How to choose a Dishwasher...Is Miele right for you?

Jun 24, 2004 (Updated Oct 12, 2004)

The Bottom Line You've heard the hype (or maybe you haven't), but couldn't you get by with a less expensive dishwasher??? Find out.

It seems that the selling point of all dishwashers on the market today is the claim, “Use this dishwasher and you’ll never pre-wash dishes again!” Of course, as most of us who have tried to get those dishwashers to actually fulfill that promise have found, it just ain’t so.

So you hate your dishwasher. It’s noisy, you can’t fit everything you want in it, and only dishes that are already mostly clean come out clean. Short of hiring someone to do it for you, is there really a solution for these problems? As with so many similar questions, the answer depends, to some extent, on what you are willing to pay.

I, like most of the human race, detest washing dishes, and to me it is worth it to spend the extra money to have the time to do what I really want to be doing, like reading to my kids. So I shelled out the big bucks for a Miele. Was it worth it? To me, every penny. But is a Miele right for you? I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned from my search for the perfect dishwasher. (For more detailed information on the model I purchased, the G841SC, click here or on the link provided at the end of this review.)

I will limit my discussion to the upper echelon of dishwashers, because the majority of mid-to-lower range units are largely the same in terms of cleaning power and noisiness, while the various manufacturers are expanding their units to include a dizzying array of new features with prices to match. Some of these innovations are immensely helpful; others are merely gimmicks that you should avoid.

…Contestant number one, come on down…
The major contenders for this segment of the market appear to be the American brands KitchenAid and Maytag, and the European Bosch, Asko and Miele. [Some people are happy with GE, and I’m glad, but only their very top models begin to compete, with spotty performances (no pun intended) and not a very good reputation for service.] The bottom line is that a really good dishwasher will cost upwards of $7-800, and a truly excellent one upwards of $1000. Anything in this price bracket is going to offer you high temperature washes (but read the fine print…they could be just rinses), energy and water efficiency, good sound insulation, stainless steel tall tubs, their first-borns, you name it. And at this price range, you want a dishwasher that will really do the job. Price does not necessarily guarantee performance. After all, as my friendly dishwasher repairman told me, until the day they’re able to make circles into squares, dishwashers will always have limitations. Here’s a little guide to help you get the most for your money.

Comparisons: What to look for.
As I see it, the major factors affecting the performance of a dishwasher are:
1. Capacity—how much can you really fit in the unit?
2. Water—how much does it use, and what temperature?
3. Drying—does it?
4. Noise level—will you have to turn up the TV?
5. Special features—all those bells and whistles: are they really helpful, or are they just a bunch of noise?

Let’s look at each one of these in detail.

Most dishwashers today boast of enormous capacities, usually in terms of place settings. What is hard to tell about these numbers is:
a) what are they based on (like removing the silverware rack)?
b) will being filled to this capacity actually result in clean dishes? and
c) will anything other than plates and glasses will be accommodated?

My last dishwasher claimed to fit 10 place settings, but would not easily accommodate both a large number of plates and any bowls or pots, plus did a dismal job when filled that full.

My Miele claims to fit 14 place settings. While I have not verified this, I can point out two things: First, the tines on both racks are more closely spaced, which allows for more items to be loaded in less space. This has not affected how clean the plates get; however, anything with a lip (like pasta bowls or other rimmed plates) sometimes have trouble. Of course, here again it’s nice to have the tines closer together, since leaving an open space between these items still takes up less space than it used to. Second, I like to cook, but my husband dreads the kitchen when I’m done. Add to the many various bowls and pots a plethora of toddler plates, cups and spoons, and a few guest dishes, and I can still fit them all in. The only items I have to wash by hand are items that are not dishwasher safe, and those few things that need a little extra help, like narrow-necked baby bottles and anything that is really baked on.

The Tall Tale of Tall Tubs
The first name in terms of capacity these days is the tall tub. Dishwasher manufacturers have been competing to shrink the guts of their machines as much as possible to make the interior of the machine taller. So far, I am told that the KitchenAid is winning this contest with the largest interior capacity. While tall tubs seem like the obvious way to go in maximizing capacity, in reality it’s the racks inside that tub that really determine how much you can fit in there.

