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Loaded question

Why does the humble dishwasher become such a battleground?

Felicia Zhao of Newton kicked out a roommate over their differences in loading the dishwasher. 'She put glasses under pots,' Zhao said. Felicia Zhao of Newton kicked out a roommate over their differences in loading the dishwasher. "She put glasses under pots," Zhao said. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / November 22, 2011
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When Felicia Zhao’s best friend asked to move into Zhao’s Newton townhouse, she quickly agreed, imagining happy times planning trips and discussing Korean pop music. But in less than two weeks, an unexpected source of friction arose. The pals held opposing beliefs about what goes where in the dishwasher.

“She put glasses under pots,’’ said Zhao, 22, a limo driver and a host at WUMB. “She put porcelain plates next to pots, and they’d clash and break.’’ Zhao shook her head. “I actually got rid of her because of that. That sounds really bad, but it’s true.’’

With Thanksgiving, perhaps the single biggest dishwashing day of the entire year, looming, let us turn our attention to a topic that, in some households, is even more loaded than politics: loading the dishwasher.

Otherwise reasonable people are divided on whether a pre-rinse is necessary or a water waster. Where do the bowls belong: top rack or bottom? Should silverware go business end up or down? Where do you come down on the ethics and expense of running a half-full load? Do you believe that piled dishes can actually get clean?

Somehow, a machine intended to make life easier can become a battleground, albeit one that measures a mere 24 inches across.

“People want to be in control of the dishwasher,’’ said Faith Durand, managing editor of website. “Anytime people have a routine, they want to believe that’s the right way to do it.’’

The definition of “the right way,’’ of course, varies from person to person.

The matter has not yet made it to the US Supreme Court. But Bob Markovich, Consumer Reports’ home and yard editor, handed down two major guiding principles. “You really want to make sure the tall things are off to the edges so they don’t block the sprayer arms,’’ he said. “And obviously the dirty side of the dishes should face in so they get hit by the spray.’’

If the dishwasher is fairly new, Markovich added, pre-rinsing is generally not only unnecessary but leads to the waste of thousands of gallons of water per year per household. (The advice to scrape only is widely controversial among lay “experts.’’)

Another actual expert, Lucinda Ottusch, at the Whirlpool Institute of Kitchen Science, in Michigan, advises against overlapping dishes. Food debris from the top item, she explained, can soil the one underneath. In visits that Whirlpool professionals make to consumers’ kitchens, Ottusch has seen dishwasher violations no one should have to witness - glasses lying on their sides because the rack hasn’t been lowered, Tupperware containers draped over smaller items.

But even so, she calls for peace, in particular over the question of running a partial load. “People have this misconception that it costs a lot of money to run a dishwasher,’’ she said, “but it’s about 18 cents a load [on average]. I would prefer people put out the 18 cents rather than having the hassle of telling others in the household that they are doing it wrong.’’

Easier said than done. The loading mania can become so intense that many in its grip have diagnosed themselves with DW/OCD, or dishwasher obsessive compulsive disorder. Others liken their addiction to fitting in plates, bowls, and pots to being fanatical about Tetris, the computer puzzle game.

“It drives me crazy when a dishwasher has open space in it,’’ said Jen DeAngelis of Foxborough. She’s gotten angry with her husband for running the machine before it’s full, and often reorganizes the dishes in her parents’ dishwasher when visiting. “My husband does make remarks,’’ she said.

In many households, one member is the acknowledged loading czar. That’s the case with Mary and Steve Morgan, who both agree that Mary is the superior loader. “She can really fit stuff in,’’ her husband of 33 years said as she nodded. The power structure works for the Newton couple, or did, until Steve, 62, a furniture salesman, inadvertently revealed his tactics.

Under questioning from the Globe while shopping in Watertown, Steve admitted that he doesn’t even try to load strategically because he figures his wife will fix any mistakes.

“You do it knowing I’m going to redo it?’’ Mary, 63, asked, shocked.

“Yes,’’ he gulped.

In the stereotypical situation, the woman plays dishwasher cop, but that’s not always the case. In his relationship, it’s Nick Ghilardi, 31, a bartender from Lexington, who cares more. Usually he keeps his mouth shut in the face of his girlfriend’s violations - she’s a piler - but not always. “Sweetie,’’ he coos, “we don’t stack things.’’

Standing nearby, “Sweetie’’ grinned helplessly. “I didn’t have a dishwasher growing up,’’ offered Krista Pereira, 31, a restaurant manager.

Sometimes the argument is not loader vs. loader but rather loader vs. machine. Chuck Sozio, of Sozio Home Furnishing and Appliances, in Revere and several other towns, uses the words “friendly’’ and “unfriendly’’ to describe dishwasher racks. Unfriendly racks are those that can’t be lowered or raised, he explained, or that have fixed tines.

An unfriendly dishwasher rack can increase household tension, to be sure, and also lead to hostility toward the appliance itself. Candy Gold, the host of a cooking show on Newton cable television and other stations, developed an instant antipathy toward a new high-end dishwasher that she felt was ordering her around. “You will put your forks and knives here!’’ she imagined it saying. “You must put bowls here.’’

Gold promptly returned the appliance and reports being much happier with a less expensive model with a very friendly rack. But now she has another problem: “My husband is always putting in extra soap.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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