The Best Dishwasher
The best dishwasher is the one that gets your plates, pots and spoons cleaned as quickly and quietly as possible, using the least amount of water and electricity. Because it provides the best balance of price, performance and features, our pick is the Kenmore Elite 12763, which is currently priced around $750 and offers excellent, speedy cleaning of dishes, whether they have been lightly used or heavily baked on. A built-in soil sensor means that it doesn’t wash any longer than it needs to, and the Turbo wash feature means it can handle the baked-on remains of your last lasagna.
Choosing the right dishwasher
Our pick may not always be available, though, so here are our tips for picking the right model for you from the hundreds of options. Dishwashers range from small portable models for use in an RV to huge models that could wash a small car. In this article, we have focused on the models that are designed to be permanently installed under a kitchen counter that can hold a couple of days worth of dishes.
The prices range from about $300 for a basic, no-frills model up to $1,800 for a sophisticated designer model. At the low end, you get basic models with a plastic tub (the internal enclosure that keeps the water in) and two simple dish racks. When you go up in price, you start adding features such as a quieter stainless steel tub, third racks for cutlery and special water jets that blast baked-on food from dishes. At the very high end, you get models that can wash just one rack of dishes (so you don’t have to run the entire dishwasher for half a load) and which include soil sensors to detect when the dishes are clean. Like most home appliances, the top end of models are where the latest features appear, such as steam, super energy efficiency and internal mountings that make them whisper-quiet.
The sweet spot for the best balance of price and features is just under $1,000. For this, you get a dishwasher that is quiet, has features that you need (such as accelerated wash, stainless steel drum and soil sensors) and has good economy. Spend less and you get a washer that may be noisy, less efficient and doesn’t perform well. Spend more and you are adding features that don’t add much to how well the dishwasher does, such as steam.
Features you do need
A soil sensor measures the amount of dirt in the water as it comes off the dishes, which means the dishwasher can tell when the dishes are clean. Consumer Reports says that these sometimes extend the wash, but more recent models have ironed out the bugs and this feature can save water and energy on a lightly-soiled load.
The tub of a dishwasher is the enclosure that holds the water in. A stainless steel tub is preferable over a plastic one, as it is stronger and quieter.
Some dishes need more washing than others, so extra wash features such as dedicated zones for pans, extra water jets and washing arms that enhance the washing process are a definite plus. The way these work and the name differs (with names like ProWash and ProScrub from KitchenAid and TurboZone from Kenmore), but the ability to wash some dishes more than others is well worth looking for.
Dishwashers often come with a range of washing cycles, from a quick wash to a heavy wash for pots and pans. Having a range of options is good, but you don’t need more than 3 wash cycles: a quick wash, a normal cycle and a heavy-duty cycle for very heavily-stained dishes. That should cover every type of dish you are likely to need to wash. “Most customers will get by with three.” says Keith Barry of Reviewed.com. “Most importantly, there’s a “normal” cycle that’s usually sensor-operated, and balances cleaning power and efficiency. It’s best for the usual after-dinner wash for regularly-soiled plates. A Heavy Duty cycle is best for blasting off all dirt and grime regardless of how long it takes or how much water it uses. And a Quick cycle should be there for washing lightly soiled dishes when you run out of clean ones during a party”. Larry Ciufo of Consumer Reports agrees: “A dishwasher should have at least 3 cycles, Normal, Heavy and delicate. The normal would be for everyday use, heavy for tough baked on foods or pots and pans, and the delicate for wine glasses or other items like that.”
If you don’t have a full dishwasher load but need clean dishes, a half load wash feature allows you to wash a single rack of dishes, saving water and energy compared to a full wash.
Features you don’t need
Some dishwashers offer a sterilization cycle that uses very hot water to kill germs, but this comes at the cost of high energy use to heat the wash water to near boiling. A more efficient way is to use a dedicated sterilizing device (for baby bottles) or to wash the dishes that need sterilizing in a Hydrogen Peroxide solution. Some doctors also feel that this is no longer required for infants.
Some models offer a filter grinder or waste disposal that filters the food from the water, then grinds it up and ejects it with the waste water. While this does mean you never need to clean the filter, it adds to the list of things that can go wrong and can often make the dishwasher noisier.