The rack: so much more than a Medieval torture device…
Two of the main ways that manufacturers have “improved” their racks are:
a) by eliminating the need for a central “tower” that feeds the upper wash arm, thereby opening up space on the bottom rack;
b) by introducing sloping racks, particularly on the top.

While the first is absolutely necessary, the second is really a bit of a gimmick. The only way to know whether these sloping racks will actually improve the capacity of your dishwasher is to use them. And since most people don’t bring their dishes with them when shopping for a dishwasher, most people end up finding out when they get their dishwasher home whether the help outweighs the hindrance.

There’s a really big reason for this, and it has to do with what my friendly dishwasher repairman said: The racks are squares, but the wash arms can only travel in a circle. This will always limit how clean anything in the corners of the racks will be. But what does this have to do with sloping racks, you ask?

Depending on the clearance of your sloping rack, you may find that glasses will only fit on one side of the upper rack. This may not seem like a problem until you start to notice that the glasses in the corners aren’t coming out very clean. Moving the upper rack down (if it’s adjustable) to accommodate the glasses in other areas may mean being unable to fit your plates in the bottom rack. And you may find that the slope of the upper rack prevents you from being able to fit larger bowls and pans at the same time as plates. Bottom line: don’t count on this feature improving capacity.

Goldilocks and The Three Racks: but none of them were “just right”…
The biggest gimmick by far involving racks is Maytag’s three-rack dishwasher. While Miele has had a third rack—a cutlery tray on the top—for ages, Maytag thought it would try to compete by adding a third rack to their tall tub dishwasher. They thought they’d one-up Miele by putting their third rack on the bottom, for pots and pans! Unless you live in Fairy Tale Land or have 9 inch plates and 2-inch deep pots and pans, you will find that they actually managed to decrease, rather than increase, their capacity with this move. (For more on this train wreck of a dishwasher, see my review of the Jetclean II.)

One size does not fit all: adjustable and removable racks…
These are both good to have. In my experience, you will rarely use them, but on that rare occasion that you decide to put the refrigerator shelves in the dishwasher, they become quite important. If you want this versatility, most upper echelon dishwashers will give it to you, but I wouldn’t make this the most important factor.

Location, Location, Location…of the silverware rack (and other fancy accessories)…
Nearly all of the fancier dishwashers are coming out with improvements in this area. Silverware baskets that split in half, or take up a narrow edge of the bottom rack, most of which feature hinged tops with slots that help you separate each piece of silverware to get them all clean. Knife Baskets…small item baskets or nets…”snuggers” which can hold smaller items tightly against the side of the rack…folding shelves that double as stemware holders…all of these are useful, though in a very limited way. Probably the best example of a helpful accessory are the “cup clips”—plastic clips that attach to some of the tines and hold lighter items, like “sippy cup” tops, in place. I have to say it though, the winner and still champion in this category is Miele’s cutlery tray. By simply getting the silverware completely out of the bottom rack and creating a shallow rack on top for it, they’ve done the most to improve capacity. And while Miele scores the lowest on all the other accessories, this top cutlery tray is large enough to hold a fair amount of silverware and still have room for some of these small lightweight items. In addition, since Miele concentrates more on the temperature of the water than the force of the sprays (with superior results), displacement of smaller items is rarely a problem. [note: not all Mieles come with this cutlery tray; check to make sure this feature is included before buying.]

What’s this about water temperature vs. pressure? Let’s move on to Water.

”Splish, Splash, I was takin’ a bath” or How much water does it really use?
The typical range for water usage varies from brand to brand and model to model, the average for the water conserving models being 6-10. (Asko boasts an average of 4, but does not elaborate.) Many that advertise a low water usage tend to give you a range for each cycle, particularly those that employ a sensor to automatically determine the number of wash and rinse cycles (another popular, flashy gadget). Unless you’ve pre-washed your dishes, count on the actual usage being at the upper end of this range. If you have pre-washed your dishes, add the water you used to pre-wash them, and you’ll end up with the same or more. But there’s an even more hidden water thief, one none of the dishwasher user manuals mention (except in the troubleshooting section)…hot water (or rather, lack of).

