This post isn't pretty because I am tired and don't feel like all the picture adding and editing tonight, but it's full of excellent info on the ever elusive perfect washing routine. I have lived in places with hard water, soft water, and weird water that is soft one day hard the next. I have washed every kind of diaper from flats to prefolds to pockets to all in ones. After a year of trial and error I found my perfect wash routine that has been with me through four different detergents, three different houses, and my go at cloth diapering my daycare kiddos. I'll start with the basics of removing "dirt" from cloth.
There are three ways an item can be cleaned:
1. Thermal Energy, or in other words HEAT. Warmer water enables the detergent you use to react with the water quicker and more fully in order to remove the most foreign matter. This is why I do a warm rinse in the beginning, and use a hot wash with my detergent.
2. Kinetic Energy, meaning the rubbing action you get when the diapers are agitated in the water and rub against one another. The rubbing helps to loosen any debris and the water washes it away. It is important to have enough diapers in the wash that they are sufficiently agitating against each other. If they are floating around in the water, there is nothing to scrub that poop off. Or, conversely if they are so cram packed into the washer they wad up into a big ball, there isn't enough rubbing to get them clean.
3. Chemical Reaction, as in the detergent you use and the amount you use for each load. It attracts the debris out of the cloth and into the water to be washed away.
The most effective wash routine combines all three methods for the cleaning trifecta. My routine looks like this:
I store wet and dirty diapers in a hanging wet bag until I get enough to run a load (usually 3 days.)
I use fleece liners for solids-eaters, and just flick the poop into the toliet, I do no rinsing of any kind.
On wash day I unzip the wetbag and dump the diapers into the washer, along with the wetbag. I do not unstuff pockets, they come out in the wash (if you stuff with prefolds though you will need to unstuff them.) I have trained myself to automatically do up the laundry tabs on aplix diapers when I take them off of baby, before they go in the wet bag.
After I get all the diapers into the washer, I run a warm rinse. Stains are best removed at the temperature in which they occurred, so warm water works best for rinsing diapers. I do a warm rinse first to remove any urine or large debris so that the detergent can really do its job. Also, if the fibers are really thoroughly soaked, they accept the detergent better than if they are getting wet while the detergent is dissolving.
After the warm rinse I add my detergent and do a hot wash. I have used several, and honestly all of the cloth diaper friendly ones are about the same, I use whatever I can find for cheap. Charlies, Rockin Green, EcoSprout, and Ruby Moon to name a few have been pretty good. For hard water I use a tad more than recommended, for soft I use the amount they recommend on the package.
*A note here on Tide. Tide was cloth diaper heaven for me. It gave me the fluffiest, whitest, most fresh smelling diapers ever. HOWEVER after using it for a year, my elastics pretty much turned to DUST. When I switched to Ecosprout from Tide, I had to continuously rinse my diapers for 3 days to get the Tide out. We're talking about 30 rinses total people. If you are looking for longevity from your diapers, I cannot recommend Tide, but if you just want pretty diapers and don't care how long they last go right ahead, to each her own.*
Ok, so if you have hard water you're done after the hot wash with detergent. Extra rinses do not benefit you if you have hard water, as the water is your enemy with hard water. If you have soft water, go ahead and rinse on warm at the end if you like. Warm water helps remove more soap particles because the heat causes a better reaction. Cold water will appear to work because there are no suds, but really there are no suds just because the cold water is preventing the detergent reaction and leaving the spare detergent particles in the fibers of the diapers. (Ever try to dissolve sugar in cold water vs hot water?)
After the wash is done, I lay my covers and pockets on the drying rack and put everything else, including all in ones into the dryer on medium heat for 45 minutes. This fluffs the all in ones, but doesn't dry them completely. After the 45 minutes, I take anything with PUL out and hang it to finish drying. This cuts down on your drying time for the thick diapers and makes them softer, but isn't so hard on the PUL. For the other stuff (inserts, prefolds, flats, etc.) I turn the dryer to the hottest setting and dry them for about 45 more minutes. The hotter the dryer the quilt-ier your prefolds. Those pretty wavy cushy prefolds come from hot water and hot dryers, and all those little waves suck up more moisture and make your prefolds extra absorbent.
Stay away from vinegar, dawn, calgon, RLR, ketchup, etc unless you truly determine the exact cause of any issues you're experiencing. Dumping a bunch of stuff into your washer randomly, in my experience, typically just makes things worse. Don't obsess over it, in the end, diapers are just pieces of fabric that our babies poop and pee on. Although it is difficult to remember that when you have your eye on that custom hard to find one of a kind piece of fabric.