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Home Care Library

Garbage Disposal

Garbage Disposal DO's and DON'Ts

Garbage disposals can be dangerous and cause problems if they are not used properly. This article and video will help you understand how your garbage disposal works, how to operate it safely and avoid common problems, and the simple maintenance tasks that you should do to keep it running properly:
  • How Your Garbage Disposal Works

  • Do’s and Don’ts

  • What Can Typically Go Wrong

  • Routine Maintenance

This article and video will help you understand how your garbage disposal works, the do's and don'ts of operating it safely and properly, what can typically go wrong and how to fix these problems, and finally, the simple maintenance tasks that you should do to keep it running properly.


You can think of your garbage disposal as being like an industrial strength food processor. Just like a food processor, your garbage disposal uses sharp blades to chop of the food. But in the case of your disposal, it continues to chop up the food waste until it becomes small enough to exit through the small holes in the screen at the bottom of the unit.

Let’s start by first looking at the key parts of your garbage disposal and how they work:


Rubber Shield or Sink Plug:

 There are two type of garbage disposals: continuous feed and batch feed styles. The only basic difference is how they turn on. The continuous feed style will have a rubber shield at the bottom of the sink, and after food is pushed through the rubber shield into the disposal, you need to flip a switch on the wall to turn the disposal on. The purpose of the rubber shield at the top of the disposal is to keep food waste from flying out of the operating disposal. A stopper can be placed in the disposal to hold water in the sink when you're not using the disposal. With “batch feed” models, you place a special stopper in the disposal opening and turn it, which then activates a switch that turns on the disposal.


Sink Flange:

 This is the metal bracket that holds your garbage disposal to your sink. With all of the whirring and grinding of your disposal, this flange can become loose and begin to leak water.



 The body of garbage disposal is the metal housing which holds your garbage disposal.


Impeller Blades:

 The impeller blades are the very sharp metal cutters which spin at high speed to chop up your food waste.



 The electric motor at the base of your garbage disposal is what causes your impeller blades to spin around.


Power Cord:

 The power cord is what brings electricity to the motor.


Reset Button:

 The reset button is located at the bottom of your garbage disposal, and it pops out when the motor on your garbage disposal has tripped its internal circuit breaker.


Crank Socket:

 The crank socket is located in the center of the bottom of your disposal, and this socket is where you can put in a large Allen wrench to turn the motor back and forth to free up things that are binding the impeller (only to be done with the power turned off!).


Drain Piping:

 The drain piping is where the chopped up food waste and water will exit your garbage disposal.


Pipe from Dishwasher:

If you have a dishwasher, then your garbage disposal will have a connection port where the discharge pipe from the dishwasher will connect.


Air Break:

 And finally, if your dishwasher is connected to your garbage disposal, then it should have an “air break,” which is a device that prevents dirty water from your drain piping from ever being siphoned back into your dishwasher.



Now let’s look at some “do’s and don’ts” that you will want to keep in mind so that you are operating your garbage disposal safely and avoiding the cause of frequent problems. First, let’s look at the “do’s”:


Do run a full stream of COLD water while before and while grinding.

 Then let the cold water run for at least 30 more seconds after you turn off the disposer. The cold water helps keep fats in solid form, so they don’t clog up your disposal. Also, the cold water help to keep your disposal’s motor cool while it is running, which helps extend your disposal’s useful life.

Do put only soft food items into your garbage disposal.

 Hard food items like bones etc. will damage your disposer.

Do check for leaks frequently.

 Your disposal has flanges, gaskets and pipe connections, and these can be a source of leaks which can lead to mold, pest infestations, etc. in the cabinets under your sink.

Now let’s look at what you should NOT do with your garbage disposal:


Don’t ever put your hand in the garbage disposal, even when it is turned off.

 The sharp blades can cause serious injury even when they are not spinning.

Don’t pour bleach in the sink,

 as bleach can damage your disposal’s seals. If you are concerned about odors from your disposal, then you can treat your disposal with baking soda and vinegar, or grind up citrus peels.

Don’t leave dish rags in the area near your sink.

 The rags may slip into the disposer and be very difficult to remove when they bind up the impeller of your disposal

Don’t overfill your garbage disposal.

 This will create too much pressure on the system, causing it to bog down, which hurts your motor.

Don’t turn off your garbage disposal while it is still grinding.

 Be sure all grinding is completed, and then let the cold water run for another 15 seconds to be sure everything is flushed out.

Don’t put grease, egg shells, potato peels or fibrous foods like corn husks into your disposal.

 Egg shells and potato peels can lead to build-up in your pipes. And fibrous foods like corn husks can tangle and jam the blades, which hurts your motor. Pasta and rice expand when soaked in water, and tend to clog up your pipes. Coffee grounds, plastic, paper, etc. not only can damage your disposal, but can also clog up your pipes. Remember: a garbage disposal is NOT a trash can. Only put bio-degradable food waste into your garbage disposal (see costs and reviews of countertop compost bins).


Let’s now look at can typically go wrong with a garbage disposal, and what to fix these problems:

Disposal Will Not Turn On (with no noise):

 If your disposal will not turn on and it is NOT making a humming sound, then there is likely an electrical problem. The plug may have come loose or you may have tripped a circuit breaker.

