The #1 rule of garbage disposal troubleshooting...
NEVER PUT YOUR HAND INTO A GARBAGE DISPOSER!
Garbage disposers can be a huge convenience, but they can quickly turn into a huge inconvenience when they aren't working properly. During the holiday season, garbage disposers are used quite possibly more than at any other time of the year. Relatives, close friends, new acquaintances, office colleagues and other guests are often invited over for holiday festivities. With more food prep and added use, the chance of accidentally clogging a garbage disposer becomes greater during this time than at any other time of the year.
As with most modern inconveniences, a disposer clog usually happens at the most inopportune time possible and often because not everyone knows what should or should not be put into a garbage disposer. Since they are called garbage disposers many people think you can put any garbage you want down them. Not so! Garbage disposals are for small amounts of food waste - NOT bottle caps, plastic utensils, cigarette butts, paper cups, or napkins and the like. Any of these types of items can get caught in the disposer and jam the turn table, keep it from turning, and cause the motor to overheat and shut down. And it certainly isn't a good idea to put a few pounds worth of potato peelings, all the turkey bones, or the last half of that pumpkin pie down there!
The most common cause of garbage disposer trouble is the drain line becoming clogged after food waste has been ground-up by the disposer and pushed through into the drain line. Often times if not enough water is used while the disposal is in use it can cause food particles to clump together and get caught in the drain outlet tee or in the p-trap itself. Sometimes water will cause certain food particles to expand and cause a stoppage. Rice is one food you really don't want to put into a disposal as it will expand as water is absorbed into it. Your disposal will keep pushing it into the drain line until the drain line, usually the p-trap or outlet tee, is so compacted it can no longer push any more. The motor will be running but the disposer will not drain any further.
If your disposer will not turn on or it stops running, then the disposer is jammed. If your disposer is running but water is not draining and backs up into your sink then the drain is most likely clogged.
Luckily, these scenarios are often a relatively easy thing to fix and your friends at PlumbingSupply.com® are here to help, with some simple instructions for unclogging this useful appliance in a safe manner. Remember to always follow the #1 rule of garbage disposal troubleshooting, and we definitely recommend keeping ALL your limbs out of the disposer. Since you're dealing with both electricity and water, we also recommend keeping kids, pets, and Great-Uncle Maury in another room while you're working on the clog - just in case. You don't need the distractions or the risk of someone else getting injured. If you feel at all unsure about your ability to complete this task safely, please contact a local plumbing professional. Safety first!
How to Un-Jam Your Garbage Disposal
Step 1: The first thing to do is unplug the disposer electrical cord from the outlet. Do not just turn off the switch, unplug the electrical cord. If the electrical cord does not have a plug but instead runs directly to a junction box then your disposal is hardwired and must be turned off at the breaker box. We suggest you put a note on the breaker to let others know you are working on this circuit.
Step 2: Using a flashlight, see if you can see anything that could be causing the clog. A bone, piece of silverware, large chunk of food particle, or anything else that could have fallen in the disposer. If your disposer has an easy to remove splash guard that pulls out from the top, then you should remove it so you can more easily see into the disposer compartment.
Step 3: If you can readily see the object then use a pair of pliers or needle nose pliers to remove the object. Wait for at least 10 minutes for the disposal motor to cool down.
Step 4: Turn the power to the disposer back on and push the reset button on the bottom or side of the disposer. If the disposer is still clogged then again unplug the power cord or turn off the breaker at the breaker box.
Step 5: Use a broom handle, wooden spoon, or something similar - NEVER YOUR HAND - and push against the blades (swivel impellers) on top of the turn table. A disposer tool is available for this but if one is not handy then a broom handle, wooden spoon or similar item will suffice. Push against the swivel impellers and try to rock them back and forth to free the turn table.
Some disposers come with an S-shaped or L-shaped hex tool which is used by inserting it into the hex shaped opening directly in the center underneath (bottom side) of the disposer. Once inserted, you will need to move it back and forth until you are able to free the turn table and get it to move freely.
Step 6: Once the turn table spins freely, again wait for at least 10 minutes to allow the disposer motor to cool and then push the reset button, turn the power on and operate the disposer again. RUN COLD WATER ONLY when the disposer is turned on to prevent overheating the disposer motor.
If the turn table spins freely but your disposal is still clogged...
...then the clog may be further down in the drain line. A clog further down in the drain line will allow the disposer to run for awhile until the pump overheats and turns itself off. If you have a double bowl kitchen sink the disposer will pump the contents back up into the opposite bowl of the sink, and when turned off the water will recede until both sides are equalized and neither side will drain. If allowed to continue to run the disposer motor will eventually overheat and turn off, or potentially burn out.
Step 7: Again unplug the power cord or turn off the breaker at the breaker box to the disposer. At this point you may want to consider calling a plumber unless you're willing to try one more suggestion we have for you...
How to Unclog Your P-Trap
Step 1: Many times the stoppage can just be in the p-trap below the sink. Place a bucket or plastic container, one large enough to catch all of the water that has been suspended in your sink, under the sink trap. Plastic p-traps are hand tightened, but you may need a pair of pump pliers or channel locks to loosen the nut. If you have a chrome or metal p-trap then you will also need pump pliers or channel locks to remove the nut.
Step 2: Loosen the nut from the p-trap attached to the pipe coming down from the sink. Now loosen the nut attached to the waste arm and slowly lower the trap. Be prepared as all of the water above will begin to drain out of the sink above. If no water comes out then the stoppage is in the line between the disposer and any part of the drain line above the p-trap.
Step 3: Remove and clean out the p-trap and then with a flashlight examine the other pipes attached to the sink, especially any tee's in the sink plumbing. Baffle Tee's are also a common place waste can get hung up. Hopefully by this point you will run across the stoppage problem and remove it by hand. Otherwise, you may be able to use a small hand snake to clear it.
Step 4: Reattach the p-trap, any washers that were removed and re-tighten the nuts. Only hand tighten plastic nuts, but metal nuts will need to be tightened with a wrench. Be careful to not over-tighten the nuts.
Step 5: Run COLD water and turn the power back on to the disposer and operate the disposer.
If you've tried all of this, and your disposer still isn't working...
...then we recommend contacting a local licensed plumber for assistance. Working with both water and electricity is risky, and at this point is a job best left to the pros. If your plumber says you'll need a new garbage disposer, we recommend the Waste King Legend L-5000TC. It is a top quality 3/4 HP disposer that will last you for years with proper care, although any of our other Waste King disposers are also a good choice.
A quick note about the baking soda and vinegar method...
We have heard of people recommending baking soda and white vinegar be put into the disposer, waiting for 15 or 20 minutes and then adding extremely hot water as a way to clear potato peels and similar items that have been put into a disposer. We are not certain this works, but we would like to warn those trying this to make sure you let the disposer cool down before you turn it on again. While the disposer is in operation ONLY COLD WATER should be put into it or you have the chance of burning out the motor due to excessive heat.
For tips on which foods should or should not be put into a disposal and to learn about the care and cleaning of garbage disposers, please see our Garbage Disposal Care page.