troubleshoot a garbage disposal - kitchen sink clogged

How to Troubleshoot A Garbage Disposal

Because this handy kitchen fixture is perhaps the most undervalued in your home, we’re going to teach you how to troubleshoot a garbage disposal.

But first, let’s learn all we can about this unheralded kitchen appliance. We rarely think about our disposals, but who doesn’t love the therapeutic sound of food ground to bits? They’re essential for keeping your pipes clear of clogs, but what do you really need to know about them?

One thing is for sure, we miss it when it’s not working.

History of the Garbage Disposal Unit

It might not be thought of much, but it has a controversial past. Their are two different groups who claim to be inventors of the first garbage disposal (also called a garbage disposer).

Architect John W. Hammes claimed to have invented the garbage disposal unit in 1927. It wasn’t until 1933 that he applied for a patent, which was granted two years later in 1935. It then went to market in 1940.

Also in 1935, General Electric presented their garbage disposal to the public. This has caused confusion to this day on who was the first.

But regardless of which came first, it’s clear that Hammes, whose company InSinkErator is still going strong, did a lot to get the garbage disposal into people’s homes. In fact, you’ll be surprised how long it took for them to become a modern day feature.

history of the garbage disposal - 1936 general electric ad
This ad for General Electric garbage disposal unit ran in magazines in 1937. The ad was instructional in nature because hardly anyone at the time knew what it was or how to use it.

Back in those days, garbage disposal units were not allowed in many communities. They were considered dangerous for sewer systems.

Although it seems like every household has one these days, that’s not entirely true. Until 2009, only half of all homes had a garbage disposal unit. But they are becoming more common every day due to increasing improvements and their incredible helpfulness.

What Does a Garbage Disposal Do?

A garbage disposal is a machine that is primarily used to shred food waste into super small pieces to prevent a clogged kitchen sink. It’s electrically powered and installed under a kitchen sink between the sink’s drain and the trap.

Once food is ground up, it exits the disposal through a waste valve and joins the rest of your home’s waste in the sewer.

troubleshoot a garbage disposal - diagram of installation
You can see in this diagram how the garbage disposal on the left is installed and connected to other pipes in the plumbing system.

Your garbage disposal works by collecting food sent down the sink drain into a chamber inside the disposal unit. From there, solid waste is ground up when the electrical flip is switched.

When you turn on the disposal, a spinning disc (or impeller plate) turns rapidly. This forces the food waste against the outer wall of the grinding chamber. In turn, this pulverizes the food into tiny bits which get washed by water through holes in the chamber wall.

PRO TIP: One common misconception is that garbage disposals have sharp blades, when in reality they have two blunt “teeth” called impellers. It is still not wise to stick any of those phalanges down there.

Troubleshoot 4 Common Garbage Disposal Problems

CAUTION: As you begin troubleshooting your garbage disposal, always keep in mind that you should NEVER reach your hands inside the unit without the electricity to it being turned off.

Garbage Disposal Meme - Austin Powers
Yeah, let’s not start the job like this. Turn off – or tape down – the power switch.

1. The Flywheel is Jammed

Is your garbage disposal not working? Most garbage disposal issues occur from the disposal being jammed. This can lead to completely burning out your disposal and needing it replaced, which isn’t exactly cheap.

If the garbage disposal won’t turn on but the motor makes a humming sound when you flip the switch, it indicates that the inner flywheel is jammed. Usually, this causes the appliance’s reset button to pop or the circuit breaker to trip very quickly. Food lodged in the impellers is almost always the cause of the jam.

2. It Won’t Turn On

If you hear no humming and the disposal doesn’t click on when you flip the outlet switch, you might have an electrical problem. First, check to make sure the garbage disposal is plugged in. If it is, proceed to press the reset button found on the bottom of the unit. The reset button will be pushed out slightly if it’s been tripped.

From there, if the garbage disposal still isn’t turning on, check out the main service panel to see if the circuit breaker has been tripped. This problem can get a little complicated. So, if you’re unsure, please contact a professional.

3. The Disposal is Leaking

Garbage disposal leaks can occur from a number of places on a garbage disposal.

Common areas include the sink flange where the disposal connects to the bottom of the sink, the hose that leads from the dishwasher to the disposal, and hose that discharges waste from the disposal to the drain system.

You may also have a leak at the dishwasher connection: the rubber hose that funnels waste water from the dishwasher to the garbage disposal. Another leak can occur at the discharge drain pipe that carries direct waste water from the disposal to the sink drain trap (an old gasket could be the cause of the problem in this instance).

4. It Smells Bad

With all that food constantly running through your sink, things can get a little stinky. If you’ve noticed a funky smell coming from your sink, there are a few ways to deodorize it yourself using common household items.

  1. Lemon and orange peels are very fragrant and can leave your sink smelling nice and fresh if you run them through the disposal!
  2. Combine ice cubes and salt down your garbage disposal and then turn on to scrape off bits and pieces of food stuck to impellers inside the unit.
  3. Remember those science experiment volcanoes you used to make in school? Turns out they work wonders for giving your garbage disposal a good cleaning. Sprinkle half a cup of baking soda into the disposal and add some vinegar. Let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes before rinsing with hot water to deodorize and clean. (Check out our video on how to clean a kitchen sink’s drain with vinegar and baking soda.)
how to install a garbage disposal - plumber fixing disposal

What Not To Put Down a Garbage Disposal

The garbage disposal is not the same as your actual garbage can so it’s smart to pay attention to what goes into it. Hard objects such as forks, pits, or fibrous food bits can cause serious damage to your disposal. Grease and oils are also a big no-no as they can cause buildup over time and clog your pipes.

Here are items you should never put down your disposal. Instead, place these in your trash (and compost those that you’re able):

  • Bones
  • Coffee grounds
  • Egg shells
  • Fruit pits
  • Grease
  • High-fiber foods (like long-stringy stalks of celery, stringy pumpkin, etc.)
  • Nuts
  • Oatmeal
  • Oils
  • Onion skins
  • Pasta
  • Potato peels
  • Trash
  • Seafood shells

PRO TIP: When running the disposal, cold water is best to solidify grease and oils.

How To Install a Garbage Disposal

Okay, you’ve learned a lot about garbage disposals at this point. But maybe it’s just not enough. You’ve decided that your old disposal is no longer worth the trouble and you want to try your hand at installation.

The following video is a good place to start.

Our very own Paul Wright shows you step-by-step how to install a brand new Badger 1/3 Hp garbage disposal into a kitchen sink.


While it seems like a simple machine, a garbage disposal sure makes our lives easier. So it’s important to, in return, make the life of the disposal unit easier too. Make sure you treat it right and it will do the same for you.

If a problem comes up, you should now be able to diagnose the four most common problems. Heck, at this point, you might even be able to install your own garbage disposal.

Call 1-Tom-Plumber

1-Tom-Plumber repairs and installs garbage disposal units. So if you need help, don’t hesitate to contact or call us at 1-866-758-6237. We immediately respond to any of your emergency plumbing, drain cleaning and drain clearing, or water damage problems. We also have specialists who excavate, repair, and replace broken sewer lines.

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