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Rules for buying a dishwasher

Know your needs
Do you have a large family and run a load of dishes every day? Do you use scant dishes and therefore only need a small wash capacity? Do you plan to wash your pots and pans in your dishwasher? It is advisable to sit down and think about what it is you're looking for in your next dishwasher. With a wide variety of new features spread across many brands, you should have a good idea of your needs before ever setting foot in a store.

Look at new technology
It seems like everyone is advertising a new sensor for appliances. Do some reading about different brands and what technologies they're promoting in their dishwashers and decide whether they would be helpful.

Know your budget
We can't emphasize this enough: know how much you are willing/able to spend before you ever set foot in a store. If you've only budgeted enough money for a basic dishwasher, don't test-drive the touch-screen model priced double what you're able to spend. That said, keep in mind that many retailers have sales, particularly around holiday weekends. We recommend subscribing to e-mails from Lowes, Home Depot, Sears, and Best Buy. Doing so gives you access to emailed coupons, as well as the dates of sales and presales, both in-store and online.

What types of dishwashers are available?

Built-in standard dishwashers
The built-in dishwasher is far and away the most common variety in the US. They're spacious and feature the familiar two-rack layout. Basic models use dials and buttons to set wash cycle settings, but some of the newer models feature such advancements as disappearing touch screens and advanced temperature settings.

Price: $300 to $1,799

Average size: Width: around 24 to 30 inches; depth: around 25 inches; height: around 34 inches

Compact dishwashers
Typical dishwashers are generally 24 inches wide. Compact dishwashers, on the other hand, come in a trim 18 inches wide. Many major manufacturers have compact models in their product lines, so if there is a particular brand you like, definitely check to see if it carries compact styles.

Price: $489 to $999

Average size: Width: 18 inches; depth: 22.5 inches; height: 32.50 inches

The Electrolux is a compact dishwasher. Electrolux

Drawer dishwashers
Drawers are a fairly new addition to the pantheon of dishwashers. Most manufacturers, in fact, do not carry them. Because they are smaller, generally, they enable you to wash smaller loads of dishes without wasting energy or water, as the machine requires less of both. The single-drawer dishwasher is likely not the best for those with a large volume of dishes, but manufacturers have recently come out with a double-drawer model, which enables you to run the same number of dishes as a traditional washer, but on different settings as needed. It is important to note that double dish drawers are designed to fit into the same space of a traditional dishwasher, but that you may need to make cabinet modifications for the single dish drawer.

Price: $649 to $1,299

Average size: Width: 23.5 inches; depth: 22.5 inches; Height: between 16 and 35 inches

A double dish drawer from Fisher & Paykel. Fisher & Paykel

Portable and/or countertop dishwashers
Portable and countertop dishwashers are not necessarily the same thing. Many portable dishwashers sit on wheels and can be moved in and out of your kitchen in order to conserve space. Both plug into your kitchen faucet as the water source and drain into your sink. These are excellent options if you have extreme space limitations but still want the convenience of a dishwasher. They can be moved and stored away from your kitchen and brought out as needed.

Price: $319 to $699

Average size: Width: around 24 inches; depth: 28 inches; height: around 36 inches

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A Maytag portable dishwasher. See the wheels? Maytag

What dishwasher capacity is available?

Depending on whether you go with a standard, compact, or drawer model, in general, dishwasher capacity is measured based on how many place settings you can fit in a single load. Here are the basic capacity ranges:

Compact
Capacity: Up to eight five-piece place settings

Standard
Capacity: Up to 12 five-piece place settings

Tall tub
Capacity: Up to 14 five-piece place settings

Dishwasher settings and features

Even the most basic of traditional dishwasher settings have received an upgrade since the last time you shopped. It's important to do some research and figure out what features fit your needs.

Wash and rinse cycles
Many dishwashers now boast advanced cycle options. Models like the Kenmore Elite (Model 12763) are certified to sanitize 99.9 percent of bacteria, which is an excellent option if you have infants or are worried about cold and flu season. Many of these new wash cycles also make the machines more efficient, which saves you money and time in the long run. In some cases, dishwashers now use steam, eliminating the need for prewashing (more on this later).

This Kenmore kills 99.9 percent of bacteria. Kenmore

Dry settings
Many dishwashers now offer different options for drying your dishes. In many cases, you can decide if you want to dry the dishes with heat or without. Using heat takes less time but also uses more energy. Some dishwashers, like the KitchenAid KUDE60HXSS, also now include a fan that runs during the drying cycles to dry the dishes more quickly without the need for heat. In addition, a key advantage to stainless-steel tubs lies in the fact that, because they are metal, they hold heat longer. This enables the dishwasher to dry dishes faster and more efficiently.

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This KitchenAid dishwasher uses a fan for better drying. KitchenAid

Displays
With most dishwasher manufacturers, you now have the option to choose whether you would like for your controls to be located on the front of the machine (as with traditional models) or on the top of the door. Many people prefer top controls because the dishwasher looks sleek and simple. In addition, many people find top controls easier to use since you can look down at them directly, without craning your neck.

Delayed start
Many dishwashers now offer delayed start options. This allows you to program your dishwasher to start later. This is handy if you want it to run at a particular time, perhaps during off-peak energy hours or when you and your family are asleep. Times differ from model to model. The GE GDF540HGDWW, for example, allows you to select a 2-, 4-, or 8-hour delay.

