A dishwasher is one of things you take for granted, right up until the moment it breaks. That’s when you realize that you used your dishwasher just about every day and can barely live without the thing.
And since it’s likely been 5-10 years since the last dishwasher purchase, most people have no idea how to buy a dishwasher in the current market.
Prices have shifted dramatically (in the consumer’s favor), new cycles and options are introduced, and major selling points are much less applicable today than they were even 5 years ago (see “The Noise Myth,” below).
“Which cycles are necessary? What kind of noise level is acceptable? How much do dishwashers cost these days? And what can I get away with spending if all I need is a plain box that gets my dishes clean?”
If you’re mulling over these types of questions as you try to pick, don’t worry – you’re not alone. We’re going to tell you how to buy a dishwasher the smart way.
(Previously, we ranked the best dishwashers between $300-$600 as well as those above the $600 mark. Both are great companion lists to this article – you can mark off the features you need, and then look for them in the products highlighted in our “Best Of” lists.)
Here’s how to choose a dishwasher that has everything you want, and nothing you don’t.
The Noise Myth
90% of shoppers start with the same two questions when trying to choose a dishwasher:
- Can it clean dishes?
- Is it quiet?
With regards to the second question, I want to share this noise level chart. 70 decibels is the baseline by which other noise is measured, but it’s important to know that decibel ratings are not a linear measurement. For every 10dB you move in either direction, detectable volume is either halved (60dB) or doubled (80dB).
Conveniently, the chart lists the average dishwasher as operating at 70dB. So a 60dB dishwasher would make half the noise, 50db a quarter of the noise, 40db an eighth of the noise…and so on.
So what’s “The Noise Myth?” It isn’t that quietness doesn’t matter — it’s that technology has advanced such that almost all dishwashers fall within a range that are reasonably quiet to the human ear. Even the least expensive dishwasher featured on our year-end “Best Of” list (you already opened that list, right?) comes in at 62dB, or the volume of a normal face-to-face conversation.
There are certainly differences in operational volume between dishwashers. And brands like Bosch, who market their reputation around quietness, do make whisper-quiet dishwashers that barely make a sound when the cycle is running.
But the point here is that every dishwasher is pretty quiet to begin with and noise level is not the premium feature it once was. When that chart was published 3 years ago, 70dB was a standard operational volume for dishwashers. Now, an entry-level option makes nearly half the noise.
How To Buy a Dishwasher Like the Pros – Just Ask These Questions…
1. Filter or Disposal?
Dishwashers employ two different methods to dispose of the soil cleaned off your dishes.
Filter traps don’t add to the operational noise of the dishwasher, but must be manually emptied every month or so.
Hard food disposals grind up food waste automatically, which creates extra noise. The upside is that a disposal requires no extra maintenance – it doesn’t need to be emptied.
Most brands produce plenty of options with both filters and disposers to choose from, so this won’t narrow your choices at all. Just decide whether quiet or convenience is more important to you, then pick a dishwasher filter type accordingly.
2. Plastic or Stainless Steel Tub?
Plastic is porous and will absorb stains and bad smells over time. To counteract this, you can run an empty load with a simple white vinegar mix to clean the tub. Stainless steel requires less regular maintenance (though it can still streak and discolor in the long term).
Another advantage of a stainless steel dishwasher tub is that it can withstand higher heat levels, and as a result is essential in dishwashers with a 160° sanitize cycle.
Stainless steel is more expensive.
3. How many options / cycles?
At a bare minimum, dishwashers feature 2-4 of the most standard cycles: Light, Normal, Heavy and Auto (which auto-senses dish soil and adjusts water usage accordingly).
Most people don’t need anything beyond that, but of course there are several more cycles and options designed to make life easier:
- Sanitize: A higher-heat option that sanitizes your dishes. This is especially great for baby bottles and other bacteria-laden items if you have kids.
- Quick Wash: For when you need to run a quick cycle before the next meal.
- China / Delicate: Light spray pressure and a not-too-hot drying cycle will protect any delicate items you own.
- Rinse & Hold: Rinse dirty dishes and hold them in the rack so you can run a full load later. Great for small households or people who travel frequently – you can rinse dishes so food doesn’t stick, then run the load whenever the dishwasher is full.
- Delay Wash: Postpone the start of a cycle until you are sleeping or out of the house. In some states, energy is less expensive in off-peak hours, so the delay wash can actually be a money-saving option.
- Half Load: Focuses on just cleaning the top or bottom rack. Load just one rack and run the half load option to conserve water.
There are plenty of appealing options, and the more you want, the more expensive your dishwasher will be. For that reason, we recommend thinking long and hard about whether you really need those extra cycles.
Do you live in a house with 4 kids and run your dishwasher multiple times a day? You will never use the Half Load cycle – buy a dishwasher without it and save a little money.
4. How much capacity do you need?
Your capacity needs relate to your household size, but also take lifestyle considerations into account. If 80% of your job is travel, or you eat a lot of takeout and don’t use dishes frequently, a large-capacity dishwasher will actually be counter-productive. If it takes too long to fill your dishwasher, food will cake onto those dishes, making them harder to clean. (Though the Rinse & Hold cycle is designed to prevent against this.)
Also look out for features that make your dishwasher more versatile. Two popular features: an adjustable upper rack (to make room for tall-stemmed glasses) as well as a top third rack for flatware.
5. What’s your budget?
There’s only one question left to explore: Which features are available within your price range?
To give you an idea, here is a selection of our most popular dishwasher models covering the whole price spectrum:
Amana ADB1400PYS – $379
- 59 dBA operation
- Plastic tub
- Cycles / Options: Light, Normal, 4 hour delay start, high heat option, 1 Hour Wash
Bosch SHE3ARL2UC – $549
- 50 dBA operation
- Hybrid plastic / stainless steel tub
- Cycles / options: Light, Normal, Auto, Regular, Power Scrub, 30 Minute Express Wash, Half Load, 3 / 6 / 9 hour Delay Start
Asko D5424XLS – $999
- 50 dBA operation
- Stainless Steel Tub
- 14 place setting capacity
- 7 options: Daily Wash, Heavy Wash, Normal Wash, Quick Wash, Eco, Rinse & Hold, Super Quick (15 min)
Continue Your Research
By the time you answer these questions, you should have a pretty great idea about which dishwasher models are within reach. Still have more research to do? Take a look at our free dishwasher buying guide, a handy reference sheet outlining the choices you will make as you choose a dishwasher. It also contains links to our most popular dishwasher models, so you can get an idea of where different features fall in the price spectrum.