What the best dishwasher has

  • Convenient loading features. For ease of use, look for a dishwasher that has fold-down tines, adjustable racks and lots of silverware slots.
  • Multiple cycles that include an energy-saving wash. According to the Energy Star program from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, you can use less water and electricity if you have a light cycle and use it for mildly soiled dishes.
  • Adequate capacity. If you are in the market for a built-in model that will accommodate regular family use, choose a standard 24-inch model, which generally holds 12 to 14 place settings; a compact 18-inch size is more suited to a couple, a small kitchen or occasional use, says Mariette Mifflin, the housewares and appliances editor at About.com.
  • A manual-clean filter. Skip the noisy self-clean filter, and opt for a manual version, advises ConsumersReports.org; many machines have manual-clean versions.
  • An easy-to-read cycle-time display. Hidden controls mean a sleeker, more integrated appearance, but look for a front-facing light that indicates how the cycle is progressing, advises ConsumerReports.org.
  • A warranty. Your dishwasher should include a minimum one-year parts-and-labor warranty, notes GoodHousekeeping.com.
  • Multiple washing tiers. How and where water jets are distributed will affect cleaning performance, says About.com's Mariette Mifflin. A three-tier system will provide good washing.

Know before you go

How much space do you have? Standard built-in dishwashers are 24 inches wide and sufficient for a family. Those who have less space or tend to use fewer dishes can opt for a compact, 18-inch built-in. For apartment dwellers or those with no space for a built-in, portables come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including countertop and rollaway.

Are you looking to reduce energy and water use? If so, you'll want to consider a model with a soil sensor, according to ConsumerReports.org. Sensors adjust cycles and water use according to the load's soil level, so you don't use more energy or water than necessary.

Do you use oversized dishes? Some models have tines that are closely spaced to accommodate more dishes, while others have far-apart tines to accommodate larger dishes; for this reason, appliance retailer Warners' Stellian recommends bringing a favorite plate or bowl with you, to use as a sizing guide, when you shop.

Do your load sizes vary? A two-drawer model will give you flexibility, according to HomeDepot.com; you can run one drawer alone for a small load or both simultaneously when your load is larger.

Do you intend to pre-rinse your dishes? There are many dishwashers on the market that clean well without any pre-rinsing -- but if you're the type who always pre-rinses, don't waste money on models with an expensive power-scrubbing mode.

Do you entertain often? Some dishwashers have special racks to handle a lot of glassware, and some have fold-down caddies that can lock in stemware.

Does it take you time to accumulate a full load? If so, you'll want to look for a machine with a rinse-and-hold cycle, which will reduce odors and prevent soils from setting, according to ConsumerReports.org.

Do you want a multi-tasking dishwasher? The latest models have some pretty exciting "next gen" features, notes CNET.com; for example, some hold an entire bottle of dishwashing detergent and dispense it as needed, freeing you from the task of adding detergent with every cycle.

Do you have particular dishwashing needs? Many of today's dishwashers have a variety of special cycles and options that may suit your specific demands; among these, are a time-delay option, which lets you set a later start time, and a quick-wash cycle, for times when you can't wait for a normal cycle to run.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Retailers like to sell extended warranties on dishwashers -- but ConsumerReports.org's warranty buying guide calls these "notoriously bad deals." That's because breakdowns often occur during the normal warranty period -- and if they occur later, repairs may cost no more than the extended warranty anyway.

If you still want one, ConsumerReports.org suggests checking your credit card agreement first, as some cards automatically extend coverage on purchases. You can also shop with retailers who offer extended warranties for no charge. Their final recommendation is to never pay more than 20 percent of the purchase price for extended coverage.

Buying tactics and strategies

  • Look for multi-product rebates. If you're renovating a kitchen or otherwise shopping for multiple appliances, you can save money by sticking with one brand. Many retailers offer single-brand multi-appliance rebates, so shop around until you find a store that's running this promotion on a brand you like.
  • Take advantage of Energy Star rebates when possible. Some local utilities offer rebates on Energy Star-rated appliances, so make sure to research your utility's policies to see if you're eligible.
  • Compare efficiency levels. A very efficient dishwasher (measured in kilowatt hours per year) may be pricier than a less efficient one -- but you could earn that extra cost back, in terms of lower electricity bills, fairly quickly.

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