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How Does a Dishwasher Work?

June 12, 2024

How does a dishwasher work? How do these intricate machines clean and dry our dishes? What are the different components involved?

Keep reading for all the answers and more!

The History of Dishwashers

The dishwasher started as a hand-cranked machine in the mid-19th century.

It wasn’t until the 1880s that Josephine Cochrane, a woman ahead of her time, unveiled a truly functional dishwasher, proving that innovation in the service of daily chores was not only possible but revolutionary.

As the 20th century rolled around, electric motors and post-war prosperity turned the dishwasher from a luxury into a household staple.

By the 1970s, the dishwasher had cemented its place in homes across North America and Western Europe, transforming kitchen routines and liberating generations from the sink.

The Dishwasher’s Key Components

how does a dishwasher workSeveral components are hidden inside the dishwasher door, all of which work together to keep your dishes clean. These include the:

  • Heating element

  • Spray arms

  • Detergent dispenser

  • Water inlet valve

  • Filtration system

And for those who are wondering, they are not bad for your home’s waste system.

Heating Element

The heating element is nestled at the bottom of the dishwasher and is the cornerstone of both cleaning and drying.

It’s not just about making the dishwasher tub warm; it’s about ramping up the water temperature to that sweet spot where food particles loosen their grip and dishwasher detergent can perform its best. Not only that but hot water dissolves grease as well.

As your dishwasher runs, the heating element is hard at work, transforming cold water from your kitchen faucet into a hot water bath that dissolves the day’s meals off your plates.

But the heating element’s job isn’t over after the wash cycle.

When the time comes to dry, it switches gears, creating a cozy, warm environment that helps water droplets on your dishes vanish into thin air.

It’s this dynamic duo of washing and drying that ensures your dishes emerge not just clean, but also ready to be tucked away in your cupboards.

Spray Arms

spray armsHave you ever opened your dishwasher mid-cycle just to be greeted by a burst of water? That’s the spray arm in action.

It’s positioned strategically within your dishwasher and features a plethora of tiny holes, each of which is a gateway for high-pressure water jets that ensure every corner of your dishes gets a thorough clean.

As the arms spin, propelled by the force of the water, they ensure that no dish is left behind — from the top rack’s wine glasses to the bottom rack’s caked-on casserole dishes.

Detergent Dispenser

A modern dishwasher has a detergent dispenser that’s responsible for releasing enzymes and water softeners into the fray.

With pods and tablets, the dispenser ensures the right amount of cleaning agent is used, avoiding waste and ensuring efficiency.

Water Inlet Valve

The water inlet valve plays a crucial supporting role when it comes to your dishwasher’s performance. Located behind the lower front panel, it controls the flow of water into the dishwasher tub.

When the dishwasher cycle calls for action, the inlet valve heeds the electronic signals, opening up to let just the right amount of water in.

It’s a balancing act that ensures every cycle runs smoothly, from the initial rinse to the final wash. The circulation pump also plays a vital role in this process.

Filtration System

The filtration system is responsible for keeping the wash water free of food particles and debris.

As the dishwasher runs, the filter is on high alert, capturing food particles and ensuring they don’t make their way back to your freshly cleaned dishes.

By sifting out unwanted debris, it also guarantees that the water spraying over your dishes is as clean as it gets.

The Dishwashing Process: Step-by-Step

Let’s walk through the dishwashing process, which includes the pre-wash/rinse, main wash, final rinse, and dry cycle — to truly grasp what happens inside a dishwasher when dealing with dirty dishes.


This initial splash of warm water helps to loosen up any loose food particles and sets the stage for the thorough cleanse to come. Some wash systems even go the extra mile, dispensing a small dose of detergent during this phase to start breaking down the tougher grime.

By ensuring that the loose soil is dealt with early on, the main wash can focus on the more stubborn stains, making the entire process more effective and leaving your dishes not just washed, but truly clean.

Main Wash

dishwashing processAs the heating element cranks up the temperature, the detergent dispenser springs into action, releasing cleaning agents into the hot water.

The heat then activates the dishwasher detergent, which teams up with the spray arms to clean your dishes.

During this phase, water is collected, filtered, and reheated, then sent back to the spray arms for another round with your dishes.

Final Rinse

During the final rinse cycle, hot water is swept through the machine to remove any lingering suds and detergent residue.