To scald or not to scald, that is the question…
Did you know that the single most effective cleaner, even more so than soap, is really, really hot water? That’s the entire premise behind steam cleaners. (But that’s the subject of a different review.) And while no dishwasher that I know of claims to be able to clean with hot water alone and no soap, you can still bet that the hotter the water, the cleaner your dishes will be. (Within reason, that is. In particular, sensitive items like china and crystal should never be washed in hot water.) In fact, if the water at your kitchen sink is piping hot within moments of opening the tap, you may find that an inexpensive dishwasher will do a good job for you. Unfortunately, a great many households, including our own, don’t have that luxury.

I timed our faucet with it running at full blast. It took a minute and a half to come up to 120 degrees. That may not seem like a long time, but if you figure that the typical faucet delivers around 2 gallons per minute, that’s 3 gallons of water wasted. Turning up your water heater may help minimally, but increases the risk of scalding. If you don’t run the water until it’s hot, chances are you’re running the dishwasher with lukewarm water, which is not only not recommended, but could actually damage your dishes in addition to leaving them dirty, since cold water cannot break down the detergent. Buying a more expensive dishwasher may not fix this problem either, since many that offer heated water only do so for the rinse cycle, and will add to the length of the cycle while the heating element works to heat up the water (adding to the energy consumption too, since this is not a very efficient way of heating water).

Only two makers that I know of offer a “flow-thru” water heater, which heats the water by cycling it through heated pipes: Bosch and Miele. And only Mieleis confident enough in theirs to actually recommend hooking up your dishwasher to the cold water line to save energy. Yes, this means that the first rinse will be cold. But the water only takes about 10-15 minutes to come up to temperature, and it stays hot. Besides, even if you do run the hot water before starting a cycle, most dishwashers empty and fill several times during the 1-2 hour cycle, allowing time between fills for the water to cool off again. Only hot water breaks down the detergent correctly, melts away greasy residue (especially on plastics) and dissolves even dried-on starchy foods (eliminating the need for pre-rinsing or soaking…). All of these factors need to be taken into account when determining whether a dishwasher will really conserve water in your household.

These pretzels are making me thirsty, or is that just the heated drying?
As we use more and more plastics and delicate items, heated drying is becoming a no-no. In fact, in the interest of preserving your everyday dishes, heated drying is just not the greatest for the long run. While most American dishwashers offer heated drying as an option, the majority of European models rely on condensation drying, which is basically a fancy way of saying drying naturally. Some of the upper-level models also include a fan which circulates dry air into the wash chamber to speed drying, but unless you’re in a hurry, the condensation method is quite effective, particularly in a Stainless Steel tub…(and if you’re in that much of a hurry, towel drying is really your only viable option anyway…)

And you thought Stainless Steel was just for decoration…
Why, you ask, is it necessary to have stainless steel on the inside of a dishwasher? Believe me, it makes all the difference in the world. From the standpoint of durability alone, it’s in its own league—most units with a stainless interior warranty that interior for life. Then there’s the greasiness and odor of the aging plastic tubs that makes them also not-so-nice. But the greatest short-term benefit of a stainless steel tub is its ability to hold and radiate heat. It retains the heat from the wash water, not only making the water heating itself more efficient (due to less heat loss), but also aiding in the drying process, even for hard-to-dry plastics. For all of these reasons, this is a feature that ought to be a deal-breaker if you’re making a decision between a unit with and a unit without.

All that and the kitchen sink…
Another note about stainless steel interiors: Usually, the more expensive the model, the higher grade the stainless. The grade applies not merely to the makeup of the material, but its thickness. The thicker the metal, the more durable…and the more quiet. If you’ve ever owned a stainless steel sink (especially a cheap one), you know how noisy they can be. The thicker they are, the less easily they vibrate, and the less easily they transmit sound. Therefore, the higher grade the stainless, the quieter the dishwasher will be.

