Buyer's guide: Dishwashers

samantha smith
By Samantha Smith

100 back pocket money

APPARENTLY once you've used a dishwasher, you can never go back.

It's more than the thought of never having to spend your evenings up to the elbows in dishwater again; they also make kitchens look far tidier - there's no more excuse for dirty mugs and cutlery to be left lying around.

Some of the factors to be considered when buying a dishwasher are the same as, or very similar to, issues anyone buying a washing machine should think about - size, efficiency, the programmes on offer.

But unless you've a lot of crystal glassware there's not as much call for delicate programmes; it's more likely you'll be looking for speed washes or the ability to cope with the pots and pans from a full-on Sunday roast or similar.

So here's our guide to the top things you should consider when buying a dishwasher.

1. Size

What to consider
  • The bigger the dishwasher, the more efficient it is when full
  • Slimline machines balance neater size with reasonable capacity
  • Compact machines good for kitchens with limited floor space; also good for one- or two-person households

Dishwashers come in three general sizes: full size, slimline and compact.

Full size dishwashers are, like other white goods, up to about 60 cm wide and 85 cm tall. Therefore, like washing machines and fridges, they should fit fairly easily in the standard kitchen - as long as there's a slot or free space for them, and suitable plumbing options. They have the most capacity, and they tend to be the most energy efficient.

If space is a little tighter, consider a slimline model. These are the same height, but tend to be less than 45 cm wide and often a little less deep. They're not as efficient as full size machines and obviously can't take as many dirty dishes, but they can still cope with a couple of days' worth of plates and cups.

If there's no floor space but lots of counter room, consider a compact machine. These vary in width, with some being almost as wide as a standard dishwasher, but they're all much shorter. In fact, some are designed to fit in the space taken by a large kitchen drawer.

But counter-top dishwashers are much more common. They have the advantage that you don't have to bend down to load and unload them - but that's balanced by the very much smaller loads they can take.

While washing machines often live in utility rooms, it's far more convenient for a dishwasher to be in the kitchen. So if space is tight, or there's nowhere to move the washing machine to in order to free up that space for the dishwasher, consider one of the smaller options.

In all three cases, the door will invariably open downwards. To be able to load and unload the machine, you'll need to be able to lie that door flat - so consider how much horizontal space you'll need in front of the machine as well when sizing them up.

2. Number of place settings

What to consider
  • Full size machines generally take up to 120 items; some can take up to 150
  • Compact machines can only cope with between 40 and 60 items - not ideal for more than the smallest households
  • Full size machines can be difficult for smaller households to fill

This is the posh way of telling us what capacity the machine has. A "place setting" consists of 10 items: one each of a knife, fork, soup spoon, dessert spoon and teaspoon, dinner plate, soup and dessert plates, tumbler, tea cup and saucer.

Most of us don't eat in such a prescribed way. Bear in mind that the different plates should translate into cereal bowls and so on, but it's likely you'll need more mug or glass space than a traditional place setting allows for.

So some machines will be described as having place settings, others will talk about the number of items - but they're all based around the idea of that list.

Full size machines will take at least 12 place settings or 120 items, with some taking up to 150. Slimline machines will cope with up to 100 items. Compact machines really are limited, coping with four to six place settings at the most.

3. Adjustable layouts

What to consider
  • Cutlery baskets should be removable
  • Look for prongs that can be laid flat
  • Check whether the upper rack can be moved up or down

What can boost a machine's capacity, though, is how flexible the layout inside it is. Pay particular attention to the top rack and how cutlery is dealt with.

Most machines will come with at least one cutlery basket, designed to hold items separate so no part of them can escape the wash. The basket should be removable, so larger items like serving dishes or pots and pans can fit in instead.

Some of the prongs may also fold down, allowing for further flexibility when it comes to

Some machines have cutlery drawers or racks, which sit above the main upper drawer. They can be fiddlier than just being able to throw spoons in the general direction of a basket, but they do free up space in the lower racks. They're also useful for bigger pieces of cutlery, like serving spoons or kitchen knives.

The main upper rack is usually the one designated for cups, glasses and so on. Check whether it can be moved up to allow for bigger items below, or down to allow for wine glasses and the like.

4. Programmes

What to consider
  • All should offer basic wash, heavy soil, and a quick or light wash
  • More expensive machines will have "sensor" modes
  • Look into how the eco modes work
  • What child safety features does the dishwasher offer?

Dishwashers are far less complicated than washing machines when it comes to the type of programmes we can expect.

Most will offer a standard wash, a quick or light option, and one for heavy soiling - designed to cope with oven-baked dishes rather than welded on culinary disasters.

As well as, or instead of the quick wash option, some may offer an "eco" setting. Check what exactly that means: lower temperature, shorter wash time, less water used, or load sensing?

On more expensive machines this feature is more likely to be referred to as a sensor or intelligent setting, as the machine will assess how dirty the water coming off the dishes is, and adjust the cycle accordingly.

Bear in mind too that while the "eco" wash might take longer, it may well be washing the dishes differently than the standard wash.

Say, for example, that the standard wash takes 60 minutes, uses 20 litres of water and requires 1.5 kWh of electricity.

By comparison, the eco wash takes 90 minutes - but it uses less water, heats it to a lower temperature, and relies on the longer wash time to remove the dirt - so it only uses 15 litres of water and 1.0 kWh of energy.

Also worth finding out is whether the programmes include drying time, and whether this can be overridden. For example, the quick wash might involve 30 minutes of washing and 30 minutes of drying time.

