known for being well-made, making them a solid investment.

Kenmore: Kenmore has three different lines of dishwashers—Kenmore, Kenmore Elite, and Kenmore Pro—that you’ll only find at Sears. These appliances range from budget options to more high-end models and are typically considered good machines.

Frigidaire: Frigidaire makes a variety of appliances, dishwashers included. While their products are often on the less expensive side, they’re not known to be the most reliable or well-performing dishwashers.

Miele: If you’re looking for a high-end dishwasher, European brand Miele is a good option. While not cheap, these appliances have a stellar reputation for dependability and performance.

Fisher & Paykel: If you’re interested in a dishwasher drawer, Fisher & Paykel specializes in this style. Their DishDrawer line is known perform well, and their dishwashers come in a variety of modern finishes.

Warranties

When you purchase a new dishwasher, it will probably come with a manufacturer's warranty that will cover the appliance anywhere from a few months to a couple years. You’ll likely also be offered the option to purchase an extended warranty, as well.

People have dissenting opinions on whether extended warranties are worth the additional costs. Some experts say to skip the extended warranty, as there’s a lot of fine print involved and brands often deny coverage on certain parts of the appliance or if they deem you didn’t conduct proper preventive maintenance. Instead, they recommend you just put that money aside to cover repairs out-of-pocket.

However, if you’re purchasing a more high-end appliance that costs close to $1,000, it may be worthwhile to spring for the additional coverage, as the parts for these machines are typically quite expensive.