Steam is the latest feature on dishwashers, with some manufacturers claiming that a blast of steam helps shift dirt from dishes. Larry Ciufo of Consumer Reports disagrees. “We have tested steam cycles and there is not a big difference in cleaning. Not a worthwhile feature in my opinion.”
Noise is annoying
All of that sloshing water can make for a lot of noise. Some cheap models that we have heard sound like a teenage pool party when the parents get home: an awful lot of sloshing, clanking and trying to escape. This is especially true of cheaper models’ plastic drums, which transmit the roar of the water jets and have poorly isolated water pumps. More expensive models go for a stainless steel drum, which, when well isolated, transmits less sound. They also use quieter pumps, mountings and sound dampening that keep the noise contained.
So how do you tell how noisy a dishwasher is going to be? All of them come with a noise rating in decibels, produced by the manufacturer that provides some guidance: the lower this number, the quieter the washer. These numbers typically range from about 39 dBA (which Bosch claims for their 800 Plus models) up to 57 dBA for a cheap unit, such as the $319 Kenmore 15112. Our pick, the Kenmore Elite, is rated at 45 dBA, and this is about the loudest we would recommend; anything above this is more likely to become a source of irritation over time.
Decibels are tricky, though; a small difference in a dBA number can make a lot of difference in how noisy something sounds. This is only a general indicator, though; they are tested under ideal conditions, and factors in your home (such as wooden floors or metal beams) will affect the final noise level.
You should factor noise into your final decision, but how much depends on you: a noisier but more efficient model may be fine if you run it overnight. Conversely, those that wash dishes during the day or have to sleep somewhere nearby will value a quiet dishwasher much more. However, the noise level can also be dependent on the way the dishwasher is installed. If the sound-dampening coating is damaged or the washer is incorrectly installed, sound can leak out.
Ease of Loading is Paramount
The two most important features of a dishwasher: how easy it is to load the dishes up and how much you can load into it while still getting clean dishes. To judge the first, check the models out in the store and see how easy it is to open the door, pull out the racks and clean the filters. The loading can be difficult to judge, as it is not just a question of space: it has to do with the arrangement of the tines in the racks and the spaces between them. Reviewed.com scores dishwashers by the number of placeholdings they could hold (composed of a set of standard dishes; most manage 10 to 12), while Consumer Reports factors it into their ease of use score.
The best dishwasher in the world won’t be any use if you don’t load it properly, as poor loading doesn’t allow the water to get to the dishes and do the cleaning. The best guide to loading a dishwasher that we have found is here.
Contrary to popular belief, modern dishwashers use less water than hand washing. A typical dishwasher uses between 3 and 5 gallons of water for a wash, which is much less than you would use to fill the sink. Colin Dunn of Treehugger cites research that shows, when compared to hand washing, “the dishwasher uses only half the energy, one-sixth of the water, and less soap, to boot.” He does point out, however, that this only applies if the dishwasher is full; all bets are off if you are just washing a single cup. Dishwashers win because they recycle the water; after it has been used to wash, it is filtered then recirculated to wash again.
The EnergyGuide label does include the cost of water, but the standard assumes that this water costs about $4.50 per 1,000 gallons. That’s a rather outdated number: current water costs are much higher than this, with some areas charging over $8 per 1,000 gallons. With this cost rising all the time, it makes sense to get a dishwasher that uses the least amount of water possible, so check the reviews to see how much water is used.
Controls: top or front?
There are two approaches to where to put the controls on a dishwasher: on the front or on the top of the door. Older users and those who like to see how the wash is going will prefer the larger, more obvious controls on the front, along with the indicators that show the chosen options and wash progress. Those who value a clean-looking kitchen will prefer a top control model, where the controls are located on the top edge of the door, out of sight and out of mind when the door is closed. The downside of this is that the controls are smaller, and you can’t tell how the wash is going or how long it has to run. Some models do include ways to give some indication, though; the KitchenAid KUDE48FXSS uses a small LED light on the door front that changes color for the washing stage: blue for washing, red for drying, green for done).
Some models also offer the ability to tie in with your kitchen decor by allowing you to attach a decorative panel to the front. This feature (usually called panel ready) allows you to effectively hide the dishwasher by covering it with a panel that matches your kitchen cabinets: a great feature if you are looking to create a rustic country kitchen look without having to do your own washing up like real country folk.