If you open the dishwasher after the wash part of the programme has finished, in order to let the dishes air dry, or towel them off yourself, will the machine "forget" that it had time left on that programme, or will it pick up where it left off when you restart it?

Most machines will offer some kind of delay timer. This has as many uses as you need it to, from taking advantage of Economy 7 rates, to giving you the smug feeling that comes from timing it so your plates are clean - and warm - for dinnertime.

Families should consider what sort of child safety feature they want.

Most machines offer some form of lock or cut-out so there won't be any disasters caused by opening the machine mid-cycle.

Others can lock out programme changes once the machine has started - so small people can't subject wine glasses and good crockery to a wash more fitting for the Sunday roast pans.

5. Energy efficiency

What to consider
  • Higher rated machines use less energy
  • Full size dishwashers are more efficient than smaller models
  • Full machines will always be more efficient

In 2011 the energy ratings used by the EU were subtly adjusted to take account of the improving efficiency of all our appliances. Anyone buying a brand new machine will find they're rated from D up to A+++.

The letter rating corresponds to a number called the Energy Efficiency Index (EEI), which itself refers to the amount of electricity the machine uses during a year, based on being used for 280 full wash cycles and any energy consumed during standby mode.

For a dishwasher with a capacity of 12 place settings, an EEI of 100 means the machine uses 462 kWh per year.

This is at the bottom of the energy efficiency scale; D-rated machines have an EEI of more than 90. At the other end of the scale A+++ machines have an EEI of less than 50:

Energy rating A+++ A++ A+ A B C D
EEI <50 <56 <63 <71 <80 <90 >90

But "more efficient" shouldn't be confused with "cleans best".

As explained above, dishwasher efficiency is based on the amount of energy it uses - but if the machine is set up right and the plates come out with traces of breakfast still on them, it's not truly efficient.

The energy efficiency label will also tell you:

Larger machines are always more efficient than slimline or compact models - as long as they're used when full. Running a half load programme will not use half the energy or water; it's more like 75% of each.

That said, anyone bothered about the efficiency of a dishwasher compared to washing by hand should relax: a full size dishwasher can clean 120 items - including 60 plates or bowls - with a maximum of two washing up bowls full of water.

Compact and slimline dishwashers aren't quite as efficient, but they can still beat getting out the marigolds and scrubbing brush.

6. Life span

What to consider
  • Cheaper models may only last around three years
  • Average life span for mid-range models is five to 10 years
  • More expensive models can and will last far longer

As we explain more in our guide to washing machines - here - it's technically wrong to think of appliances having life spans in years. They're designed and built with parts that have expected minimum times to failure (MTF), which are measured in hours.

The Whitegoods Trade Association says cheaper brands are often made using parts with an MTF of as little as 600 hours, while higher quality components and the products they're used in can be expected to last more than 15 times that long before failing - but they won't cost 15 times as much.

It's not always the case that cheaper machines will die sooner, but it's a good rule of thumb - after all, economies of scale can only account for so much.

Another trade site, UK Whitegoods, has the sage if somewhat alarming advice that a decent dishwasher should cost at least £400 - any cheaper and it won't do the job properly, or it'll need replacing very quickly.

Look at the guarantees offered by the manufacturers as well, as these will give a good indication of confidence in the components and workmanship. Most offer guarantees of one or two years; those who make more durable machines will offer guarantees of five years - sometimes even 10.

7. Warranties

What to consider
  • Offer peace of mind, but can be expensive
  • Retailer warranties often not honoured if the manufacturer guarantee is still valid
  • Equal protection

Bear in mind this kind of information when thinking about whether or not to buy a warranty.

They do offer peace of mind, and will sometimes cover things like accidental damage - which a guarantee won't - but they can be somewhat expensive.

Particularly with cheaper appliances, a decent warranty can cost a sizeable proportion of the retail price. Bear in mind too, that warranties often favour repairs over replacements, so if something does go wrong, you might be waiting a while for your dishwasher to be fixed.

Then consumer law offers a considerable amount of protection against faulty appliances, as does using a credit card to pay for the purchase. There's more on extended warranties and whether they're worth it, in this guide.

Finally, remember that the kind of standalone warranty offered by retailers (as opposed to those offered by the manufacturer) often won't be honoured should the product still be under guarantee.

In Summary

There you have it - a list of the most important things to think about when looking for a new dishwasher.

We can't tell you whether or not a particular model is any good, but you should now be in the position where you can narrow down the field for yourself - then get on with enjoying softer hands, freer evenings and tidier draining boards.

Size The bigger the dishwasher, the more efficient it is when full

Slimline machines balance neater size with reasonable capacity

Compact machines good for kitchens with limited floor space; also good for one- or two-person households
Capacity Full size machines generally take up to 120 items; some can take up to 150

Compact machines can only cope with between 40 and 60 items - not ideal for more than the smallest households

Full size machines can be difficult for smaller households to fill
Adaptable layouts Cutlery baskets should be removable

Look for prongs that can be laid flat

Check whether the upper rack can be moved up or down
Programmes All should offer basic wash, heavy soil, and a quick or light wash

More expensive machines will have "sensor" modes

Look into how the eco modes work

What child safety features does the dishwasher offer?
Energy efficiency Higher rated machines use less energy

Full size dishwashers are more efficient than smaller models

Full machines will always be more efficient
Life span Cheaper models may only last around three years

Average life span for mid-range models is five to 10 years

More expensive models can and will last far longer
Warranties Offer peace of mind, but can be expensive

Retailer warranties often not honoured if the manufacturer guarantee is still valid

Equal protection offered via consumer law and home insurance


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