4 Common Garbage Disposal Problems

garbage disposal

Garbage disposals are incredibly handy kitchen appliances. When used properly, a disposal grinds down food debris into small particles that are less likely to get stuck in drain pipes. Using a disposal helps keep food debris from rotting in landfills and most newer homes come with a disposal already installed. Garbage disposals are relatively inexpensive and if used properly, last between 10-15 years.

Use Garbage Disposals Wisely

Despite the name, a garbage disposal isn’t a trash can. Most garbage disposals are designed to handle light food scraps from a limited range of foods. In general, homeowners should avoid placing the following in their garbage disposal:

  • Fats including cooking oil, grease, butter, and heavy cream sauces
  • Starchy foods including pasta, rice, and beans
  • Fibrous foods including banana peels, potato peels, celery, and carrots
  • Hard materials including large bones, seafood shells, and egg shells
  • Any non-food liquids or solids including paint, solvents, plastic, or glass

In addition to what you put in a garbage disposal, how you operate it matters as well. Always turn on the cold water before starting the disposal and let it run while the disposal is on. Using cold water helps small amounts of grease to coagulate and flow through the pipes. Hot water thins grease and allows it to build up in pipes which can lead to clogs.

Gradually feeding small amounts of food debris down the disposal is best practice. When you finish grinding food scraps, turn off the disposal and let the cold water run for another 20 seconds to flush food particles completely down the drain pipe. If you don’t run enough water, food debris is likely to remain trapped in the drain trap or pipe which can lead to clogs and odors.

Attend to Disposal Issues Promptly

There are four common garbage disposal problems that most homeowners deal with at one time or another. Fixing these problems quickly can save your disposal and prevent bigger plumbing issues from occurring.

drain clogs

1. Clogs

A garbage disposal usually has no problem grinding up most food waste, but it’s what happens after grinding that causes a clog. Clogs are usually the result of how the ground food waste reacts to water (or lack of water) during the grinding process.

If the wrong type of food or insufficient water is used during the grinding process, a clog can develop in the drain trap, also known as the P-trap. If a large amount of food waste is ground at one time, a clog can easily occur. It’s no surprise that a spike in service calls happens over Thanksgiving weekend for just this reason.

Clogs can also develop slowly over time as the waste line and drain trap become coated with food waste. If your disposal is draining very slowly or not at all, the problem is most likely in the drain trap. Removing the trap and manually removing the clog may be an easy fix.

If you don’t locate a clog in the trap, then a clog has likely developed in another area of the drain. Depending on your comfort level with taking apart the branch drain which leads to your home’s main drain and using a drain snake, it may be time to call a plumber.

Don’t be tempted to try to clear a clog using a chemical drain cleaner. These chemicals rarely work and can easily leave you with a sink full of toxic chemicals.

The chemicals in drain openers can corrode the metallic components in garbage disposals leading to future leaks. Because of their corrosive properties, using them will void your manufacturer’s warranty. Even more importantly, when the disposal is turned back on, these chemicals can easily splash up out of the drain leading to potentially serious injuries.

There are two easy ways to help prevent clogs. First, only grind the food waste recommended in your user’s manual. Secondly, always flush the disposal with plenty of cold water when it is running and for several seconds after you turn it off.

garbage disposal

2. Leaks

Leaks from a garbage disposal can cause water damage leading to warped cabinetry, mold growth, pest infestations and foul odors. Leaks should be identified and dealt with quickly to minimize damage.

There are several areas on a garbage disposal that can develop a leak, including the plumbing connections, drainage hose, and even the outer casing of the unit itself. Garbage disposals can also develop leaks if an object falls into it and cracks the casing.

A leak around plumbing connections may only require a small repair but leaks that develop in the disposal unit itself due to corrosion or cracks are best addressed by replacing the entire unit. Most garbage disposals last between 10-15 years. If your disposal is leaking and near the end of it’s lifespan, a replacement is usually the best option.

3. Jams

If your garbage disposal won’t grind but the motor is making a loud humming noise, the inner flywheel is likely jammed. Like clogs, jams are usually the result of too much food waste or the wrong type of food waste being sent down the disposal.

When a disposal jams, it usually trips the  onboard circuit breaker which prevents the motor from overworking and burning out. Most people refer to the circuit breaker on the bottom of the unit as the “reset button.” You can usually fix a jammed flywheel yourself by using the wrench that came with your garbage disposal and following the instructions in your owner’s manual.

If you don’t have an owner’s manual, there are a few basic steps to follow that work for most units. After turning off the disposal’s power source, find the hex-shaped opening at the bottom of your disposal unit. Turn the wrench back and forth to dislodge whatever is blocking the flywheel. When the object dislodges, you’ll immediately feel the flywheel start to turn easily. Then reset the disposal and run cold water while turning the disposal on.

4. Odors

A smelly garbage disposal is annoying and unappetizing. Odors are almost always caused by food particles that have become trapped somewhere in the drain pipe. This is usually the result of not flushing enough water through the disposal while grinding food debris. Luckily, there are a few easy things you can do to help flush food particles and their odors down the drain.

baking soda and vinegar
  • Vinegar and Baking Soda. A half cup of baking soda combined with a cup of distilled white vinegar is a simple and safe way to eliminate odors. Simply pour the baking soda and vinegar into the garbage disposal and let the mixture work for about 10 minutes. Then run the disposal for a few minutes along with plenty of cold water to flush any trapped food out of the pipe. The baking soda and vinegar mixture helps deodorize disposals without using expensive or harsh chemicals.
  • Dishwashing Soap. Insert the sink stopper, add a little liquid dish soap and then fill the sink about half-way with cold water. Once you have a soapy mixture, remove the stopper and let the soapy water flush through the disposal while running plenty of cold water along with it. The mixture of dishwashing soap and cold water rapidly flowing through the drain pipe should clear out trapped food residue and help eliminate odors.
  • Commercial Cleaning Products. If home remedies don’t work, there are a number of garbage disposal cleaning products on the market. These products are specifically designed for use in garbage disposals and use different ingredients to tackle odors. You can purchase these types of products in most grocery and home improvement stores.

When Should a Garbage Disposal Be Replaced?

Garbage disposals are not easily repaired. If a part wears out or if a crack develops, its best to replace the entire unit. It's probably time to replace your garbage disposal if you have the following problems:

  • Leaks that can’t be easily repaired
  • Frequent clogs
  • Frequent jams or excessive noise
  • Slower than normal operation

If you’ve decided you need a new garbage disposal, Consumer Reports has recently updated their buying guide and it is certainly worth reading before making a purchase. Garbage disposals now come with a variety of features and the buying guide can help you determine which disposal meets your household needs.

For most homeowners, it’s probably best to leave garbage disposal repairs or replacements to trained professionals. A qualified plumber can diagnose the problem and carry out the right solution, whether that is a repair or a complete replacement.

In the Los Gatos area, call Simply Green Plumbing, Sewer & Rooter at (408) 716-1686 or contact us online to schedule an appointment. Our Los Gatos technicians have over 30 years of plumbing experience. We understand that plumbing issues can happen at any time,  that’s why we offer emergency plumbing services at no extra cost.

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