Noise Insulation
Many dishwashers are insulated better in order to run more quietly. In some cases, manufacturers boast that the dishwasher is almost silent. This is fantastic if you want to run the dishwasher at night without waking anyone. The Jenn-Air JDB8700AWS operates at 40 dBA (decibel A-weighting), making it one of the quietest on the market.

Flexible or adjustable racks
If you do a lot of dishes, you may be interested in the third-rack option available in many dishwashers now, such as LG's LDS5560ST. This third rack gives additional flexibility and space for washing more items or, in some cases, smaller items. In addition, some dishwashers allow the heights of the two racks to be changed, allowing you to raise or lower the top rack to make space for whatever you need to wash. It is also worth noting that many dishwashers now feature what "flexible racks," which means that the positions of their dividers can be moved or altered to make room for differently shaped items.

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LG Semi-integrated Dishwasher with Height-adjustable 3rd Rack, Model LDS5560ST LG

Tub material
It used to be that most dishwashers only came with plastic tubs. And many still do, but manufacturers are including stainless-steel tubs for their products now. What's the difference? For starters, stainless tubs tend to be quieter during the wash process. Furthermore, stainless steel is more resistant to high heat without warping or damage. This is excellent if you're looking to really sanitize your dishes. They are more expensive up front, but because stainless tubs are more energy efficient, holding heat more effectively than their plastic counterparts, they save you money in the long run.

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A GE dishwasher with a plastic tub. GE

Food disposal
Traditionally, when loading a dishwasher it was imperative that you scrape and rinse nearly all food and food residue off of the dishes so that the machine didn't get clogged or jammed. Prewashing to wash is inconvenient and wastes water. Many dishwashers, like the LG LDS4821BB, now include food disposals that work similarly to the disposal in your sink, virtually eliminating any need for prewashing. Many manufacturers boast that you can take dishes straight from the table to the dishwasher without any additional intervention.

Jets and steam
Dishwashers, like washers and dryers, are getting the steam upgrade. The steam reduces, if not eliminates, the need for scraping or prerinsing by dissolving the food particles. And because it requires no direct contact, it is safe for all of your dishes, from the most delicate stemware to heavy-duty pots and pans. Dishwashers also feature better placed, better functioning jets that blast food particles off of your dishes. Some manufacturers, as in the case of Kenmore's 15693, have developed "scour modes" or turbo washes, using these jets.

What digital or next-gen features can I find?

Dishwashers, like many home appliances, are getting smart makeovers. These smart features range in function from saving you money and time to making your overall product experience more enjoyable through ease of use.

Sensors
Many dishwashers boast smart sensors that can detect how dirty your dishes are and how much power the dishwasher will require to clean them. It will then adjust its water level and pressure accordingly to ensure that your dishes come out sparkling clean and free of debris. For example, Amana's ADB1400PYS Dishwasher (pictured below) includes soil sensors, which measure the amount of food particles and debris in each load and adjusts both the cycle time and water usage accordingly to ensure that you are not using any more water or energy than is necessary to clean your dishes.

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This Amana model senses the soil level of dishes. Amana

Touch controls
Gone are the days where your dishwasher was controlled by a series of dials. Newest generations of dishwashers now feature the same touch-pad controls as many other appliances. They're sleek, easy to use, and in many cases, are invisible when not in use, as with the Electrolux EWDW6505GS.

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The touch controls on this Electrolux dishwasher disappear as soon as you close the door. Electrolux

Smart features
Certain dishwasher models will send notifications to your smartphone when the dish cycle is done or when the machine needs maintenance. For example, Whirlpool's WDL785SAAM allows you to check both the status of the wash cycle as well as diagnostic information from your smartphone.

Screenshot by Rich Brown/CNET

How can I find a dishwasher that is energy-efficient or 'green'?

EnergyStar label
The Environmental Protection Agency uses its EnergyStar rating system to recommend products that save energy without sacrificing features of functionality. It is not only the higher-tech dishwashers that meet this standard of efficiency. Many of the most basic machines washers come with the EnergyStar seal of approval for their excellent water and energy economy.

Look for the CEE Rating
The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) is a nonprofit public benefits organization that works to encourage influencing markets and businesses to accelerate the development and uptake of efficient products. They have a rating system for residential appliances, including dishwashers. Products with in the CEE Tier One are highly efficient, but products in the CEE Tier Three are the most efficient available. Many manufacturers have CEE Tier One rated, high-efficiency washers.

Other green 'best practices'

Scrape don't rinse
While many dishwashers have eliminated the need to do either, you can cut down on your energy costs by scraping dishes into the trash or a compost bowl. It may seem tedious, and in some cases it is, but it will cut down on excess water use.

Use phosphate-free detergent
In July 2010, 16 states legislated limits for the amount of phosphates allowed in households and household products. It was a rough transition, as many detergent makers had to change their formulas in order to comply with new regulations. This mean, as you can imagine, a lot of "not quite clean" dishes. But that was then and this is now. Now, there is a whole host of phosphate-free detergents available to you. Whether the product is phosphate-free should be labeled clearly on the package. Popular brands include Seventh Generation and Method.