Why Won’t My Dishwasher Clean My Dishes?

By Lyle Weischwill | Aug. 10, 2022 7:02 am PST

If you open the dishwasher door after a cycle finishes and still see dirty dishes, don’t stress. You may not need to buy a new machine or start washing dishes by hand.

First, check some basic issues that can inhibit cleaning. Make sure the dishwasher isn’t overloaded. Without enough space between items, the soapy water won’t be able to move freely. Loading the dishes correctly helps the dishwasher clean them better.

Here’s a video that offers loading tips and other troubleshooting advice to help you when you find dirty dishes after the dishwashing cycle ends:

Dishwasher Loading Tips

Follow these loading tips to avoid cleaning problems:

  • Angle heavily soiled dish surfaces downward and leave enough room between dishes to allow water to reach all sides.
  • Make sure that spray arms spin freely after loading the dishwasher.
  • Don’t block the detergent dispenser lid when loading dishes.

Select the Right Cycle and Settings

After loading the dishes, select the correct cycle for the type of dishes that you’re washing.

  • A quick or normal wash cycle cleans most dishes well, but that cycle won’t clean dirty pots and pans. Choose a heavy wash or a pots and pans cycle to clean the really dirty cookware.
  • If your dishwasher has a high-temperature setting, choose it for better cleaning. The dishwasher heats the water to higher temperatures, and the hotter water melts grease off dishes better. And the hotter water also dissolves detergent better, improving cleaning performance.
  • Refer to your owner’s manual for information about the specific cycles and options on your dishwasher.

Check the Dishwasher Filters

Clogged filters interfere with water flow and cause poor cleaning.

  • Remove and inspect your dishwasher filters monthly.
  • Clean the filters by holding them under running tap water in your kitchen sink. Remove dirt or hard water deposits using a soft bristle brush if necessary. Scrub the filters whenever you see soil or residue building up on the screens.
  • Wash the filters if dishes feel gritty or you see food particles on dishes after the cycle finishes.
  • Dishwashers have various types of filters, so check your owner’s manual for more advice about cleaning the filters in your model.

Check the Dishwasher Spray Arms

Dishes won’t get clean if the dishwasher can’t spray them thoroughly with water.

  1. Check the spray arms for cracks or damage. A cracked spray arm won’t rotate and spray correctly. Replace the spray arm if it’s damaged.
  2. If the spray arm isn’t cracked, check the spray arms for clogged openings. Hard water deposits and food debris can clog these holes. Clear the holes with toothpicks or a bamboo skewer.
  3. For severe clogs, remove the spray arms following the instructions in the owner’s manual and clean them in the sink. Use a toothbrush and a bamboo skewer to remove the clogs. Soak the spray arms in white vinegar to help remove hard water deposits, if necessary. Rinse the spray arms thoroughly and reinstall them.

If hard water deposits frequently block the spray arm holes, use Dishwasher Magic or Affresh Dishwasher Cleaner to clean the dishwasher monthly.

Check the Dishwasher Water Level

If the spray arms aren’t cracked or clogged, the next thing to check is the water level to make sure there’s enough water to clean the dishes. Here’s how to check the water level in your dishwasher.

  1. Start a cycle with the dishwasher empty and allow the dishwasher to fill with water – which should take about 2 minutes. When you hear the water stop filling or the pump start running, you know the dishwasher is finished filling.
  2. Open the dishwasher door slightly to stop the cycle. When the cycle stops, open the door fully and check the water level in the tub. The water level should be close to the bottom of the mushroom-shaped float.
  3. If water level is far below the float or you don’t see any water at all, you’ve likely found the reason why your dishes aren’t getting clean.

Check out this video to see troubleshooting tips for a fill problem in your dishwasher.

Measure Dishwasher Water Temperature

In addition to checking the water level, check the temperature of the water coming into the dishwasher. The water must be 120 degrees to clean efficiently, regardless of which cycle and option you select—even if you use the high-temperature cycle.

Follow these steps to check the temperature of water going to your dishwasher:

  1. Run the hot water from your kitchen sink faucet for 1 minute.
  2. Fill a glass with the hot tap water.
  3. Measure the water temperature in the glass using a cooking thermometer.

If the temperature is less than 120 degrees, carefully increase the temperature setting on your water heater. Only make small, incremental increases in your water heater setting and don’t set the water heater temperature above 120 degrees to avoid scalding when using the hot water in the bath or shower.

Check for Problems With the Detergent and Dispenser

Problems with detergent or the dishwasher dispenser can lead to poor cleaning.

If the lid to the detergent dispenser lid is still closed after you run the dishwasher, watch this video and follow the troubleshooting tips to resolve that problem.

Next, check the condition of your detergent. Old or stale dishwashing powder like this won’t clean your dishes well because the detergent loses effectiveness and may leave gritty deposits on your dishes. It doesn’t take long for powdered detergent to age if you store it under the damp sink. Store powdered detergent in an upper cabinet where it stays dry and lasts longer. Toss out old, clumpy detergent and use only fresh, dry detergent for the best dishwashing results.

In addition to using fresh detergent, it’s important to use the right amount of detergent based on your water supply’s hardness and the dirtiness of your dishes. If you don’t know the hardness of your water, contact your local water supplier or look up your water hardness online. If you want to check the water hardness yourself, you can use a test strip.

Once you know the water hardness, follow the directions in your owner’s manual to fill the dispenser with the right amount of detergent.

Use Rinse Aid

Always use rinse aid in your dishwasher. Rinse aid reduces spots, which can make dishes look dirty. Even if you use detergent tablets or pods that include rinse aid, you should still use rinse aid. The rinse aid dispenser in your dishwasher dispenses the right amount of rinse aid during the final rinse cycle so your dishes turn out spotless. Pods and tablets may not release the rinse aid at the right time. Many rinse aid dispensers also have a setting that you should set based on your water hardness. Check your owner’s manual and set the rinse aid dispenser in your dishwasher to the proper level based on your water hardness.

If your dishwasher still isn’t cleaning the dishes after following these troubleshooting tips, schedule a Sears Technician to visit your home and resolve the problem.

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