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Dishwasher programs explained

By Aaron West

Some dishwashers have an array of programs while others keep it simple. Find out what different programs do and which you need.

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The program you set your dishwasher to run on will have a considerable impact on the time it takes to wash your dishes, how economical the wash is and the quality of cleaning.

We'll tell you what each program is good for and which ones aren't worth bothering with, plus learn about the additional settings that allow you to customise your dishwasher programs.

Or go straight to our round-up of the best dishwashers

Main or normal dishwasher program

When to use? You can use it every day.

Why? This program is well suited to regular soiled dishes and everyday dirt.

Main or normal programs usually wash between 55ºC and 65ºC. You'll find one on almost all dishwashers except some budget models.

We test every dishwasher for how well it can clean, and the differences may surprise you – the best leave every item spotless, while the worst will leave you cleaning last night's dinner off your dishes.

Take a look at our dishwasher reviews to find out which impress.

Automatic dishwasher program or ‘sensor wash’

When to use? Every day.

Why? Auto programs use a sensor to detect how dirty dishes in your machine are, and then automatically sets the water temperature, amount of water used and wash duration to match.

In theory, this should help get everything clean when tough stains need a more intense wash. In cases where there are only light stains, this program should save you money, as it should take less time, powder and water to get dishes sparkling.

Read all our reviews of dishwashers with sensor washes.

Energy-save or eco dishwasher program

When to use? Every day, for less-soiled dishes

Why? It uses less energy and water than normal or automatic programs – 20-40% less 

This will likely be the most environmentally friendly way of washing your dishes, and now comes as standard on all modern dishwashers – even very basic ones.

Energy-save or eco programs use less water and wash at lower temperatures. But be warned that they usually take longer than the standard wash program.

When we test dishwashers, we measure how much energy and water they use so we can tell you how much each model will cost to run a year. The best could save you more than £300 over its lifetime.

Take a look at our guide to the most energy efficient dishwashers.

Fast, rapid or ‘speedy’ dishwasher program

When to use? For lightly soiled dishes

Why? It’s great for when you’re in a hurry as it will take less time than any other wash. But is often recommended for only light stains.

In recent years, we’ve seen a huge uptake of the 'fast' wash, with more and more dishwashers including it as default in their repertoire.

They're intended for lightly soiled dishes that need a quick clean, and can take anywhere between more than an hour to just 15 minutes – so check before you buy if you want one with a super-speedy wash.  

Intensive dishwasher program

When to use? For heavily soiled dishes

Why? It uses a higher temperature and amount of water to clean heavier stains and grime. But will also use more energy and water.

Intensive dishwasher programs are great for very dirty pots, pans and dishes that would normally need soaking.

But to deal with baked-on stains, intensive programs use more energy and water than either the main or energy-save programs. 

Not every dishwasher comes with an intensive program – if you don't plan on using your dishwasher for really dirty items, you can probably do without it.

Delicate/glassware dishwasher program

When to use? For glassware, including wine glasses, champagne flutes and china

Why? It uses a lower temperature to gently clean delicate items such as glassware and china crockery.

The lower temperature will put these items under less stress and should help minimise the risk of breakages.

To help avoid chipping, make sure china and glass items don’t rest on each other when you're loading the dishwasher.

Pre-wash or pre-rinse

When to use? If you’re going to leave items in your dishwasher for a few days before cleaning them.

Why? This program is for when you have heavily soiled dishes and want to rinse excess food and grime off. It doesn't clean dishes. 

It's useful if you only put your dishwasher on every few days and don’t want to leave plates with food in there until the next wash.

You don’t need to use this program if you plan on washing dishes straightaway, as most main dishwasher programs will include a rinse at the start to whisk away leftover dirt and food. Remember, though, you should always scrape plates and bowls of large pieces of food before putting them in the dishwasher.

Self-clean or maintenance

When to use? Every few months.

Why? This program will clean at a high temperature to shift dirt and clean the insides of your machine.

Some dishwashers come with a self-cleaning program, which you're supposed to run when the dishwasher is empty. This will help your dishwasher last longer by keeping it in good condition, making problems with draining less likely.

Depending on the model of dishwasher you have, you'll be advised on whether or not to use cleaner for this. If in doubt, check your manual for guidance.

Find out more on how to clean your dishwasher.

Less popular programs you might find useful

Half load

If you don't have a lot to wash, you might consider using the half-load program.

It's a handy feature, but can use up to 90% of the water and energy used by a full load.

If running costs and energy are important to you, it's worth waiting until your dishwasher is full and then using the energy-save program.  

Silent or quiet

Silent or quiet programs are increasingly common in premium dishwashers. They claim to reduce the noises made during the filling and washing cycles, which is handy if you live in an open-plan home.

Steam, hygiene or baby protect 

In same dishwashers, these are an intensive wash combined with a rinse that includes a burst of higher temperature of up to 70°C.

In others it can just be the higher-temperature short-burst rinse finishing off a normal program.

These programs are often promoted as leaving dishes germ-free.

Two-stage 

Two washes one after the other but in one program for an extra intense clean.

Aimed at very soiled dishes, such as a greasy baking tray after a roast.

Two-zone

A gentle wash of the top rack – usually for glasses – combined with a more intense wash on the bottom rack, for pans and tough grime.

Visit our best dishwashers page to see which models have excelled in our tough lab tests and avoid ones that won't live up to expectations.

Common extra settings

More and more dishwashers are coming with additional settings. These aren’t programs, but instead allow you to customise your program choice even more, for a variety of uses – from time saving to more. These are the most common:

  • Energy saving or eco setting: will reduce the energy and water of your program choice. Sometimes it will also increase how long the program takes to finish.
  • Time saving setting: speeds up the program, but usually at the expense of how well it cleans or dries.
  • Extra-dry setting: extends the drying stage. It will use up more energy, but could be useful when washing lots of plastic tubs or saucepans, where water can easily stuck in nooks and crannies.
  • Extra-hygiene setting: increases the temperature or duration of the program, to give a more intense wash. Sometimes promoted as ideal for households with young children or allergy sufferers.
  • All-in-one detergent setting: this is to tell your dishwasher that you’re using an all-in-one or three-in-one dishwasher detergent tablet.

Find out more about which to buy, and which features you can do with, and without, go to our guide to how to buy the best dishwasher.

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