A garbage disposal may seem a permanently useful tool, but it’s by no means invincible. It can fall victim to frequent clogs, which can create a real challenge for your kitchen sink usage.
The cause of a clogged garbage disposal can be hard to locate because the clog can come from one item, several items over time, several items at once, or a non-food object. A garbage disposal clog can also originate in the blades, inside the construction, or inside the sink drain.
In this article, you’ll learn about why a garbage disposal gets clogged, how to unclog it (hint: it's different from a drain clog), and ways to stop clogs from reoccurring.
What Causes a Clogged Garbage Disposal?
It's important to understand the cause behind a clogged garbage disposal so you can properly address the issue. Food is one reason, but it’s not the only reason.
Incorrect Food Types
One common misconception about garbage disposals is they can handle any food you stuff inside, including all food parts. This is not true.
Hard to chop: Bones, pits, corncobs, seeds, and ice cubes are too difficult for a garbage disposal to handle.
Wrap around the blades and prevent easy movement: Stringy items like pasta, celery, asparagus, corn husks/silk, lettuce, and banana peels will keep the disposal from properly working.
Prevent the passage of food and water: Grease, fat, and oil harden and clog the disposal and drain. Coffee grounds and eggshells grind into granules that are tiny and sticky, making it easy to reach small areas and cause issues. Starchy vegetables like beans and potato peels create a thick paste similar to grease, fat, and oil when hardened. The paste will clog and jam the device.
Too Much Too Fast
Another misconception — the garbage disposal can handle tons of food at once. This is not true, either. Testing and pushing the unit's limitations will overwhelm it. An overwhelmed garbage disposal makes a humming noise. One way to tell if your garbage disposal is overwhelmed is if no food is moving around inside when you peek inside the disposal with a flashlight. A second way to tell if you’ve overwhelmed the garbage disposal is seeing a water-food mix backing up into the sink.
When you put too much in the disposal at once, instead of concentrating on chopping only a few items at once, the disposal will do a less-than stellar job at chopping a large portion at once. This means larger chunks get through, contributing to disposal clogs and breaking the electrical circuit near the reset switch.
The only thing that should go down the garbage disposal is food. When non-food objects come in contact with the garbage disposal, it could damage your disposal. Silverware makes a grating noise sound on contact, causing a jam in the device. Paper, fabric, foil, plastic, a washcloth, a sponge, and flower plant clippings are noise-free yet contribute to clogs and jams.
Flower plant clippings, paper, and foil cut well but contribute to clogs — the wet clumps are not easy to push down the drain. If they get stuck in the pipeline, they will prevent other items from going down the drain. Fabric, plastic, sponges, and washcloths also don't cut well on the impeller blades. A garbage disposal's attempt to grind these items will result in jamming.
Not Washing Away Leftover Waste
After use, the disposal switches to an “off” mode, only coming back on when it's time to grind more food. This is the incorrect way to use a disposal. The waste inside the device eventually builds up and prevents water from passing through.
Therefore, the correct way to use the disposal is to keep it on after the food grinding process is complete. During that time, turn on the water and let it run for one minute to clear away waste stuck inside. Then, turn off the device.
The temperature of rinsing water you use to clean the garbage disposal matters — hot water is not the correct type of water.
Hot water spreads fats, oils, and grease around the disposal and into the pipes. When oils, grease, and fats dry, they harden, creating a landing spot for more food to land and form a clog.
How to Clean a Garbage Disposal: 5 Methods
The process of cleaning a clogged garbage disposal differs greatly from cleaning a clogged drainpipe. Some cleaning methods are useful, and some are not.
A non-recommended cleaning method is liquid drain cleaners. Drain liquid cleaners are dangerous for garbage disposals because they can erode the plastic and rubber parts of the unit such as the splash guard.
Always turn the garbage disposal off before attempting to clean the unit. Electricity and water never mix. Also, never stick your hand inside the unit, whether the unit is on or off.
This will cause injury, and clearing a clog isn’t worth cutting your hand. Furthermore, after applying any technique below, wait until the unit cools before turning it on to avoid overheating. A cool unit doesn't feel hot or warm when you touch it.
1. Manual Checkup
The first thing to do is to peek inside the disposal to see what is causing the clog. Use a flashlight and pliers or tongs to see the clog culprit. Simply insert the pliers or tongs inside the unit and retrieve the loose item. Repeat this process until you remove every object or amount of gunk from the disposal.
2. Baking Soda and Vinegar
An effective DIY remedy is baking soda and vinegar. This fizzy foam combination that cuts through food clogs and cleans the unit. This solution is especially good for unclogging grease, fat, and oil and for deodorizing a smelly garbage disposal.
- Begin by pouring baking soda into the garbage disposal.