First, check to be sure if the unit is properly plugged in. Next check your main electrical panel to see if the circuit breaker for the unit has tripped.

Next, check to see if the “reset button” on the bottom of the disposal has popped out. If it is in the out position, then push it back in.

If none of these allows your garbage disposal to turn back on, then the motor has likely gone bad, and will need to be replaced. Given the cost of a new disposal versus the cost of repairing an older one, it usually makes sense to just replace the entire unit.

Disposal Will Not Run (but makes a humming sound):

 If the garbage disposal is making a humming sound, but is not spinning when you flip the switch, it likely means it has something which is binding the impeller and keeping it from spinning. If this is the case, do not keep turning the disposal on, as this can damage the motor.

First, unplug the unit or flip the breaker at your main electrical panel.

Next, insert a large Allen wrench into the crank socket at the bottom of the unit and rotate it back and forth to see if you can dislodge the object.

If this does not work, then another approach is to use a wooden broom handle or similar wooden object to try to rotate the impeller and dislodge the object. Remember, even with the unit off, do not put your hands in it, as the impeller blades are sharp enough to cause injury.

If none of this works, then you will need to remove the unit and disassemble it to remove the obstruction.

Sink Flange Leaks:

 If you notice water leaking from around the sink flange, then the problem could be due to loose bolts or failed plumber’s putty.

To fix this, unplug the unit or flip the breaker at your main electrical panel.

Next, disconnect the drain pipe and the connection to the air break.

Holding the unit firmly, rotate the disposal to the left (counter-clockwise from bottom) to loosen and remove the unit from the mounting flange.

Check the bolts on the mounting flange. If they are already tight, then the problem is likely failed plumbers putty. To replace the plumbers putty, you will need to loosen the mounting bolts, scrape the old putty out, and then replace with fresh putty.

Then tighten up the bolts on the mounting flange, re-attach the disposal, and then re-connect the drain pipe and air break connection.

Water leaking from the bottom through the motor:

 If the sides of your garbage disposal are dry and water is leaking from the bottom through the motor, then the problem is likely that it is leaking through the flywheel seal and into the motor (see costs and reviews of under sink kitchen cabinet mat).

If this is the problem, then you will need to either replace the flywheel seal or replace the entire disposal.

To replace the flywheel seal, you will need to remove the disposal and disassemble it, or you can take it into an appliance service professional. As mentioned above, given the cost of repairing an old disposal versus the cost of replacing with a new one, you may be better off just replacing it.

Slow Draining:

 If your disposal sounds like it running normally, but the water is going down the drain slowly, then the problem is likely a clog in the drain pipe downstream of the unit.

If this is the problem, then you can try a product like "Drano" which is guaranteed by SC Johnson Wax to get your drain flowing again. By "guaranteed" they mean that if it fails to clear your clog, Johnson Wax will refund what you paid for their product (so save your receipt). But depending on what is clogging your drain pipe, it may actually require a professional to remove the obstruction if Drano doesn't work. But a product like Drano is a great place to start.

Note, however, that Johnson Wax claims that all Drano products are safe for garbage disposals, except for Drano Kitchen Crystals Clog Remover. Remember to READ ALL DIRECTIONS CAREFULLY. You especially do not want to turn on your disposal and have Drano splash back on you.


And lastly, let’s look at the simple routine maintenance tasks that you should do to help keep your garbage disposal running problem-free.



 At least once a year, you should grind up ice cubes in your garbage disposal to sharpen the blades of your impeller. Place ice cubes into your disposal, start running cold water, and then turn on your disposal to grind them up. As odd as this sounds, grinding up the ice will sharpen the hardened steel blades of your impeller, and it will also help remove odor-causing food build-ups from your disposal.



To keep your drain pipes running smoothly, every month you should pour baking soda, vinegar, and hot water into your disposal to help reduce waste food build-up and keep it smelling better. Pour a cup of vinegar mixed with baking soda into the sink drain and let it sit for about one hour, then flush down with very hot water (without turning on your disposal). (see costs and reviews of baking soda; vinegar).


You might want to consider using a backyard composter instead of your garbage disposal. And if you are having problems with your disposal, you might even want to think about removing it all together, and using a backyard composter. Garbage disposals are a nice modern convenience, but they put additional load on your municipal water treatment facility and increase your home’s water usage and electricity use.

The chopped up food waste from disposal puts organic sludge into the public sewer system, which when it gets to your municipal waste treatment plant, requires increased amounts of water, chemicals, and energy to treat. And in your home, most disposals require about two gallons of water per minute, which can add up to 700 gallons a year in additional water usage. Plus it takes electricity to run the disposal, which adds to your home’s carbon footprint.

So rather than use your disposal, the greener alternative is to use a backyard composter instead (see costs and reviews of backyard composter).


We hope this video (and article) has helped you understand how your garbage disposal works, the Do’s and Don’ts of operating it safely and properly, what typically can go wrong and how to fix these, and the simple maintenance tasks that you should do to keep it running properly.

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