The final rinse is crucial because it ensures that nothing but cleanliness awaits your dishes as they head into the drying stage.

Dry Cycle

The dry cycle is where the heating element takes center stage once again, but this time it’s all about the air. As the temperature rises, water droplets are coaxed into evaporation, leaving your dishes dry and clean.

If necessary, you can also skip the dry option and let your dishes air dry instead.

Energy Efficiency and Water Usage

Today’s dishwashers, especially those with ENERGY STAR ratings, are highly efficient and use as little as 3 gallons of water per load — a stark contrast to the 27 gallons that handwashing can demand.

Remember, this isn’t just about saving on your water bill; it’s about making a sustainable choice that conserves our resources and also makes our other appliances such as the garbage disposal more efficient.

Advanced Features and Innovations

advanced features and innovationsAs if clean dishes at the push of a button weren’t enough, the dishwasher world has also been swept up in a wave of smart technology and innovations.

Imagine a dishwasher that not only cleans but is also intelligent enough to suggest the perfect cycle for your particular load or one that can troubleshoot itself and let you know when it’s time for a detergent refill.

These modern dishwashers offer a range of smart features, including:

  • Control with a tap on your smartphone

  • Adjusting settings and monitoring cycles from anywhere

  • New drying technologies like zeolite systems and automatic door-opening features

Tips for Optimal Dishwasher Performance

Knowing how your dishwasher works is one thing, but ensuring it performs at its peak is another.

For starters, you want to load your dishes correctly – plates angled for the best spray exposure, cups upside down, and plasticware secure.

And don’t forget the rinse aid; it’s the difference between dishes that sparkle and those that don’t quite shine.

Overcrowding is a big no-no. It’s tempting to cram in just one more bowl, but resist the urge. Keep the spray arms free to do their thing, and you’ll avoid the disappointment of dishes that need a second go-round.

Dishwasher Types and Sizes

There are many dishwasher models to choose from when it comes to washing dishes.

From the sleek integration of top control models to the convenience of portable units, there’s a dishwasher out there for every home.

And it’s not just about width – there are also compact options for cozy kitchens, and oversized machines for those with a never-ending stream of dishes.

Understanding the Dishwasher Cycle

understanding dishwasher cycleFrom understanding key components like the heating element and spray arms to exploring the innovative features of smart dishwashers, we’ve gone through all that happens inside a dishwasher.

We’ve seen how modern dishwashers save water and energy, learned tips for optimal performance, and looked at the different types available as well.

So the next time you run your dishwasher, you’ll know exactly what’s happening inside the closed door!

Key Takeaways

  • The main components include the heating element, spray arms, detergent dispenser, water inlet valve, and filtration system, all of which work together to ensure that dishes come out clean and dry

  • The dishwashing process involves a pre-wash/rinse, a main wash with water recirculation, a final rinse to remove detergent residue, and a dry cycle where a heating element helps evaporate the remaining water

  • Modern dishwashers are energy and water-efficient, with some using as little as 3 gallons per load and offering advanced features like smart technology and innovative drying systems.

How does a Dishwasher Wash Cycle Work – FAQs

How does a dishwasher work step by step?

A dishwasher works by heating water, distributing detergent, washing with spray arms, draining dirty water, rinsing, and then drying the dishes using residual heat.

Does a dishwasher fill up with water?

Yes, dishwashers fill up with hot water once you load the dishes and select a cycle.

Can I use regular dish soap in my dishwasher instead of dishwasher detergent?

No, you shouldn’t use regular dish soap in your dishwasher – it will create too many suds, causing a mess and potentially damaging your appliance. Stick to using dishwasher-specific detergents for best results.

How does a dishwasher dry dishes without leaving spots or streaks?

Many modern dishwashers use rinse aid dispensers and advanced drying systems to prevent water spots and streaks, ensuring dishes come out dry with a spot-free finish.


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Picture of Ethan Clarke

Ethan Clarke

Ethan Clarke is a seasoned expert in appliances and household waste systems. Referencing his extensive experience as an appliance repairman, Ethan shares his invaluable knowledge through detailed maintenance & troubleshooting manuals. Ethan’s insights help homeowners understand and maintain their appliances efficiently, ensuring longevity and optimal performance. He’s here to provide practical, easy-to-follow advice for all your appliance needs.

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