- Next, pour vinegar down the garbage disposal.
- Then, wait 20 minutes for the fizz to break down the clog.
- Last, wash away the mixture and food waste down the pipe with hot water.
A plunger relies on water pressure to push tough clogs down the pipe drain. By plunging up and down vigorously, the clog will loosen and move.
- Start by grabbing the plunger and covering the drain.
- Cover the other drain with a drain stopper like StopShroom or StopShroom Plug.
- Fill the sink with enough water to create a watertight seal around the rounded bottom of the plunger, or flange.
- Now, plunge the plunger up and down vigorously to loosen the clog.
- Repeat this motion rapidly for a few minutes.
- Then, use a flashlight to remove any loose items.
- If no loose items show up, turn on the cold water faucet. The water should drain with ease.
4. Hex Wrench or Wooden Handle
If your garbage disposal has a hexagon hole at the bottom center of the unit, you use a L-shaped hexagonal device called a hex wrench. The hex wrench, also called an Allen wrench, may or may not have come with the garbage disposal.
The disposal’s instructions will tell you the location of the hexagon along with how to use it. Generally, stick the hexagonal end into the hexagon hole on the outside of the disposal. It should match up and fit in nicely.
Next, move the hex wrench clockwise and counterclockwise four or five times until the blades spin freely in both directions. If the blades can spin freely in both directions, the clog is free. Then, manually remove the clog pieces with pliers or tongs.
A garbage disposal without a hexagon hole can achieve the same result using a wooden handle. In this method, stick the wooden handle inside the garbage disposal from the kitchen sink drain. Place the handle on top of or next to the blade and move it back and forth until the blades move freely in both directions. Then, remove any loose gunk with pliers or tongs.
5. Call a Plumbing Expert
A plumber with clog removal experience can, if necessary, uninstall and reinstall the garbage disposal to remove clogs, including removing, cleaning, and reinstalling the P-trap attached to the disposal underneath the sink. Because they can be expensive, a plumber should be a last resort.
Prevent Clogged Garbage Disposals to Avoid Time-Consuming Fixes
There's no need to go through the clog removal strategies if you follow preventative measures. However, to keep clogs away, you must follow these routines regularly:
- Read the disposal’s instruction manual. Find the list of what can and cannot go inside the unit. Follow those suggestions to the letter.
- Be selective about the foods going down the garbage disposal. Throw seeds, bones, pits, peels, ice cubes, and corn cobs in the trash. Additionally, pour oils, meat fats, and grease into a container. Then, throw away the container in the waste bin. Furthermore, keep non-food items away from the garbage disposal entry.
- Rely on a sink strainer or drain strainer. A sink strainer catches the food particles, bones, pits, seeds, and peels before it enters the garbage disposal so you don't have to examine every food item.
- Chop up food waste before feeding it to the garbage disposal. The garbage disposal is not powerful enough to handle large amounts of food waste. By chopping up the waste first, it makes the disposal's job of cutting the food down to small pieces easier. Cut the food to a square inch or less before feeding it into the garbage disposal.
- Feed the garbage disposal at a slow pace. Give the disposal a small batch of food at a time (try to stick to ½ cup or less). Allow the unit to dispose of the waste before feeding the next small batch. Continue this until the sink is clear. This process is slower, but it keeps you from overwhelming the device with too much food.
- Use cold water to rinse the garbage disposal after use. After use, run cold water down the disposal for a minute. Cold water flushes food stuck in the blades and inside the unit down the drain. It also keeps the drain pipes clean and keeps the blades lubricated. During the minute, add solutions like dish soap or citrus peels to deodorize smells.
- Use the garbage disposal often. Not using the unit is as bad as putting the wrong food inside it. An unused garbage disposal will rust and corrode over time, and it will freeze whenever the unit is on. Therefore, every so often when not in use, turn on the cold water and let the unit run for 30 seconds.
Combat Clog Buildup with the Right Products
The right products are essential to preventing future garbage disposal clogs. As mentioned earlier, the Kitchen SinkShroom is the best strainer to combat clogging in the kitchen sink. The stainless steel sink strainer's wide basket holds food without stopping water flow. The hollow cylinder center makes transporting food waste, emptying food waste, and reinserting the strainer effortless.
Plunging tends to bring loose clogs and gunk toward the other drain, so StopShroom can prevent this from happening. The sink stopper has a tight seal so nothing enters the wrong sink pipe.
Are you looking to eliminate plumbing problems and clogged drains for good? Look no further than our complete 'Shroom drain protection line! We have award-winning solutions for every drain in your home.
Check out this great YouTube video for more help with dealing with clogged garbage disposals.
Disclosure: Links in this article are affiliate links to Amazon products. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
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