So, speaking of Noise…

Shhh…I’m trying to listen to the TV…
Come on, is TV really that important to your life? Maybe, maybe not. But even if you only use it for watching Masterpiece Theater, you don’t want to have to blare the volume while the dishwasher’s running. Especially since the trend in newer homes is to combine the Kitchen and Family Room into one big open KitschFam®…(Why do they even call it a Family Room anymore…it’s really a TV room…) (And, yes, the misspelling was intentional…) Even with our last dishwasher, which had the “QuietSeries 300 sound package—our quietest ever!” we had to turn up the volume when it was running. The key is to try and tie the “sound package” to an actual decibel (dB) rating, which can be difficult to find. A dishwasher with a rating of 50 dB or less is very quiet. Our Miele is rated at 51 dB, but in addition to being quiet, there is no humming noise from the motor—the only sound is from the light slosh, slosh, slosh of the water. It’s actually a nice sound, almost like the sound of rain on the window.

Cover me, I’m going in…
Another thing to be aware of is that most American dishwashers are unfinished in the rear and rely on having a tight seal between the body of the dishwasher and the surrounding cabinet as a final barrier to keep noise from escaping. If this seal is not tight, some of the soundproofing benefits will be lost. The European dishwashers like Miele, on the other hand, are completely self-contained on all sides, ensuring, as well as adding to, the effectiveness of the soundproofing insulation. An added bonus is that this makes them more stable, since the finished top sits snugly against the bottom of your countertop, providing counterbalance, rather than relying on the cabinet face to prevent tipping when the door is open.

It ain’t over till the..drain…sings?
Of course, the one part of the wash cycle that is difficult to muffle is at the end, when the water rushes into your sink’s drain. It seems to me that there must be some way to avoid this, but since it only happens for a very brief period, I am willing to put up with this. Similarly, in American units that are supplied with a hard food disposer, you may hear a grinding noise as this unit runs.

Which brings us to Special Features.

The daily grind…
As mentioned, many American units are proud to offer hard food disposers, for those of you who really feel the need to stuff a whole cake in, candles and all, like in the commercial. The European units typically have a filter instead, which should be checked and cleaned periodically. While this is not at all difficult, a hard food disposer means not having to remember to do it.

The only problem is that units with hard food disposers do have filters too, in order to cycle the water through the jets without simply blowing around the food particles. Some are visible, but some are not, and they can get clogged, particularly with greasy residues, resulting in the need for a service call. After only a few months of use, the repairman found our Maytag’s filter to be clogged with sludge just like this. Cleaning it required partially disassembling the motor. Running a cycle once a month or more (our repairman suggested once a week…) with vinegar can help with this, but is even harder to remember…ah, the things they don’t tell you in the owner’s manual…

The little engine that could…
sense when your dishes are clean??? Most manufacturers have begun including a “Sensor Wash” feature (usually, exclusively on their top line products), though they do little to explain how this miraculous feature actually works--only that a (cue robotic voice:) ‘sensor detects the soil level in the water and adjusts the wash cycle accordingly.’ Some go so far as to say that they do this by re-using wash water and/or adjusting the temperature. Only Miele explains in a little more detail: Their sensor works by shining a light through the circulating water to measure its turbidity. Tur…what??? Turbidity is essentially a measurement of the particles suspended in water, which affect the ability of light to pass through. If the water passes a certain standard, the dishwasher will reuse the water.

So, in practice, does it actually save water? Your guess is as good as mine. It sure sounds fancy, and the fancier it sounds, the more likely we are to believe that they wouldn’t bother if it didn’t make a difference…

The final countdown…
A common feature in upper line dishwashers is the ability to delay the start of the wash cycle. This feature can be used to take advantage of lower energy costs at off-peak times of the day. Delay options can stretch anywhere from 1-24 hours, depending on the model. In addition, many of these units will feature a display which will tell you not only the delay countdown, but also how much time is left in a given wash cycle. This is a nice feature to have, especially in units with longer wash times. Miele does not offer either on its entry-level Novotronic models.

I’m on top of the world…
Miele pioneered the ability to customize a cycle by operating only the top half of the dishwasher, conserving energy and water for small loads. This is no longer Miele’s territory alone, as the Asko and Bosch have added it to their top-line models. This feature is one of those that sounds nice, but may be less exciting when you take into account that most of these units will not accommodate a full-size dinner plate on the top rack. To compensate for this, Asko has now added the option of choosing the top or bottom.

