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How Do Dishwasher Cycles Work?

by Bill Welles

If you’re like most people, you load the dishwasher each night without giving it much thought. You scrape your plates, add some detergent, start the cycle, and wake up the next morning to find dishes that are sparkling clean. It's part of our daily cleaning routine and we’ve come to expect our dishwasher will get the job done.  

Especially if your parents forced you to do dishes as a kid, it’s something that’s permanently ingrained in your memory. We all know how to do dishes, but have you ever wondered how a dishwasher truly works? There’s much more to a dishwasher than selecting the start button; modern-day dishwashers are equipped with a handful of energy-efficient, time-saving cycles that will extend the life of your appliance and ensure your dishes are properly treated.  

Discover what’s taking place inside your dishwasher and follow our latest blog to find out how dishwasher cycles work.  

young woman loading the dishwasher

Dishwashers 101 

Dishwashers are programmed to run for a certain amount of time, to use an exact amount of water, and to break down food remnants and bacteria, but what takes place inside your appliance after you start a fresh cycle and walk away?  

Think of it as a cleaning tsunami—water rushes with relentless force, attacking every bit of grease and grime left behind on your plate. But more specifically, a cycle begins with a discharge pump emptying any remaining liquid into the machine. Then, hot water enters the appliance and fills a small reservoir at the bottom of the dishwasher. 

The temperature of the water and the amount of energy that is expelled will depend on the cycle you select. You want to select a cycle that will offer the appropriate level of cleanliness, and depending on how dirty your dishes are, this can affect the length of the cycle.  

Water and energy usage varies across all dishwasher brands and models, so if you want to ensure you’re operating your appliance efficiently, refer to your owner’s manual for specific cycle recommendations. Now, let’s find out which dishwasher cycles will best suit your cleaning needs.  

father and son unloading the dishwasher together 

What are the Various Dishwasher Cycles? 

  1. Normal Cycle: This cycle is used for everyday washing and drying. This cycle will treat your dishes without heavy soil, intense heat, or an extended wash time. A Normal cycle will typically run around 90 minutes. 

  1. Quick Wash Cycle: Sometimes referred to as a 30-Minute or 1-Hour Wash, a Quick Wash cycle is known to use a large burst of water and heat to clean your dishes fast and effectively. It’s an ideal choice when guests are on their way and you’re in a rush to clean a load of lightly soiled utensils, bowls, or other essential items.  

  1. Sensor Wash Cycle: The Sensor Wash automatically determines the wash and dry settings for your load depending on the temperature, soil level, and load size. It will only use the exact amount of water and energy needed to clean your dishes, making it a helpful choice for mixing items with varying soil levels.  

  1. Heavy Cycle: Oftentimes referred to as the Heavy Duty or the Pots and Pans cycle, this mode uses an additional burst of water and higher temperatures to tackle large messes and tough, stuck-on items. If you have a heavily soiled casserole dish, pot, or grill pan, this is the setting to use for burnt messes. This setting can run up to four hours. 

  1. Prewash Cycle: Also known as a pretreat function, this setting will soak any dishes with baked-on food. This cuts down on your cleanup routine because you won’t have to presoak your dishes before placing them in the dishwasher. It may also feature a separate rinse cycle that will spritz dishes right away before any food particles have time to dry to the dishware.  

  1. Delicate Cycle: This cycle runs at a much lower temperature to protect fragile items. Also referred to as a Light cycle or a Glass cycle, it’s often used for fine china, crystal, or any other items that you’d typically wash by hand.   

  1. High-Temperature Cycle: If you need to cut through greasy residue or burnt-on food remnants, use a High-Temperature cycle. This will raise the main washing temperature to a minimum of 130 degrees, helping to improve the wash and dry performance.  

  1. Sanitize Cycle: This setting turns up the heat even more, adjusting the wash cycle to 150 degrees to kill 99.99 percent of bacteria caused by food soil. You may even find a setting that features a concentrated blast of steam as part of the Sanitize function.  

freshly washed and dried dishes

What are the Dry Cycles?  

Dry cycles are oftentimes more specific to the dishwasher model, but you’re likely to find a Heat Dry option on just about every dishwasher. Heat Dry uses an internal heating element to generate an even and consistent flow of hot air around your dishes. This helps to quickly evaporate any water droplets and speed up the drying process, but in total, this can extend the length of your cycle around 30 minutes.  

Another common setting is an Extended Dry cycle. This function will either increase the final rinse temperature or extend the length of time that the Heat Dry cycle performs. The combination of these two dry settings provides enhanced drying performance and reduces any bothersome water spots left behind on your dishes and glassware.  

Effective Cleaning Elements 

As powerful and efficient as these dishwasher cycles can be, they can’t do it alone. They requires a combination of quality detergent, concentrated heat, and a dynamic wash system to ensure your dishes come out clean.  


Common household detergents will dispense at a predetermined time during the wash cycle, or they can be added to the prewash dispenser. Tablets are often more effective than powder, liquid, or gel detergents, but it can depend on the cycle you select and the soil level of each dish.  

Don’t use dish soap—it isn’t specifically formulated for the wash action taking place inside your appliance. It can create an avalanche of suds that leak out during the wash cycle and make a mess all over your kitchen floor.  


High water temperatures are used to break down food particles, sanitize dishes, and help dissolve active detergents. If you're running a cycle with water that is too cold, it might not fully break down the detergent and you'll be left with a clumpy mess.  

To ensure your dishwasher is running a warm enough cycle to sanitize properly, the water should reach at least 150 degrees.  

Wash System 

The wash system begins with powerful spray arms. Each arm rotates as they blast water throughout your appliance to cover each level of your dishwasher. These cleaning jets remove food particles from your dishes, and as food washes away, it becomes trapped inside a filter or broken down with a device that acts like a garbage disposal. 

A dual filtration system will do both to help keep your filter clear of grime. Any remaining water or food scraps are washed away through the drain hose into your pipes.  

 man loading coffee mugs into the dishwasher

Save More  

Currently, newer dishwashers will run longer cycles than older dishwasher models, but they use far less water and energy to achieve the same level of cleaning performance. A brand-new Energy Star certified dishwasher will cut the amount of water lost washing dishes by hand in half, saving nearly 5,000 gallons of water per year.  

And now that you know a little more about dishwasher cycles and how they operate, you can save even more time, water, and money. If you’re fed up with your prehistoric dishwasher, leave it in the past and upgrade to a modern-day appliance. You’ll benefit from a multitude of convenient features that are designed to make dishes less of a chore.  

If you have questions or would like to learn more, give us a call, browse our online catalog, or visit us in person to shop our entire collection of dishwashers and cleaning accessories.