Is It Better to Use the Air-Dry Setting on Your Dishwasher?

Most dishwashers have an air-dry setting—but does air-drying dishes in the dishwasher save power? Most importantly, does it still get your dishes clean?

Dishwashers are a staple in most homes these days, making daily hand-washing of dishes a thing of the past. Not only are dishwashers lifesavers for getting through the mountains of dishes we all make in a week, but they also use way less water and energy than hand-washing does. We love appliances that increase convenience and energy-efficiency at the same time—win, win! But did you know there’s a way to make your dishwasher even more energy-efficient than it already is?

Open dishwasher with clean dishes

Kseniya Ovchinnikova / Getty Images | Design: Better Homes & Gardens

All it takes it choosing the air-dry setting on your dishwasher. In the past, the air-dry setting made a big difference compared to the standard heat-dry setting in terms of energy-efficiency, but with improvements in technology, does this setting still make as big of an impact as it once did? Here’s what you need to know about using the air-dry setting on your dishwasher, and if it’s really the better option.

kitchen with white cabinets and farmhouse sink
Brie Williams

How Dishwasher Drying Cycles Work

 In the past, all dishwashers used the same heat-dry process to dry the dishes at the end of the wash cycle. This heat-dry process utilized a heating element at the bottom of the dishwasher to create hot air inside the machine, which was then circulated with internal fans to dry the dishes. The heating element made storing plastics on the bottom rack of the dishwasher impractical, since they were likely to warp and melt during the drying cycle, and it was also said to wear down the appliance over time, especially with lots of use. Because of these shortcomings, most modern dishwashers (especially ENERGY STAR–certified ones) are equipped with a new drying process called condensation drying.

Whereas old dishwashers were made with plastic tubs, dishwashers that use condensation drying today are made with stainless steel, which make this process possible. Condensation drying works by using hot water to rinse the dishes at the end of the wash cycle. When the hot, moist air inside the dishwasher comes into contact with the cooler stainless steel interior, condensation occurs. As a result, water is pulled off of the dishes and drained at the bottom of the tub. Condensation drying is significantly more energy-efficient, hygienic, and safe for your dishes and machine than the old-fashioned heat dry setting.

In contrast, the air-dry setting uses room temperature air to dry dishes by circulating it around the machine with internal fans. Most new dishwashers are equipped with this option. Since it does not use heat, the air-dry setting is even more energy-efficient and safe on your dishes than condensation drying. However, it has its downsides, too.

Do All Dishwashers Have an Air-Dry Setting?

Unfortunately, not all dishwashers have an air-dry setting. It depends on the make and model of your appliance, as well as how new it is, but even if your dishwasher doesn’t come with a built-in air dry setting, there is still a way to air-dry your dishes, if you prefer. Simply choose an express or delicate wash cycle that does not include any drying time and then, once the cycle has finished, crack open the door of the dishwasher slightly to allow excess moisture to escape and your dishes to air dry.

Dark blue cabinets with dishwasher
Erik Johnson

Pros and Cons of Using the Air-Dry Setting

Studies have shown that the air-dry setting uses about 15% less energy than a standard heat-dry setting, but the numbers are less readily available when it comes to the energy efficiency of the air-dry setting versus condensation drying. The air-dry setting is also said to be gentler on your dishwasher as well as your dishes thanks to the lack of heat, which can wear down your machine over time.

These benefits of air-drying your dishes come with a few tradeoffs, though. Using the air-dry setting can mean your dishes take longer to dry, so if you’re in a rush to get your clean dishes in time for dinner, you may want to opt for your standard drying cycle. You may also find that the dishes come out a bit damp compared to when you use a heat-dry or condensation-dry setting, or are left with more water spots on them. (It should be noted that it is completely normal for plastic dishes and concave items to retain some water and moisture after drying, no matter what drying setting you use!) Lastly, the fact that not all dishwashers have this setting is a bit of a drawback. Even if your dishwasher does have an air-dry setting available, it may need to be manually programmed each time you run the dishwasher, which can feel inconvenient or lead to forgetting to do it entirely.

Cups on kitchen counter above dishwasher
Aliyev Alexei Sergeevich / Getty Images

So: Is Air-Drying Better?

Ultimately, whether the air-dry setting is better for you is a personal preference. Today’s dishwashers are far more energy-efficient than they were in the past, so the distinction between air-drying versus the standard dry settings is a bit blurrier. It is certainly still the more eco-friendly and energy-efficient option, even when compared to condensation drying, but some may find it more inconvenient and not worth the hassle for the small amount of energy it may save. However, if you are looking for ways to cut down on your energy use around the house and you don’t mind waiting a little bit longer for your dishes to dry, then switching to the air-dry setting is an easy way to improve your home’s eco footprint with just the press of a button.

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