By Alina Tugend
I’ve been writing on some weighty topics lately — too little money, too many choices, too few jobs. It’s time, I decided, to move on to some questions that haunt me almost every day.
How much detergent should I put in my washing machine and dishwasher?
Do I need to do more for my dryer than clean that little pull–out lint catcher?
Should I rinse my dishes before putting them in the dishwasher?
Most of us learned how to use a washing machine or dishwasher in our parents’ house many years ago and haven’t really changed our methods, even though most appliances have evolved radically since then. We rarely, if ever, read the manuals when we buy a new one or glance through the instructions on the box of detergent or bottle of dishwashing liquid.
But because we’re probably using these appliances incorrectly, our dishes and clothes may not be coming out as clean as they could be. And we may also be damaging the machines.
Let me start with soap. The No. 1 sin, according to repair people and appliance experts, seems to be adding too much soap to washing machines or dishwashers.
“Nobody thinks they use too much soap,” said Vernon Schmidt, who has been a repairman for almost 35 years and is the author of a self–published book, “Appliance Handbook for Women: Simple Enough Even a Man Can Understand.” But apparently most of us are in denial.
Washing machines and dishwashers are made to use far less water now than older models and, therefore, need less soap. And detergents have also become increasingly concentrated. So a little goes a long way.
“Most people use 10 to 15 times the amount of soap they need, and they’re pouring money down the drain,” Mr. Schmidt said.
Following the instructions on the soap container is a good first step. Christina Saunders, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, which makes Tide, Cheer, Gain and other laundry detergents, said researchers at the company did thousands of loads of laundry to determine the right amount of soap needed.
She said the caps were changed on liquid detergent containers a few years ago to make the lines specifying amount of soap needed for different size loads easier to see.
Mr. Schmidt, however, argues that depending on how hard or soft your water is, one–eighth to one–half of what is usually recommended should be adequate.
Too much detergent can make your clothes stiff and shorten the life of your machine. An excess of soap can also cause a buildup of mold and mildew, said Jill Notini, a spokeswoman for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a trade group.
With high – efficiency machines – which includes all front – loading machines and any top loader that specifically states that it’s high efficiency — it’s a good idea to use detergents specifically made for them, she said. The detergents usually have H.E. on the front of the container. But don’t expect to see a lot of soap action.
“If people see suds, they think their clothes are getting clean, but that’s wrong — it means you’re using a lot of extra detergent,” Ms. Notini said.
Here is Mr. Schmidt’s test to determine if you’re over soaping. Take four to six clean bath towels; put them in your front–loading washing machine (one towel for a top loader). Don’t add any detergent or fabric softener. Switch to the hot water setting and medium wash and run it for about five minutes.
Check for soap suds. If you don’t see any suds right away, turn off the machine and see if there is any soapy residue. If you see suds or residue, it is soap coming out of your clothes from the last wash.
“I’ve had customers that had to run their towels through as many as eight times to get the soap out,” Mr. Schmidt said, who lives in Indiana. He offers other handy advice on his Web site, refrigdoc.com.
Too much soap is also a problem in dishwashers and can cause dishes and glasses to look filmy. Again, check the detergent container for recommended amounts — you definitely don’t have to fill up the entire soap container in the dishwasher.
Also, if your plastic items come out still wet, that doesn’t mean your dishwasher is not doing its job. Most dishwashers today emit less heat than the older models, so plastic doesn’t dry completely.
Loading the dishwasher right will also get your dishes cleaner. When I was growing up, apparently only my mother knew the right way to load. But since my mother can’t get to all your houses, Consumer Reports offers these much–needed tips on its Home and Garden blog. (Please don’t e–mail me if you disagree about these suggestions — like religion and politics, we all have our own views on this matter.)
Load large items at the sides and back of the dishwasher so that they don’t block water and detergent from reaching other dishes.
Place the dirtier side of the dishes toward the center of the machine for more exposure to spray.
Load silverware in the individual silverware slots most dishwashers now include. If you have an open basket, mix forks, spoons and knives to prevent them from sticking together.
Also, remove baked on food and large chunks, but for the most part, everyone I spoke to said pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher was not only unnecessary, it wasted thousands of gallons of water and could actually result in dirtier dishes.
“The soap needs something to work against to get the dishes clean,” said Lou Manganiello, who owns Household Appliance Service in Hawthorne, N.Y., and has been doing repairs for 23 years. For full disclosure, he has also ably repaired my appliances from time to time.
Now, on to dryers. I don’t happen to use those fabric softener sheets, but if you do, practice restraint, Mr. Manganiello said.
On the theory that if one is good, five must be better, people throw in a bunch of the sheets. Those liquefy when the dryer gets hot and can gum up the dyer, becoming “almost like tar and feathers,” Mr. Manganiello said.
Also, clean the lint below the removable filter. I bought an item at my local hardware store that looks like a bottle brush, but is longer, denser and has a kind of thin nose. It reaches down and removes lint you can’t get to otherwise.
And think about cleaning lint off the dryer where it vents outdoors.
Of course, the best way to extend the life of your dryer
is to use it less often by hanging out your laundry on a clothesline when the sun is shining.
One last bit of advice on an appliance — your oven. Use the self–cleaning mode more than once a year — otherwise, so many food particles have built up that when they burn off, smoke will billow throughout your entire kitchen. But don’t clean right before a big holiday dinner, Mr. Schmidt advised.
That’s because the oven heats so high during cleaning that any weak part will give.
“If it’s ever going to fail, it will then,” he said. “Every holiday we get swamped with calls.