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Tips On Picking A Dishwasher

Some Suggestions From Experts Can Help Avoid Dishpan Hands.

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

For as long as there have been plates and forks and hungry folk who have polished off a meal, there's been the art - nay, chore - of doing dishes. As recently as 1970, 8 of 10 American households got the job done the old-fashioned way: scrubbing with soap and sponge.

Not so anymore. The latest available statistics, for 2005, indicate nearly 74 percent of U.S. households have a dishwasher. A machine that does the dirty work once you rinse and load. OK, so maybe you don't even rinse. Call me persnickety.

Because so many of us have delegated the dishes to the box beside the sink, and because those boxes - dishwashers - eventually go kaput, we thought you might want to know five things before trekking out to buy a new version of the machine that has all but shoved aside elbow grease and dishpan hands.

Here's what the folks who make, sell, or repair dishwashers think you should know:

Noise control. Who knew getting rid of the caked-on macaroni bits was such a noisy proposition? Actually, it's not the scraping that's so loud, but the grinding of the food bits by the built-in disposal within every U.S.-made dishwasher. That's where most dishwasher noise comes from, and that's why European models, which instead have a simple strainer, make so little noise. In fact, you might say they barely purr. The other factor affecting noise - which salespeople say is the No. 1 consumer concern when it comes to dishwashers - is how much insulation surrounds the box. Chances are, the more you pay, the more your dishwasher will purr instead of roar.

Dishwashers register an average of 52 decibels, which is louder than a soft whisper in a library but softer than a quiet living-room conversation. Even the quietest ones don't dip much below 47 decibels, according to industry studies. There's not a dishwasher on the market these days as loud as that genteel living-room tete-a-tete. So the clunkers of old, the ones that drowned out all talk, are pretty much on the scrap heap of history.

Button up? Fess up, folks, just how many times do you think you'll really punch the "baked-on cookware" button? Maybe once a year, when you leave the pizza pan in the oven overnight? Maybe never?

Here's a little secret from the folks who sell these things: Think twice or thrice before falling for every bell and whistle in the book. You pay for every one. "Don't spend money on cycles you won't use," says Dennis Williams, who has been selling dishwashers for 15 years at Plass Appliance in Chicago. At least 90 percent of the time, you'll be using only the normal cycle, salespeople say, so try not to succumb to the urge to splurge on every cutesy function.

Nearly every dishwasher comes with a high-temperature wash, which heats water to 160 degrees (compared with the machine's standard 110 to 120 degrees). That's a smart option in cold-and-flu season, when you want to wipe out many nasty bacteria and viruses. And it beats running your mitts under the hottest water you can stand.

The Durability Dept. Sorry, Mr. Maytag Repairman, we're not hankering for a house call. Durability is everything in the dishwashing world. We're going out on a limb here and letting you know that in our unofficial survey of three salesmen at top Chicago-area appliance centers, plus a crew of repairmen, the one dishwasher that never seems to need repair is the German-made Miele. "Nobody's ever called me to have one fixed," says Williams, the Plass salesman. KitchenAid, according to folks in the business, is the U.S.-made dishwasher likely to last the longest.

And, while you'll pay for it, a stainless-steel interior compartment, rather than a polymer plastic casing, provides superior durability (as well as insulation from noise).

To drawer or not to drawer. Suddenly, it seems that every haute kitchen must have drawers for everything - certainly for washing dishes.

Maybe not so smart. Drawers take up 15 percent more space for the same internal washing capacity. So if you stack one drawer on top of another, you'll wind up with less dishwashing volume than in one conventional dishwasher. However, if your household is small or you sometimes like to wash just the glasses, a drawer will save you in the long run. Whereas a conventional dishwasher consumes about 45 to 50 gallons of water per load, a drawer will use only half that, says Herb Braidman, a salesman for 10 years at Abt Electronics and Appliances in Glenview, Ill. What's important to know is that it's a give-and-take equation, and you're the one who calculates the answer.

Getting started. One thing not to worry about: Nearly all models these days are a standard 24 inches wide, so in virtually every case you can swap one model for another without having to get out the buzz saw.

But you can't just shove the machine in the open space, connect some pipes, and be done with it. Rule No. 1: Do not skimp on installation. Don't think just anyone can get that sleek new washer up and running without a kink or two.

Installation should run anywhere from $120 to $160, according to Chicago-area sources, and the installer often brings the dishwasher along, so there's no extra delivery charge. You want someone who knows the appliance inside and out. Save yourself money and hassle in the long run and get the job done right. Otherwise, you'll have the sponge out again - to mop up all the leaks.

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