Revisiting the Voluntary Ban on Phosphorus in Dishwasher Detergent

Dear Home-Ec 101:

A few months ago Heather wrote a post on the voluntary phosphorus ban in dishwashing detergent.  I don’t recall offhand if Texas is under that ban, but regardless I can’t buy phosphorus detergent anymore.  My cousin found a website that offers Cascade with phosphorus but hasn’t tried it out yet.  My only concern is that it says “for commercial use only”.  Is there any reason it couldn’t be used in home dishwasher?  I have an apartment sized dishwasher and I know commercial ones are much bigger but that is the only potential difference I see.

Signed,

Filmy in Fort Worth

Heather says:

Frankly, Filmy your question stumped me. You see, there are different kinds of commercial dishwashers, some are very much like home dishwashers. I put in a call to the Cascade Consumer Helpline – 1-800-765-5516 where I spoke with a very patient lady. Don’t worry, I didn’t say, “Don’t you know who I am?”

The only advice we can safely give is for you to call the manufacturer of your dishwasher and make sure the use of a commercial dish detergent would not void a warranty.

You mention that the appliance is apartment size. Are you a renter? Is this your landlord’s dishwasher? These factors would also have an impact on whether or not I chose to experiment with the commercial formula. I simply wouldn’t want to risk losing my damage deposit.

As a company Cascade is having to deal with many disappointed and even irate customers due to the change in regulations regarding the use of phosphates. All you have to do is look at the reviews of the products and this problem isn’t limited to Cascade. Some of these complaints stem from people using the detergent improperly, which must be frustrating for both the consumer and producer. Make sure you follow the directions exactly and use a rinse aid to help get rid of any film.

Additionally, set your water heater to 120°F at a minimum. Without phosphates to improve solubility, hot water is that much more important. Keeping your hot water at 120F or lower is actually in a temperature range that can allow Legionella to grow. What’s Legionella? Have you heard of Legionnaire’s disease? That. 140°F  is the temperature recommended to keep bacteria in check. As a side note, if you have young children or elderly family members in the home, it’s important to not keep the hot water heater too hot, to reduce the risk of burns. There’s always a trade off, isn’t there?

Whichever temperature you decide, be sure to give your dishwasher a jump start by running the water in the nearest sink until it’s hot before pressing start. This helps ensure the dishwasher has the hottest water possible to clean your dishes. Don’t waste that water, just fill the sink to clean the rest of the kitchen or catch it in a bucket to water plants -just let it cool, first.

Be aware that without the phosphates that help rinse away deposits aluminum cookware is more likely to discolor. It may be worthwhile to handwash these pots and pans.

Finally, Cascade recommends the Action Pacs for areas with very hard water.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.



21 Comments

  1. AlexR on September 9, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Bit late to the party here, but this article still came up pretty high in my online search. So… The tip on TSP I found useful, but I only do it in moderation for the dishwasher. Minimizing waste output is my general philosophy.

    Speaking of which, Turner may need to do a bit more thinking when it comes to accelerated holcoene climate change and CO2 mitigation. Most phosphate pollution is absorbed by shallow water algae that aren’t very good at long term carbon sequestration. Hence the problem with them ultimately ‘taking up’ oxygen (and ‘releasing’ CO2) as they decompose…

    • AlexR on September 9, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      P.S. Another option, for less residue on dishes, appears to be Sodium Tripolyphosphate (see Amazon). Now if only manufacturers, years after the ban, could finally figure out how to make a consumer product that works, including in hard-ish water and temperatures lower than 140 degrees, without additives.

  2. Turner on March 31, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Actually we should be pumping all the phosphate we can into the water system.  The federal ban on phosphates is a mistake.  Phosphates feed plant life and plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.  It is mostly the plant life in the ocean that controls CO2.  The planet has had cycles of global warming for millions of years and the balance between plant life and animals has been the thing that mitigates it.   If you’re concerned about global warming you should use lots of phosphates, particularly if your sanitary system eventually works it’s way to a river and therefore the ocean.

  3. mamikaze on February 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    We've been using Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Lemon Verbena Auto Dishwashing Packs http://amzn.to/fdCFpQ plus Jet Dry successfully for about 3 years.

    On a related note, I think more people need to clean out the bottom of the their dishwashers regularly.
    My recent post making time for mamikaze

  4. Tami on February 25, 2011 at 11:07 am

    There are several places online you can order citric acid. Amazon sells it for a good price as does MySpiceSage.com. From my research it is harmless. It is in a lot of food we eat – powdered lemonade, sprite, etc. I don't know what it would do to cookware however, but that is not an issue for us as we never put pots and pans in the dishwasher.

