The staff at Perla's Appliances Plus in the Swissvale Shopping Center used to automatically schedule a service call when customers called complaining about dishwasher problems. In recent months that has changed following a flood of calls about glasses not getting clean and other dishes coated with residue -- problems that often turn out to be caused by something other than machine malfunctions.
"It's been progressing to the point that we've gotten used to telling people to try all the other things first," said Rocco Perla Jr., whose family has had the business for decades. "We're doing a lot of advising."
Effective in July, makers of dishwasher detergents such as Cascade and Finish and Palmolive eliminated phosphates from their products, reformulating trusted brands that Americans hadn't thought much about for years. The move, which was required by the governments of several states including Pennsylvania, was made relatively quietly.
But American kitchens began filling with complaints when people started seeing white film on their dishes and getting otherwise unappetizing results. Their determined efforts to get sparkling dishes again have sent ripples through related businesses, from a rash of phone calls to appliance stores and plumbers to sales boosts for any product that might offer relief.
"Overall, it's been an amazing year," reported Dustin Bryson, marketing liaison for Envirocon Technologies Inc. The small Midland, Texas, company makes a product called Lemi Shine, an additive made with fruit acids and citrus oils that saw sales skyrocket last year.
Lemi Shine sales rose 75 percent to $4.69 million in a 52-week period through November, with unit sales up by the same percentage.
That's a tiny portion of the $600 million dishwasher detergent/additive market tallied by Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group by tracking sales through supermarkets, drugstores and mass market retailers (excluding Wal-Mart, club stores and gas stations).
It's plenty to juice results for a small business.
"In the past, we were relegated to parts of the country that had hard water problems," said Mr. Bryson, who said Lemi Shine was introduced about a decade ago as Envirocon's first product.
Now, spurred on by recommendations on discussion boards and by media mentions, people are requesting the additive be offered by their local retailers, in addition to being carried at mass market players such as Wal-Mart and Target. Distribution grew by 60 percent last year.
Endorsements may have helped other products, as well. In the September issue of Consumer Reports magazine, the editors gave solid ratings to Finish Quantum and Powerball Tabs, as well as to Procter & Gamble's Cascade Complete All in 1 and Cascade with Dawn ActionPacs and Method's Smarty Dish line. All showed gains in the Symphony IRI report.
The magazine noted none of the new products that it tested quite managed to equal the baked-on crud elimination power of the best detergents of the past when phosphate helped soften water and stop particles from redepositing on dishes.
Phosphate, seen as a factor in environmental problems such as excess algae growth in rivers and streams, was eliminated years ago from most laundry detergents. The new rules banning the additive from dishwasher detergents does not apply to products used in commercial dishwashing machines.
A change in any number of things can disrupt performance for dishwashers and leave kitchenware a mess, according to Mr. Perla. "It's a little bit hard to identify because lots of different things can cause that."
He remembered awhile back when consumers were urged to turn down the temperature on their hot water heaters as a means of saving energy.
But lower water temperatures can be a factor in causing etching on glasses. After that, Mr. Perla said more dishwashers started being built with heaters to raise the water temperature at crucial times.
That sort of thing could happen this time around, too, he said. Appliance manufacturers may tinker with their designs to improve performance without the phosphate-containing detergents, in addition to the work being done by detergent makers to improve their formulations. "I'm sure that's an ongoing process for them," Mr. Perla said.
Most people don't replace their dishwashers very often, so for now the focus seems to be on the detergents, the water and additives.
Numerous message boards have kept the conversation going with comments posted by those sharing their experiences.
The advice has been abundant, including on sites such as Procter & Gamble's Cascade product review board, the American Cleaning Institute's frequently-asked-questions area and various discussion sites, including Facebook pages.
One suggestion -- using a bit of white vinegar in different ways to clean off glasses or just flush out the dishwasher -- has been quite common.
A spokeswoman for Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Co., said sales of its vinegar, and of the overall category, had been healthy, but that there was no sign of a rush on bottles for use in dishwashers. Yet.
For advice on dishwasher problems, http://www.cleaninginstitute.org/clean_living/common_dishwashing_problems__solutions.aspx
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2018.