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TSP: Dishwasher Rises from the Dead!

P1020531Unless you’ve been living on another planet or out in the middle of the Mohave Desert with George, by now you no doubt have felt the effects of American dishwasher detergent manufacturers’ self-banning of trisodium phosphate (TSP). This chemical, which happens to be the ingredient that used to make dishwasher detergent and a number of other cleaning products work, has been banned in 17 states of the United States of America, because when it runs off into ponds and lakes, it promotes eutrophication by richly fertilizing algae. Rather than pony up the money to market useless detergents to citizens of those states only, manufacturers chose the cost-effective road: they took TSP out of all dishwasher detergent.

Update: For a more nuanced view of this issue, see my August 30 post spinning off a link provided by a FaM reader.

The result, as many of us have noticed, has been that even the fanciest, priciest dishwasher just doesn’t get your dishes clean. Especially glasses, which come out with a stubborn, ugly, milky film all over them.

And as you know if you’re a regular reader of Funny about Money, I buy lifetime supplies of just about everything at Costco — dishwasher detergent included. Because I live with a small dog, who can’t be accused of dirtying up a lot of dishes, the dishwasher here at the Funny Farm certainly doesn’t run every day. I wait till the machine is full to turn it on…and that’s about every second or third day. So when detergent that worked went off the market a few years ago, I missed the momentous event: it wasn’t until a few months ago that I bought any of the new, wimpy dishwasher stuff.

And because I dose each load with a generous splash of vinegar, the baleful effects of the new stuff have been attenuated. Sort of.

Of late, though, the glasses have been emerging from the washer covered with a light skiff of grease or the telltale milky coating. In short, the dishwasher hasn’t been getting the damn dishes CLEAN! If I weren’t by nature cranky as a cat, this would topple the Fat Lady over the brink.

Over the many months since the righteous regulatory event came to pass, I’ve been reading bloggers’ reports to the effect that adding a little TSP, which most of us can buy at our nearest hardware store, solves the annoying problem. So yesterday I bought a box of it at the local Ace.

And lemme tell you: it doesn’t just work. It works with a vengeance!

Now understand: I’d already scoured the milky stuff off the glasses with Barkeeper’s Helper (TSP will not, by itself, remove this coating, at least not in one or two washings), and I’d been washing the damn things by hand for weeks. This caused a great deal of resentment, because I would not own a pricey Bosch dishwasher if washing dishes by hand was what I had in mind as a desirable pastime. So in general what would happen if a glass got dropped into the washer was that it would come out ever so slightly greasy. Many washings like that would have left it with a difficult-to-scour-off film, but the glasses weren’t at that stage. Just dirty. Accursedly dirty.

Following a kind of Netizens’ consensus, I put ¼ teaspoon of the TSP into the detergent cup with one Finish Powerball detergent tablet thingie. I splashed about ¼ to ½ cup of vinegar into the washer tub. Turned the contraption on. And went to bed. Dunno how well you can see this…


…but what emerged from the dishwasher this morning had NO sticky white hard-water deposit, NO spots, and NO delicate layer of grease! It was absolutely, positively, totally CLEAN.

Everything else in that load came out incredibly clean, too: the stainless-steel saucepan glowed in the dark; the stoneware dishes squeaked when touched; the silver plate forks and spoons came out clean and shiny.


I suspect a quarter of a teaspoon is more than needed, unless your water is even more extravagantly hard than it is here in the low desert (that would be a stretch). You might get away with an eighth of a teaspoon. And if, like me, you don’t run the washer every single day, any such minuscule amount would add a minimal load of phosphates to the sewer runoff. If you do have a family, it would be easy enough to hold the glassware aside, run the pots, pans, silverware, and plates through with the wimpo-detergent each day, and then fill the washer with glassware once every two or three days to be washed with a tiny amount of TSP.

{sigh} Lord, spare us!

Update: This post was included in the August 26 edition of the Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted by According to Athena,
and in the September 3 edition of the Lifestyle Carnival, hosted by Money Soldiers

21 thoughts on “TSP: Dishwasher Rises from the Dead!”

  1. TSP? (Excuse my Idiocracy moment) Like what I use to clean my cabinets? What I used on the walls of this here fixer?

    I think it’s hilarious that dishwashers now go for like 2 hours to work around something that might be solved by 1/8 tsp of… TSP.

    • Yup…that are th’stuff. Trisodium phosphate.

      It’s a powerful base. It not only chemically “sands” the gloss off your kitchen cabinets so you can lay on a new coat of paint, it strips the dirt and hard-water gunk right off your dishes.

      Just now I’m trying to figure out if it would harm an HE clothes washer. Would be kinda nice to see the whites come clean once again…

      BTW, if you decide to test it, use with caution. It’ll sand your paws, too, and if you breathe in the powder it can cause very serious harm. Wear gloves to handle any solution of it, for example when you’re cleaning walls and cabinetry.

    • Yeah, we used the face masks and the disposable gloves when we did the walls. The cabinets? We decided to leave them (you can sort of see their replacements in my piece from yesterday).

      For what it’s worth, commercial formulas still contain phosphates… some Google-Fu revealed a few places you can buy the old formula, mostly if you buy 6 or so boxes at a time.

      This ban does seem overwrought, even though it’s just 1/3 of states. Are we to believe an 1/8 tsp of TSP in home dishwasher loads is more of a problem than the phosphates from commercial laundromats and dishwashers? Or, you know, every fertilizer on every lawn and farm?