Unfortunately, dishwashers are often a pain to install, as they have to fit tightly into a small space, so the best option is often to get the professionals to do it. “It depends on your comfort level with installation and how much your time and money are worth to you,” says Keith Barry of Reviewed.com, who used to work as an appliance salesman at Sears. Larry Ciufo, Senior Project Leader at Consumer Reports thinks that most handy people could replace a dishwasher, but installing one from scratch is for the pros. “Dishwashers are not too hard for a skilled DIY’er to install particularly when replacing an existing model. Professional installation is best for a new install to make the needed water, drain and electrical connections.” If you want to do it yourself, This Old House offers a good guide.
How We Chose Our Pick
We looked at the range of products available at a number of major retailers to judge the range of products on offer. There are a lot: Sears lists 282 installable dishwashers. To filter this down, we looked at a huge range of models in stores and the reviews in a number of leading publications, looking at how they judge their picks and talking to the reviewers and writers to get more information. In addition, I built the testing used on dishwashers at Reviewed.com (one of the leading publications that tests consumer products), so I know what makes a good washing machine: performance, ease of use, price, economy and features. We also checked the other great appliance-reviewing publication, Consumer Reports.
From this long list, we picked out the dishwashers that did a good job of washing dishes without using too much energy or water. We eliminated those that made too much noise, missed spots on dishes or, according to the reviewers, had other performance issues. We then looked at the price to see which offered best features for the price, looking at the extra features we discussed above, and judging if they offer real value for money. This isn’t the same as picking the cheapest—we think that it is worth spending more if the extra cash gets you performance that is worth it. But it has to be worth it: a new feature is only worth paying for if it really makes the job of washing dishes easier, faster or better.
Our pick is the Kenmore Elite 12763, a ~$750 dishwasher that offers an excellent balance of price and performance, with enough extra useful features that make it a good value. It’s number 3 in Consumer Reports‘ dishwasher chart (coming in behind two more expensive Kenmore models), earning their recommended stamp. They declared that this model offers “Top-notch washing paired with stellar energy and water efficiency” and gave it an excellent rating for washing performance, energy use and noise.
In particular, they praised the performance of the rear-facing water jets that help remove stubborn stains from pots and pans. These are a fairly common feature, but this is one of the cheapest models to offer it. They found that the normal cycle takes 145 minutes and uses a very moderate 5 gallons of water, which puts it among the more efficient dishwashers.
Kenmore rates the 12763 as having a noise level of 48 dBA, which is much quieter than many others. Consumer Reports found that this was “among the quietest models during fill, wash, and drain” parts of the washing cycle. A quiet dishwasher is vital if the kitchen is the social center of your house: nobody wants to share a kitchen with a noisy dishwasher.
This model also includes a soil sensor that checks the amount of dirt in the wash water, so it can stop the wash early if the dishes are clean. This dirt is then captured in a filter that has to be manually removed and cleaned occasionally. This does mean more work than those that include a grinder to automatically remove the dirt, but it is quieter.
Consumer Reports is the only professional review site to have tested this model, but we are happy to recommend it on this basis, given their excellent testing reputation. We do expect other sites will review it soon. “We haven’t yet tested the 12763, but are very excited to do so” says Keith Barry of Reviewed.com.
The Kenmore Elite brand also ranked higher than most in customer satisfaction, according to JD Power and Associates. Bosch was the overall winner (with a score of 801), but Kenmore Elite was close behind with a score of 793.
Kenmore also offers a couple of step-up models from this. The 12773 puts the controls on the door top to hide them when in use, which some users may find more comfortable to use. It is also a little quieter (they claim 45 dBA). The $1299 12783 is quieter still (at a claimed 43 dBA) and has an upgraded drying system that uses a fan to help circulate the hot air, which means quicker drying. The 12773 might be a good pick if you prefer the cleaner look of top controls, but the 12783 seems a little too expensive to us.
