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How to fix common dishwasher problems

Troubleshoot these dishwasher issues at home and save yourself money on call-out fees.

woman removing filter from dishwasher
Last updated: 22 March 2024

Appliance repairs can be expensive, but if you can figure out how to fix things yourself, you'll feel pretty awesome, and earn bragging rights for months. You'll also save the cost of call-out fees for what could be a very simple problem.

The most common dishwasher problems are related to dishwasher detergent, rinse aid, how you load your dishes and the type of soiling you subject them to.

If your machine isn't working the way it should, check your instruction manual first to see whether it suggests a fix.

But if you can figure out how to fix things yourself, you'll feel pretty awesome

If you have an error code, all the better, as the manual will generally have a breakdown of what it means (and how to sort it).

If your manual isn't shedding any light on the situation, read on to find solutions to some of the most common issues below. 

What to do if your dishwasher isn't cleaning

Don't rinse your dishes beforehand

When you rinse your dishes prior to racking them, the automatic sensor in your dishwasher gets confused and thinks it's washing a much cleaner dish, so it uses much less energy and water. That means it's more likely your dishwasher will leave dirt on the dishes, because you're not letting it know how dirty they really are. So just scrape food scraps into the bin and go.

Choose a good dishwasher detergent

A good quality dishwasher detergent makes a huge difference to your dishwasher's performance (and can save you money in the long run). Using too little detergent or one that's too old can also have a big effect on the cleanliness of your dishes.

If your water is classed as hard, this will also affect the amount of detergent you need (and some models might also require that you add dishwasher salt). Check the manual for precise dosage requirements.

Load your dishwasher properly

Do your best to make sure your dishes avoid shadowing each other, as this will prevent detergent and water from getting to dirty areas. Leaning plates against each other will also create contact points for water and dirt to accumulate.

If you can, adjust the basket tines or plate racks (the vertical spikes that support your dishes) to accommodate each plate without touching another. Your manual will most likely contain recommendations for the best places to put common items.

Choose an intensive program

Once in a while you may need to use a program that's more heavy-duty than normal. We test dishwashers in our lab using the machine's default or automatic setting, but hard, baked-on food can be difficult to remove so experiment with the wash programs to see if they improve results.

In rare cases, you'll need to soak your pots or pans prior to loading them into the dishwasher. 

Clean the dishwasher filter

Every dishwasher has at least one filter, which needs to be cleaned every now and then. You can do this by removing it from the bottom of your dishwasher and washing it under hot running water to get rid of any grease and grime.

Also check that your filters have been fitted correctly (if they haven't, this could be why your dishes come out dirty).

Check the dishwashers spray arms

Make sure the spray arms can turn freely within the cabinet and that no plates or long utensils are blocking them. If your dishwasher sounds noisy, it could be due to the spray arms not rotating properly. Some dishwashers even allow you to remove the arms to clear blocked nozzles.

If your manufacturer advises it, you can dig larger particles of dirt out of the spray arms with a thin, pointed object such as a toothpick.

person cleaning a dishwasher filter

Washing the filter under hot running water and cleaning out any gunk will help your dishwasher run more efficiently.

How to fix a smelly dishwasher

Cleaning your dishwasher's filter occasionally will help to maintain it and keep any bad smells at bay. Some dishwashers have two filters; one coarse and one fine, so remember to clean both. It's also a good idea to wipe over the seals of the dishwasher with a damp cloth and in any corners where dirt and grime can accumulate.

Using a higher temperature program once a month can also aid in getting rid of any smells, and some dishwashers even come with a self-cleaning program.

You can also try running a normal program with detergent, but without loading the dishwasher. It's not recommended to use any abrasive cleaners, solvents or scouring cloths on your dishwasher, internally or externally.

Our whitegoods expert dishes up his best tips for cleaning and maintaining your dishwasher so that it serves you well for many years to come.

Is your dishwasher not filling with water?

Check the water inlet tap to see if it's turned on and that it's not blocked or restricted with limescale – often this will have a filter as well, so check and clean it under running water.

Dishwashers usually specify the water pressure required to operate effectively, and very low water pressure means it may not fill. Check with your water supplier to see whether your water pressure meets the specifications.

What to do if the touch controls aren't working

Some dishwashers come with touch controls, requiring only a light press to activate. If these stop functioning, it may be that the controls have been touched too soon after opening.

You may need to wipe your controls over with a damp cloth if they're too dirty and no longer recognise touch. You may also have inadvertently activated the child lock, which you'll need to deactivate before the controls will work again. Consult your manual for how to deactivate child lock controls.

Why do dishwashers leave spots or detergent film on glasswear?

Your dishwasher uses rinse aid to help prevent spots or film on your plates, so if you're experiencing this issue, check the rinse aid setting of your instruction manual – you may need to make some adjustments. Too much rinse aid can cause streaks or stains and too little means water won't sheet off the dishes as well as possible.

Too much rinse aid can cause streaks or stains

Lipsticks and tea can also be difficult to remove, so experiment with programs or wipe prior to loading into the dishwasher. If you place glasses so they lean against each other, they may develop a staining point where they touch – there's also the possibility they may break from knocking against each other.

5 tips to help your dishwasher dry better

  1. Open the door a little straight after the program stops.
  2. Make sure the dishwasher is fully loaded (more plates means more thermal mass, which retains heat and aids drying ability).
  3. Load cups, glasses, pots, bowls or mugs with deep recesses on an angle so water can drain out rather than accumulate.
  4. Use a more intensive setting – the higher temperature will make for a better drying and washing performance (but bear in mind it'll likely use more energy).
  5. Adjust the rinse aid setting or refill your rinse aid (check your manual for details).

How to avoid discoloured cutlery

Some food items (mustard, vinegar, lemon, salt and mayonnaise, for example) can leave permanent spots if left on your cutlery for a long time. Minimise this possibility by scraping off as much as possible if you're not running the dishwasher straight away. Dishwashers can also leave black or grey marks on aluminium, so it's best to hand-wash these items instead.

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Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.