  2. You wrote about the TSP being taken out of dishwasher detergent before, but I’ve only just remembered now. I’ve been unhappy with how my dishes come out of the dishwasher in the past few months, and I’m thinking this must be why. I’ll try your fix; just gotta stop at the local hardware store to get the TSP first!

    • There’s also a product that cleans the inside of your dishwasher. I don’t recall the name of it, but if you ask at a hardware store for the bottle that you open and place in the utensil rack and then run the washer, they should know what it is. One or two applications of this will clean your dishwasher as good as new. That may also be helpful.

  3. So I’m the curmudgeon here… to point out that you’re willing to place your own selfish needs over the greater good of the entire planet in the long run?

    Over-algaenation is destroying some of our major bodies of water, as well as killing off species of marine life wholesale.

    Is it really worth sparkly glasses to know that the product you’re using is damaging the world for the coming generations?

    • Well, in the first place, the issue is not “sparkly.” The issue is CLEANLINESS. I for one don’t care to drink out of greasy glassware or to eat off greasy plates. My guess is that nothing that gets dishes and clothes clean is very good for the environment. And between you and me, I suspect I’m not the only person on this planet who would prefer not to put dirty dishes away in the cupboard.

      Washing dishes by hand — the only alternative left for those of us who favor hygienic living conditions — is very water- and energy-wasteful. A dishwasher uses much less water and power than hand-washing, which consumes up to 27 gallons of water and 2.5 kWh of energy, as compared to an efficient dishwasher’s use of 4 gallons of water and 1.5 kWh. Given that the Southwest has been experiencing severe drought for the past ten years, with no end in sight, I consider it important to save water and energy.

      Second, I very much doubt that an eighth of a teaspoon used once every two or three days is going to do much harm, certainly not compared to the harm done to Arizona’s environment by mining, electronics fabrication, endless construction, agriculture, and commuter traffic.

      Third, even if 1/8 of a teaspoon of TSP applied every two or three days is a threat to the environment, the City of Phoenix has one of the most sophisticated wastewater treatment programs in the country. Reclaimed sewage is highly treated and is recycled for use at the Palo Verde nuclear plant, in irrigation, for cemeteries, golf courses, and parks, and to supply an artificial wetland wildlife refuge.

      So, no: I don’t feel selfish. And I’d add that one reason we see the kind of resistance and hostility to progressive causes that marks the politics of our country is the tendency for Americans to use guilt-inducing and patronizing language in a mistaken effort to persuade. Patronizing with little-girl words like “sparkly” or bullying with terms like “selfish” doesn’t help the cause; to the contrary, it annoys the very people we most need to bring around to our side.

  4. Stopped at the local ACE Hardware and grabbed what was labeled in very big letters as TSP. Before I plunked down my cash, though, I looked the label over carefully and saw that it said in smaller print “phosphate free” before the TSP. Put it back on the shelf and left the store. Now on to Plan B: ordering the commercial stuff online. I guess there is no real TSP available in the Chicago market for consumers. 🙁

    • Get the red box, NOT the green box!

      The stuff is available at Also from what I can tell TSP has not been banned from commercial dishwasher detergent. You can get that from janitorial supply houses or order it online.

  5. Came across a new Insight about the use of TSP: it’s a powerful base — that’s why you shouldn’t get it on your hands, in your face, or in your lungs, and it’s also why the stuff works.

    Therefore, you should refrain from adding vinegar to the dishwasher (or to your laundry): vinegar, being an acid, will work to neutralize the basic (alkaline) TSP.

  6. We’ve definitely noticed an uptick in dishes coming out not so clean. I may have to look here. Part of our problem is that we have Fiesta dishes, which are very thick, and if we place them all in a row in the bottom shelf, it pretty much assures that anything above it is not going to get very clean. If we spread them out, mixing in some of the thinner kids plates, the side plates, the small plates we use for feeding the cat, then it seems to allow for a more even distribution of soap and water, and things come out clean.

    • Depends on the dishwasher and the way it’s built. Does your washer have an upper arm? (Mine’s attached to the bottom of the upper rack.) In some models, these are designed to squirt upward, so even if the bottom rack is overloaded, the stuff on top gets washed.

      That notwithstanding, if something really bulky gets put on the bottom, it can interfere with getting the pieces on top clean.

      I just love Fiesta dishes!

  7. Reporting back on my experiments with getting clean dishes again! I eventually found TSP (just like the stuff in your photo) at a Home Depot in the suburbs. I eagerly added a small amount to the ineffectual dishwasher detergent that night. Actually, I ended up adding more than I wanted because it was hard to get out only a small amount from a new box.

    Unfortunately, I was unimpressed with the results. The dishes didn’t seem much cleaner and there was a white residue that coated the stainless steel insides and the stainless steel pots.

    So, I did some more searching online and I found this site that went over several options. With a little more searching, I found that I could buy the commercial (phosphate-full) Cascade at a chain called Gordon Food Service that had some outlets in my area. Since the BF had an appointment not far from one today, I asked him to pick up a box. We had a pretty full dishwasher, so he gave it a test run today while I was at work. Success!! 🙂

    • It worked, then! Yay!!

      We have a janitorial supply store down the road a ways…next time I’m in that part of town, I’ll drop by and see if I can find the stuff there.

      Found the TSP created a bluish/iridescenty stain on the stainless steel interior, where it washes out of the detergent cup. It comes off with that white glass-stovetop cleaner…but thank you, I have enough nuisance tasks to fill my day without having to polish the inside of the freaking dishwasher every time I use the damn thing!! Also, that’s creepy…what kinda stuff stains stainless steel? I’ll definitely try to get my hands on some real dishwasher detergent.

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