Understanding Dishwasher Cycle, Wash and Drying Options

Many dishwasher cycle options are available… and this section of our buying guide explains some of the standard and specialty cycles for rinsing, cleaning and drying.

Most dishwashers come with at least 4 choices of washing cycle. 

Why? 

The reason is that a load of dinner dishes may require a cycle different from that required by a load of pots and pans.

The Basics of Dishwasher Operation

It can be useful when buying a dishwasher to understand a few things about what goes on inside during the cleaning process.

 Basically, a dishwasher works by pumping water up through the wash arm, which makes it spin. This slings the water for a few minutes all over the dishes. Then, the dirty water is pumped out and the process is repeated several times during the cycle. Generally, on about the third go round, dishwasher detergent is released.

Once the washing cycle is done, the rotating arm sprays clean water on the dishes to rinse away any remaining detergent or food particles. Finally, a drying cycle, using either air or steam heat, evaporates the residual water.

Now to explain this in a little more detail…

The Pre-Wash Cycle

Most dishwashers today feature a pre-wash cycle that will rinse off loose particles. Water pumps in through the spray arm to rinse the dishes and then the soiled water is pumped out and the process repeats two to five times prior to the main wash cycle.

During this initial dishwasher cycle, the tub is filled with water. A valve opens up and allows the water to flow. Most models feature a float switch that will turn off the valve if the level of water becomes too high for any reason to prevent overflowing.

The Main Washing Cycle

Once the pre-wash is complete, the dispenser opens and the detergent is released as the main washing cycle begins.

The detergent mixes with the water, creating a cleaning solution that pumps through the spray arm.  This causes the arm to rotate so all of the items in the machine are washed.

The water is heated to temperatures typically around 120°F to 160°F depending on your dishwasher or the program you select.

The action in this cycle is the same as in the pre-wash cycle, but the main washing cycle lasts much longer.

In some dishwasher models, the water is pumped into the tub through a self-cleaning filter. This ensures that the dishes are washed with clean water. Once the main washing cycle is complete, all of the water is pumped out of the dishwasher.

Rinsing Cycle

Some dishwashers feature an intermediate rinse cycle to remove any remaining residue from the surface of the dishes using cold water.

In the final rinsing cycle, the rinse aid is dispensed into the water, which is usually heated to quite high temperatures. This dishwasher cycle rinses off any detergent left behind from the main washing cycle.

Drying Cycle

One the dishes have been washed and rinsed, the machine will begin the heated drying cycle.  A heating element heats up the tub to dry the dishes. Older model dishwashers used to have a fan as well as heat to dry the residual water from the clean dishes. 

Specialty Cycles

In addition to the standard cycles that are included on most dishwashers, many of today's models also include a number of cycles that are designed for specific tasks:

  • A 'quick wash' dishwasher cycle is great for busy families or if you just want to get your dishes clean faster. According to an April 2014 article by Consumer Reports, models which include a short cycle option that can be completed in half an hour include the Bosch SHX3AR75UC, the Kenmore Elite 12783 and 12793 and the KitchenAid KDFE454CSS
  • Delicate cycles are good for china and glassware so you don't have to hand wash these fragile items
  • Heavy duty and pot scrubbing cycles can handle the tough tasks like grease and stuck food particles
  • A sanitizing cycle is designed to kill off bacteria by rinsing dishes at an extremely high temperature.  If you have anyone ill in the family, this is ideal but can also be useful for general household health.
  • A rinse and hold option is useful if you don't want to run a full cycle immediately.  You can keep your dishwasher clean and avoid food particles hardening while you wait for enough dishes for a full load.

Pumping Options

In some models, the same pump is used for washing and pumping out the water, while other models feature separate pumps.

The models that use the same pump for both functions have a drain solenoid that directs the water into a drain. Some dishwashers reverse the pump so it will pump backward through the drain as opposed to through the washing arm.

On the models with separate pumps, the dishwasher continues to wash until almost all of the water is gone. This maximizes the efficiency of the machine.


So that’s an overview of some of the dishwasher cycle and wash options available. 

We encourage you to ask your appliance salesperson to explain the cycle options in the models you are considering.   They can make quite a difference in the efficiency and performance of your dishwasher.


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