6 Super-Important Things Plumbers Want You to Know About Your Garbage Disposal

published Dec 9, 2022
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Credit: Cat Meschia

Garbage disposals are super-helpful gadgets of the modern kitchen, swiftly whisking away small food scraps that you’d rather not have sitting around in your kitchen trash can. But they are not magical, and if you don’t use them properly they will rebel in any number of ways. We talked to the people on the ground fixing them — plumbers — to get the scoop on how to keep your garbage disposal in tip-top shape. 

1. Don’t put rice down your garbage disposal.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about your garbage disposal is this: Only use it to dispose of appropriate food items. These are things that can be easily broken down by the disposal’s internal blades and won’t clog your plumbing. Big no-nos include celery (its stringiness is a problem), bread, pasta, and rice.

“Rice is a real problem because it expands in the drain,” says Nick Hopper of Quincy, Illinois’ Hopper Plumbing LLC. John Gaskill of Oklahoma City’s A+ Plumbing & Gas names potato peels and eggshells as waste that can cause problems and cautions against putting any kind of cooking grease in the disposal. “That will gel up in the pipes,” he says. 

2. Always run water when using your garbage disposal.

Disposing of food is a two-part process: the food is ground up by the teeth-like blades, and then flushed away by a stream of water. Always run water to make sure that old food isn’t sticking around. 

3. Never put your hand down a garbage disposal. 

Probably obvious, but just don’t do it. Hopper names pennies, broken glass, and nails as items he has pulled out of garbage disposals. Let him be the one to find these things. 

4. Clean your disposal with ice chips and baking soda.

It makes sense that the appliance dispatching discarded organics might smell less than fresh every once in a while. While there are products you can buy to prevent that, Hopper recommends grinding some ice chips (not cubes) in the disposal to “help break up the sludge.” Follow that up with a little bit of baking soda, which you should let sit for a bit and then flush down with warm water. 

5. Use the wrench your disposal came with.

Sometimes a garbage disposal’s blades will get jammed and the appliance will emit a low hum. If you purchased the disposal, it came with a simple wrench to use for the specific purpose of remedying this problem. If you know where that is, great. If not, you can use a standard 1/4-inch Allen wrench.

IMPORTANT: You must cut power to the garbage disposal before attempting to fix it. Unplug the disposal if that is an option. If not, make sure the switch controlling it is in the off position, and to be safe, cut the power to the disposal by flipping the switch in your electric breaker box that controls the disposal to the off position. When you are sure the disposal is disconnected, insert the wrench into the small hole in the bottom of the disposal (under your sink) and turn it 360 degrees.

6. Be cautious of old pipes.

Some people recall that for many years, garbage disposals were illegal in New York City residences, due to concerns about the ability of the city’s older pipes to handle the waste the appliances generated. (The ban was lifted in 1997.) However, if you live in an older home, it would be wise to keep New York City’s reticence in mind and be vigilant in your use and maintenance. Gaskill’s opinion? If your home was built in the 1960s or earlier, “I say don’t do it. The drain pipes are rough in there. Iron pipes have been building up calcium and they’re just going to catch food because they don’t have a flat, smooth surface.” (He also advises using a screen to prevent food from going down the drain for the same reason.)