There are a lot of other options available; we had to think long and hard before choosing the Kenmore. The other main candidate was the KitchenAid KUDS30FXSS, which is number one on the Dishwashersinfo.com chart. This $1049 dishwasher did a great job of washing dishes in their tests, taking top marks for cleaning performance and proving to be easy to use. Larry Ciufo of Consumer Reports echoes that this is a close race: “We tested a KitchenAid model that was similar to the KitchenAid model you mention… The KitchenAid was almost excellent in overall performance and the Kenmore Elite was slightly better overall. Each of them has something unique about them and either would be a good choice.”
Reviewed.com, who has not reviewed our Kenmore pick, made two editor’s choice picks (the Asko D5434XXLS and the Bosch Integra SHX98M09UC). The problem with those is that are both significantly more expensive than our pick (too much to spend, in our opinion). More in our pricing sweet spot, they ranked the Maytag Jetclean MDB8959SAS #2, but Consumer Reports ranked it much lower, so we tossed that one out too.
If you don’t mind doing more research and driving to an out-of-town store, buying a refurbished or returned dishwasher can save you a big chunk of change. Many people buy a dishwasher, decide they don’t like the look, and return it. This can mean a bargain for you, so it makes sense to ask your local dealer if they have any returns or floor models in the back room. For our picks, the best place to look is the Sears Outlet, where the giant retailer sells their returned and refurbished items. This can save you a lot of money, but look for the condition: although they still come with the manufacturer’s warranty, some models have significant cosmetic damage from being installed and removed, especially to the sound-proofing coating around the tub. One tip is to call your local Sears outlet and ask them what day they get their deliveries, then visit on that day cash in hand to see the models for yourself and to have the best selection, as these tend to be sold quickly.
Wrapping It Up
A good dishwasher will wash your dishes quickly, efficiently and well. And without costing a fortune. Our pick is the Kenmore Elite 12763, which hits all the right buttons. And, with a price of about $750, it performs better than most without costing a fortune.
UPDATE: Since this article went live, Sears has increased the price of the Kenmore Elite 12763 to $1,019. This has not changed our recommendation for it as the best buy, but with the dynamic nature of appliance pricing (and the problem of getting hold of this model, which is only available from Sears), we decided to suggest a few alternatives.
The first alternative is the $1,019 KitchenAid KUDS30FXSS, which bears a strong similarity to the Kenmore (we were unable to verify this, but we think that KitchenAid makes the 12763 for Kenmore). It offers a very similar set of features, with the same type of extra water jets at the rear for washing dirtier pots and pans. (KitchenAid calls it ProScrub, while Kenmore calls it TurboZone, but the technology is the same.) The only difference between the two seems to be the controls: they are on top of the door in the KitchenAid and on the front in the Kenmore. Reviewed.com tested the Kitchenaid and gave it a 10 out of 10 rating, saying that “the KUDS30FXSS just about trounces every other machine we’ve tested when it comes to cleaning power.” So, if the Kenmore is not available or this model is cheaper, go for it.
Another good alternative is the Asko D543XXL. Priced between $900 and $1,100, the D543 earned second place in Reviewed.com’s current chart. It again offers a similar feature set to the Kenmore, but offers a more attractive touch-button interface and racks that are more flexible thanks to fold-down tines that can accommodate larger pans.
It also adds a certain Swedish flair, although the fact that Asko has only recently started selling in the US means that you may struggle to find it locally.
The Bosch Integra SHX98M09 has also benefitted from some aggressive pricing: this well-reviewed model (Reviewed.com called it “an impressive, elegantly designed model of German appliance manufacturing”) was initially priced at $1,600, but it has shown up in some locations for about $900. At that price, it’s a steal, as long as you don’t mind a slightly unusual interface and longer wash cycles: the machine uses less water and power than the others mentioned above but takes longer to wash and dry. However, we wouldn’t pay more than $1,100 for it.
Kenmore Elite 12763, Consumer Reports,"Top-notch washing paired with stellar energy and water efficiency are chief strengths of this Kenmore conventional dishwasher."
KitchenAid KUDE50CX[SS], Consumer Reports,"This KitchenAid conventional dishwasher was very good overall, if on the pricey side"
KitchenAid KUDS30FXSS 24-in. Built-In Stainless Steel Dishwasher Review, Reviewed.com Dishwashers, 10/30/12,"Forgettable in efficiency, design, and features, but the absolute king of wash performance."