Dishwasher Not Cleaning Properly? 5 Quick Tips to Make it Like New

Have you ever looked at a newly washed glass and seen gunk at the bottom?
My wife has noticed this on multiple occasions and even though our dishwasher is a few years old it’s cleaning efficiency has dropped off significantly.

Just today our daughters were complaining about mucky residue on their plastic cups. These are the same kids who can’t stand taking showers (their tone will surely change once they get old enough to date, at 25!!!)
I’m sharing these tips because a dishwasher not cleaning dishes is a frustrating problem.

Hey, I don’t mind washing dishes by hand. But it’s nice to have a machine do this for you when both parents work full-time, coach softball & basketball, serve as a taxi service for kids, etc.

A dishwasher is like Alice from the Brady Bunch-an extra set of hands that makes your day a whole lot better.
After reading this post you’ll be able to remove your dishwasher’s spray arms & unclog them, understand how to thoroughly clean the inside of your dishwasher machine, and discover how to eliminate dirty dishes.

These are the supplies you need

Ratchet ($10)
1/4 inch socket for ratchet ($9)
White vinegar ($2)
Baking soda ($2)
Putty knife ($8)
Fine steel wool (grade 00) ($4)
Sponge $5)

Steel wire for hanging pictures or steel cable or wire hanger

Old toothbrush (or spouse’s toothbrush depending on your mood)
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All the tips are easy and can be done in less than an hour.

You can do this, trust me. It’s not that hard and if your dishwasher isn’t cleaning properly you’ll thank yourself for performing this project 🙂

Tip 1: Remove and Unclog Spray Arms

Clogged spray arms have to be the #1 problem we encounter with our dishwasher. It’s a function of the hard water we have here in Pittsburgh and the new non-phosphate dishwasher detergent.

We have a stainless steel GE Cafe dishwasher with SmartDispense technology. The SmartDispense concept seemed like a good idea. You could dump in a ton of liquid dishwasher soap and not have to worry about manually filling up the soap cup every time dishes needed to be cleaned.

When we started using the SmartDispense dispenser the directions were followed and the correct soap was used. Then soap manufacturers changed their formulas and eliminated the use of phosphate. Which was good for the environment but bad for our dishwasher system.

The two different kinds of soap caused residue or scale to buildup in our dishwasher. There’s a good chance you have the same problem.

If your dishwasher is like our GE brand then you can remove the lower spray arm by turning it counterclockwise and pulling up at the same time.

Remove the top & middle spray arms by using a ratchet and appropriately sized socket, which was 1/4 inch for me.
Here’s a brief video to help you with removing your spray arms


Check all of the holes in your spray arms for clogs. You can use three different methods to remove debris from the holes.
Steel wire (the kind for hanging pictures) or steel cable can be used like dental floss to thoroughly clear out the holes in the arms. If you’re unsure what size steel cable to use you can take the arm to the hardware store and test.

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You can also use a wire hanger, the cheap kind you get at the dry cleaner’s, to unclog the arms.
The next step will help neutralize any crud you missed with the wires or cables.

Tip 2: Soak Spray Arms in White Vinegar

Mechanically removing scale or bits of food from the holes in the spray arms will help transform a dishwasher from not cleaning to one that works a lot better.

Since the arms are already removed you can soak them in a bath of white vinegar to clean them even more. White vinegar will naturally breakdown old dishwasher soap and scale buildup.
You can do this one of two ways.

The first option is to place the arms on a four-sided cookie sheet and add the white vinegar. The second option is to put the spray arms in a clean kitchen sink and soak them with vinegar.

In my video I put duck tape over the holes of the arms, but this didn’t work all that well. At least you can learn from my bone-headed ideas and save some time 😉

Tip 3: Clean the Inside of Your Dirty Dishwasher

Make it a habit to look inside and see if you have a dirty dishwasher. Once a month isn’t too much to ask, right?
You’d be surprised at what you might find: chunks of old food, glass from broken dishes, popsicle sticks, toys, you name it!!!

The obvious first step is to check the bottom of the dishwasher for debris. The mat-like thing you see is called the coarse filter and is meant to catch big particles that could prevent your tub from draining.

Feel around with your hand in areas you can’t see and remove the cover to the reservoir where the water drains. Reach down into this reservoir and take out any food or other muck. Yes, this is gross but you have to do it for the sake of mankind (and to prevent that dreaded call to the appliance repair person).

There was a plastic popsicle wrapper in my reservoir along with some other items that I won’t mention. Sure I’m a little embarrassed but this is life.

If these large bits are just floating around in the dishwasher water they can certainly be sprayed back onto the dishes, which defeats the purpose of having a dishwashing machine!!!

There is also a fine filter in your dishwasher. It looks like a circular spaceship that has fine mesh sections to it. Clean off the mesh with a sponge or run it under hot water. Our fine filter had what looked like coffee grounds on it.

Dishwasher Fine Filter

Again, this is the stuff that could be sprayed back up into your cups or dishes. So cleaning the fine filter should be on your to-do list every month.

Tip 4: Eliminate Residue & Scale Buildup

In Tip 3 you will clean the top of the coarse filter and I highly suggest you take a look underneath it.
I almost couldn’t believe how much crap was on the bottom of the dishwasher tub. And this stuff was caked on real good.

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Dishwasher Not Cleaning - Clean Under Coarse Filter

My guess is this crud is a mix of residue from our hard water and a result of using the new non-phosphate soap with the original soap that did contain phosphate. And the GE repairman (who replaced our lower spray arm for $100) confirmed that he’d seen this in other dishwashers not cleaning properly.
How do you clean off this buildup?

Mix up white vinegar and baking soda to make a paste. The consistency should be slightly thicker than pancake batter, but feel free to experiment. Spread this paste onto the buildup and let it sit for 15-20 minutes.

Dishwasher Not Cleaning - Use Paste

You can use a plastic putty knife to scrape off the residue. Since our dishwasher has a stainless tub I actually used a regular putty knife and 00 grade (super fine) steel wool. Yes this is aggressive but I was careful and only scrubbed the surface of the mucky residue that surely caused our dishwasher to not work properly.

This procedure with white vinegar and baking soda may need to be done a few times to properly clean the bottom of the dishwasher tub.

Tip 5: Toothbrushify Your Seals and Door
Only use your spouse’s toothbrush for this step if they really deserve it (but please don’t tell them I said this unless you absolutely have no other choice).
Admittedly we didn’t clean the seals on our dishwasher for a few years and it looked disgusting.

Dishwasher Not Cleaning - Clean with a Toothbrush

Source: Youtube/ Home Talk