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There are many things in my life that I enjoy but would not be completely devastated about if I were required to give them up. My dishwasher is not one of them.

During our recent kitchen remodel, we donated old appliances to Habitat for Humanity, all except for my stripped-down 14-year-old Whirlpool dishwasher.

Even though it has been replaced, it awaits its new home in our future basement remodel. I could not part with it. It does a flawless job, not because it's such a high-end machine but because I have learned the secrets of how to get any dishwasher to perform well.

I don't care how old your dishwasher is. If it will turn on, spray water and go through some kind of cycle, you can turn out sparkling-clean dishes. Trust me on this.

Stop rinsing. Just stop! You are wasting water, but more than that, you are removing one of the key ingredients necessary to activate modern-day automatic dishwashing detergent: acid. Automatic dishwasher detergent is formulated to work with food.

Scrape the chunks. Do not use water. Do not prewash the dishes. Simply scrape off all chunks of food with a rubber scraper spatula.

Load properly. If you don't have your owner manual, go online to get a copy. Do an online search for your particular machine, or go to a site like ManualsOnline.com. Look at the diagrams. There is a proper way to load a dishwasher. Failure to load correctly will return disappointing results. Once loaded, make sure all the moving parts can move. The spray arm should spin freely without hitting anything.

Measure the detergent. Stop dumping, and start measuring. And here's where I become a brand snob. Usually I say go for cheap, but I am passionate about buying the good stuff for my dishwasher.

Spend a little more on a high-quality product like Cascade Platinum Dishwashing Pods (not all machines are compatible with pods, so check into this for your machine) or Cascade Complete Gel Dishwasher Liquid. You have many choices. Just keep in mind that too much or too little automatic dishwashing detergent can create a big problem.

Make it hot! The water needs to be at its hottest the moment that first burst enters the dishwasher. A blast of cold water may defeat the purpose of using high-quality detergent. Before starting the machine, turn on the sink with the knob on hot. Let it run until the water it is coming out hot. Then turn off the faucet and start the dishwasher.

Consider your options. Remember that "normal" is only a setting on your dishwasher, not a personal affirmation. So, as an experiment, ditch "normal" and try another setting, like "heavy" or "pots and pans." Give those other settings a try. You'll get a longer washing cycle and hotter water. Go for the gusto to see what happens.

Keep it clean. Once a month or so, dump a packet of unsweetened lemon Kool-Aid powder into the detergent cup and run the machine empty on the longest cycle and the hottest water possible to clean the insides and the connecting hoses. Citric acid is the magic ingredient in that Kool-Aid.

I know that many reading this are scoffing right about now. You're muttering that your dishwasher is too old to wash properly, or your water is too hard, or some other reason why your dishwasher is all but worthless, which means you have to wash the dishes before dishwashing them. Even so, indulge me. Give my method outlined above a chance. Just hold your nose and load those dirty dishes properly, with the right amount of detergent on a robust cycle and the hottest water possible.

I can't wait to hear what happens.

Mary invites questions, comments and tips at mary@everydaycheapskate.com, or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. 

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