How to Clean and Maintain Your Garbage Disposal

A lot of people these days have a garbage disposal, even those who shouldn’t.  What?!! Who “shouldn’t” have a disposal?

People with septic tanks if you listen to plumbers talk! Food scraps and especially fats and oils are terrible for septic tanks and while a disposal is to be avoided, there are likely a lot of homes with septic tanks that have garbage disposals.

Regardless, if you have a garbage disposal in your home, there are some steps you should take to properly maintain it so it lasts as long as possible.

Using Your Garbage Disposal

First, be aware of what you are putting in it.  

Remember, if you have a disposal and are on a septic system you need to use it as little as possible and avoid putting meats and other food products down the drain.  Animal fats turn solid and will clog the leech holes, or just the solids themselves will accumulate at the intake port and not break down, throwing off the bacterial balance needed for decomposition and making your system less efficient and needing more frequent pumping.  

If you have stuff in the sink, remove as much as you can by hand before flushing the remains down the disposal.

If you are on a sewer system you will be okay with most kitchen scraps, but you still want to avoid hard objects like shellfish shells, unpopped popcorn, bones, etc.  Not only will they dull the blades over time, but they will not break down fully and can cause more clogs down the line as a result.

Also, avoid fibrous or starchy items that can cause blockages.  

One Thanksgiving we had guests that wanted to help in the kitchen and pushed all the potato peelings down the disposal, totally blocking the drain under the sink.  It was handled quickly, but diving under the sink to take apart a P trap was not in the plans that day!

Any food particles that go into the disposal should be small and ground up in small increments.  Avoid some of the most common stuff like banana peels, celery, corn cobs and husks, pits from peaches or avocados, coffee grounds, eggshells, and onion skins.  

Most of them will do great in your garden compost anyway.  

Obviously, you want to avoid hard and non-vegetative items like plant clippings, hair, glass, pull tabs, bottle caps, etc. I had to say it–these are some of the common issues with garbage disposal dysfunction!

Whenever you use the disposal, make sure you are running cold water at the same time!  Without the water (or with hot water) the motor and bearings can overheat.  

Run the cold water, turn on the disposal, and after all debris is cleared you still should run the water for 30-60 seconds to provide enough water to wash it all down the line since it still has a long way to go.  

Also, hot water can melt any fat at first, but it will solidify down the line as it cools and create a blockage, so use cold only–even with fat.

Cleaning Your Garbage Disposal

Now, believe it or not, that funky garbage disposal needs a little TLC and cleaning every now and again.

With the disposal turned off, you can simply use a paper towel to wipe off the rubber at the entry hole to reduce any potential debris and odors.  

For the interior chamber, ice cubes can be used to knock off any build-up on the blades to increase efficiency.  

If you are really ambitious you can make ice cubes with a mixture of vinegar, biodegradable cleanser, or lemon juice, making sure to still run the cold water and be sure not to confuse those ice cubes with your cocktails!  YIKES!

You can also slice up some orange, lemon or lime peels into small pieces and grind them up. They really take away any odors that might build up down there.  

Another trick is to pour in some baking soda and then vinegar, like the old science project.  The chemical reaction will do a fine job, but stand back though when you pour in the vinegar–it will bubble up big time.

Troubleshooting Your Garbage Disposal

And if your disposal ever stops working, don’t call an expensive plumber right away.  

First check to see if it has popped a circuit breaker at your electrical panel.

If all circuits are fine, then look for a small red button on the bottom of the disposal, since they usually have their own breaker in the unit itself. Push the red button and hold for 30 seconds. That usually does the trick.

If not, look for the small metal hexagonal wrench that looks like a lazy S that came with your disposal. Insert it into the center pivot hole on the bottom of the disposal so you can manually rotate the blades to break loose any hard refuse that might be binding the blades.  

You never want to put your hands down in the disposal for obvious reasons, and even with the power turned off the release of tension can cause the blades to move enough to cut you.  

I have used tongs in the past when I needed to retrieve something that went down there accidentally.

Replacing Your Garbage Disposal

If you ever have to replace your garbage disposal, the cost will vary depending on the motor size and warranty.  Expect to pay $100-200+ for the unit and another $150+ to have someone install it for you, but replacing a disposal is not usually necessary unless none of these tricks worked or it’s ancient and useless.

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