A bird in the hand…
Asko also boasts that it has two pumps and two motors “to conserve water and electricity”, though I could not find any further information on how the two are better than one, or how they manage to conserve water and electricity.

The soft touch…
Miele has a built-in water softener, which for many households is unnecessary. In addition, most dishwasher detergents contain softening agents, so adjusting the amount used will often solve this problem.

Tight as a drum…
The European units all have water sensors that trigger a safety valve to prevent or at least minimize any leakage.

Windows 3000???
Miele offers an update function on all their machines, which means they can be reprogrammed if there are advances in dishwasher detergents or rinse aids. Cycle times and wash temperatures can in this way be modified as necessary. This is in keeping with Miele’s commitment to creating machines that will be around—and still useful—for a very long time…but whether it’s ever been (or will be) used, I couldn’t say.

Would you like a custom panel with that?
Though most American dishwashers come in the traditional white, black, sometimes biscuit and stainless steel, many of their more expensive models are incorporating more elegant designs with hidden controls. And while I like the idea of not having to fight off the curious hands of my 2-year-old from the dishwasher buttons, I’m not really willing to pay extra for these features (yet…).

The European dishwashers, particularly those in the upper price range, also come with the option of attaching a custom panel to match your cabinets (or your sofa, if you really want…) In fact, since Miele’s main market has for so long focused on homeowners in the upper income bracket (who are most likely to prefer custom panels), only oneof their models—the entry level one—comes “prefinished” in white, black or stainless. For all other units, both the front panel and the control panel must be purchased separately, either through Miele (if you want a stainless panel) or your local cabinet maker (or cousin Fred…). While the result is a highly customizable appearance, this feature tends to complicate the purchase and installation of your dishwasher. This should be taken into account in making the decision to purchase a Miele, as it adds to the sticker price, even if only by $100-200. If you wish to avoid this (or simply can’t afford that much), the “prefinished” model, while not chock full of extras, is still a top-notch dishwasher and is not a step down by any means.

So what is the right dishwasher for me?
This is a question only you can answer, and will depend on what price you are willing to pay for the features you want. When I asked a friend who works at an appliance store, he told me that they tested all the dishwashers and found that on the lower end of our target price range ($700-900), KitchenAid performed the best. Having experienced Maytag’s 3-rack disaster, I would not recommend it, though I have not heard too many complaints about their 2-rack Jetclean II (though you should check to make sure your glasses won’t be stuck in the corners—see the section on sloping racks). And while Bosch has features that try to compete with Miele and Asko, many of their less expensive models use cheaper materials and may not be as durable in the long run (and parts for European dishwashers can be expensive, not to mention the labor…). So, in my humble opinion, if you want the absolute best, you are looking for an Asko or Miele. I can vouch personally that I have yet to be disappointed by my Miele, and I’m very picky about clean dishes. (You can ask my husband…) The least expensive models in these lines are not such a stretch from the others, with Askos starting in the $800 range and the Miele at $1000-1200, depending on whether you want the cutlery tray (you do). When I was making my choice, I knew I wanted the cutlery tray and the ability to avoid wasting water while waiting for it to get hot. I had a hard time finding very many reviews of Asko dishwashers that I could tie to models currently on the market, and they seemed to vary widely in their opinion, with some finding them a bit small. So the final reason why I chose the Miele was that every review was consistently good.

A final note
I’d love to hear if this information helped you in making a decision. Leave me a comment and let me know. Also, I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible, but if I have made mistakes of omission or fact, please let me know and I will do my best to correct it. I am open to suggestions if I have overlooked something; however, before writing to tell me, “but I have this other dishwasher, and I love it!” please keep in mind that if I listed every dishwasher, this review would become far too long to be useful.

As always, thanks for reading.

Think you're ready to buy a Miele? Check out the continuation of this review at How to choose a Miele dishwasher

Other appliance reviews:
Maytag Jetclean II Three-Rack Dishwasher
Maytag Wide-by-side Refrigerator/Freezer
Maytag Gemini Gas Range
Maytag Over-the-Range Microwave
Maytag Neptune Washing Machine
DeLonghi "Steam It Clean" Steam Cleaner
Miele Novotronic G841SC Plus Dishwasher

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