  5. Alice Dick on February 24, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    I have heard from several people that they are adding TSP (trisodium phosphate) to their dishwasher detergent with good results. I have not tried this myself and am not taking an ethics stance on this, just reporting. You would probably need a tablespoon or so, and you may have to experiment with the amt needed. It is available at Home Depot and similar stores in the paint department.

  6. jamie on February 24, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Just thought that I'd mention that Amway products are phosphorus free also. We have a septic system and never have any problems probably because of this.

  7. KarenL on February 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Well this is a timely and fabulous post! Hubby and I were just speaking about this – w e've noticed a difference in our glassware, too. We're in CA and I'm sure it's likely that the phosphates were banned here but it slipped by me I suppose. I assume citric acid is harmless? Would be good to know where to purchase it.
    My recent post Dipping a toe into Pilates

    • Karen L on February 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

      Hi Karen and yikes – I’d never noticed that there’s another Karen L posting at this site. I hope that hasn’t caused confusion for anyone. I was just really surprised to see that “I” had commented on detergent, when I was looking for my comment about sausages.

      • HeatherSolos on February 24, 2011 at 5:34 pm

        As someone with a very common name, I wouldn't worry about it. 🙂

  8. Tami on February 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I've started adding about a tablespoon of citric acid to my dishwasher detergent in every cycle and this completely takes care of the filmy issues – though I have always hand washed my pots and pans. But I hate the cloudy glasses and after the phosphates were removed it got bad. I started adding lemi shine, which is available at any grocery store. However the main ingredient in that is citric acid, so I started buying it in bulk, which is much cheaper. Result? Sparkling clean dishes and dishwasher.

    • Michelle on February 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm

      Where do you buy the citric acid?

    • Bobbie Laughman on February 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      Hey, I just started doing the same thing – the dishwasher at this new place was not cleaning well AND left a nasty film on everything. EVERYTHING. I put 1/2 tsp of citric acid in the pre-rinse cup and in the wash cup, along with only about 1 tablespoon of Cascade, now everything is coming out nicely.

      I bought a 10 pound box of citric acid several years ago and promptly forgot why I bought it. Finally found a use for iit. 🙂

    • Keter Magick on February 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      Exactly what I do. Look for citric acid with the canning supplies.

  9. @JayMonster on February 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    You know, it is also worth noting that there is a REASON why phosphates have been voluntarily banned. Phosphates promotes algae growth and causes "dead zones" in streams and rivers because of the oxygen deprevation it causes in the water supplies.

    Circumventing this, even if it didn't destroy your dishwasher (and considering the fact that home dishwashers are not built by the same standards and workloads and specifics as a commercial product, I would bank on the fact that long term it would be a detriment to the device), is a bad idea. There is a reason it is banned. Wipe you glasses when they come out of the dishwasher if you must, or has Heather states, wash those couple of aluminum pots by hand. Leave the phosphates out of it.
    My recent post Archos 70 Internet Tablet

    • HeatherSolos on February 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm

      I haven't done enough research to figure out where I stand on the issue. I know a lot of the problem is from fertilizer run off. I'm not saying I'm against the ban, just that I haven't done enough research to have an opinion on the topic, which is why I didn't address that point specifically.
      Speaking of blooming EVERYTHING is blooming here and I can't stop sneezing long enough to accomplish anything. Sigh.

    • Suzannah on February 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Thank you Jay! Your explanation is right on. I'm a grad student working on reducing phosphorus in animal waste run off and I'm glad there's someone else out there that knows why phosphates can cause problems!

      • HeatherSolos on February 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm

        Suzannah, do you have any references for me to check out regarding a comparison of the amount of phosphorous that stems from home use vs commercial and or farming?

        Thanks so much.

        • Suzannah on February 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm

          Heather, I was only able to do a quick search. Most studies center around agricultural phosphorus contamination. I found one paper that was published in the UK. It was published in 2002 and it reports that about 40% of phosphorus pollution is attributed to waste sewer treatment and unsewered population. You can see the link/table here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleU

          If I stumble across anything else I will definitely share.

    • Dave_R on May 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      “A REASON”?  No, it’s politics, nothing more.  Are phosphates bad?–sure, but phosphate-containing detergents are NOT the source of the environmental problem.  The fact that 16 states adopted a feel-good measure is merely a political dodge for dealing with the real problem which is agricultural runoff.   Wanna fix the “real” problem, then elect some legislators with a spine and then be prepared to pay higher food prices. 

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