Friday, April 05, 2013

Good Idea Friday - Kool-Aid For Your Dishes

"Just use a pack of Lemonade Kool-aid to clean your dishwasher" 

Before you all click away thinking I've lost my mind--stick with me on this. It is a good idea. Sort of at least. Why? Because of the citric acid found in the drink mix. 

So first off, let's talk about what is citric acid. It's an organic acid that is oftentimes is used in foods to create that 'zing' or sour taste, and also as a preservative in things like canning fruits. (It can also be used in everything from bath salts to drink tablets to help create fizz) 

In cleaning it is used as a descaler and very useful in removing lime and mineral buildup and softens water. Which is why it works so well in your dishwasher.  Often times, especially if you live in an area with naturally mineral rich water or hard water, you dishwasher can get clogged over time with build up. 

In my research I was curious though as to just how MUCH citric acid is in Kool-Aid. For all I knew it was just a small amount, making this worthless as you'd need to add a lot of packets to get the desired effect. But I found several science papers on the content of citric acid in Kool-Aid. Who knew? Apparently it's a common item in high school chem classes!  These papers state that the content of citric acid and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is 100:1 ratio. The size of a package of Kool-aid is .23 oz, and costs about 10-20 cents a pack. 

Not to mention you can buy straight-up citric acid online for around $16 for a two pound jug. Doing the math on that, that is the same as spending around $27 for the same amount in the Kool-Aid packs, and without all the other stuff (flavors, dyes) that are found in the mix. So you're actually getting a far better deal buying just citric acid than you would buying the Kool-Aid. 

If you've ever used lemon juice to descale your kettle or coffee pot, you can see how powerful citric acid is in cleaning. So yes, this is a good idea, and yes, Kool-aid will work, but you're better off keeping Kool-Aid on the shelf and just reaching for pure citric acid instead. Most grocery stores carry it, if not by name then as "Sour Salt", it's often kept in the canning section of your store. And you can use it elsewhere besides your dishwasher--you can even mix some with hot water in a zip top baggie, place over your clogged shower head and tie in place. Leave over night and it's build up free by morning. Anywhere you get mineral build up can be cleaned with citric acid (think of if it as a more natural CLR for the house).


  1. An alternative compound that will get the same effect for even cheaper is sodium carbonate; commonly known in the UK and is sold in grocery stores as Soda Crystals.

    My fella who is dishwasher trained to repair breakdowns--especially surrounding limescale buildup uses these for the first wash before he even starts diagnosing, because it fixes the problems more than half the time.

    1. Oh good to know! On a previous post I talked about how you can mix it with peroxide to make your own oxygen bleach (aka Oxy-clean) It seems one of those products that is more widely used in the UK than it is in the US, but for my US readers most larger chain stores like Target do carry washing soda. How much does he use to help fight the build up?

    2. Well, not really. Sodium carbonate is soda ash, also called Washing Soda (and sold under both names) in various grades.

      Soda Ash itself is a water softener, and is added particularly to make the other ingredients more effective. Those other ingredients are typically borax, citric acid, and very often, kosher salt. Citric acid has an entirely different function than soda ash/washing soda, and one needs both - neither replaces the other. Citric acid is used to cut through some types of stains, and the washing soda makes it more effective, but they have different functions in this combination.

  2. Finally, somebody looking more technically at this! One problem is that actually it is never said how much citric acid by volume is in these mixes - everybody says "Use X packets". But no volume info is on the packets. Instead, it's by weight (o.23 oz), which says absolutely nothing about volume - which is what every recipe uses.

    If the amount of citric acid is the same between recipe one and two, then the only other difference is the colorings, flavorings, and other ingredients in the drink mix. The kool-aid ingredients show that it is mostly citric acid, and replacing the drink mix with citric acid should work identically if the amounts are the same, AND if the other ingredients in the kool-aid don't impede the cleaning in some way.

    Anyway, I think the real difference there is going to be the amount of citric acid used, overall, in each recipe. There is an issue with figuring out how much of the mostly-citric-acid Kool-Aid is actually citric acid, and the article here doesn't explain that.

    This article compares 5 typical dishwasher powder recipes:

    I think the above article does a great job of showing the problem - the two supposedly identical mixes (one using kool aid, the other citric acid) worked differently enough in the test that I doubt the amount of citric acid was similar.

    Each packet of Kool-Aid is 0.23 ounces in weight - which says literally nothing about its volume. However, citric acid is the number one ingredient, and other sources claim the amount of citric acid to vitamin C added in the ingredients of the drink mix is about 100 to 1, which I take as meaning the vast majority of the mix is citric acid, which is borne out by the label showing vitamin C at less than 2% of the overall mix.

    So, somewhat arbitrarily, let's say the citric acid content is about 0.2 oz. The question is, in order to compare lemonade-mix recipes to pure citric acid recipes, what's the amount? In the above article, it was 1/2 cup of citric acid in one recipe, but only 5 packets of mix in the other. Assuming 0.2 oz (by weight) per packet, that's 1 full ounce in weight. So, I took out a gram scale, and weighed out 1 oz of citric acid, then poured that into a measuring cup to find out the volume.

    The reveal: the kool-aid recipe is about 1/8 cup, or only a quarter of the citric acid as in the pure citric-acid recipe! In the review cited above, it appears both recipes cleaned similarly, with the kool-aid recipe seemingly only very slightly different from the citric-acid recipe. And that's possibly because the items cleaned with each method weren't identically dirty. This suggests that one could use 1/8, or two tablespoons, rather than 1/4 cup, cutting the cost of the citric acid use by 75%.

    This makes a typical recipe something like:

    1 cup borax
    1 cup washing soda
    2-4 tablespoons citric acid
    1/4 cup coarse salt