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Dear Matthew Alice:

Now that my wife is pregnant with our first child, I have the responsibility of doing the dishes a little more often while she naps. One thing I keep noticing is no matter how many times the dishwasher runs with the heated dry cycle, plates, glasses, and pots all come out dry, while anything plastic such as Tupperware lids, plastic cups, water bottles (and soon baby bottles too?) are still wet at the end of a cycle. I've seen this in just about any dishwasher I've encountered. Why is this?

-- A San Diego native now residing in Seattle

Blame it all on a dark star. A dark federal government star. The Energy Star program, the Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to muscle manufacturers into making energy-saving appliances. Guidelines for dishwashers virtually guarantee that plastics won't dry; though, even with old energy-eating dishwashers, they don't dry well anyway. Efficient drying depends on three things. The rinse water has to be very hot, at least 120 degrees; the heat-dry element has to get really hot; and the dishes themselves must be able to conduct heat.

We checked with two appliance wizards who were pretty sick of explaining this to a damp public. Got basically the same info from both. By EPA standards, Energy Star dishwashers can't draw enough current to make our hot tap water much hotter than it already is. The heat-dry mechanism can't draw enough current to dry everything completely. And plastic doesn't absorb heat well; a hot plate or fork helps evaporate dampness from itself, thus boosting the machine's drying power.

Solutions? Our experts say you can turn up the temp on your household water heater (a waste of energy and a scalding danger in, say, your shower); waste even more energy by extending the washer's drying time (which might not help anyway); or add a rinse agent to each wash (to make water slide off dishes more efficiently), though that really won't help much with plastics. Neither repairman was enthusiastic about the results you'll get. In the end, their advice was the same as all advice for dealing with a government program. Shrug your shoulders, sigh, have a beer, and live with it.

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