How to Diagnose and Fix a Broken Garbage Disposal

While your garbage disposal has a fairly straightforward job, that job is pretty taxing. It's no surprise that, of all the kitchen appliances, this one is prone to issues. A broken garbage disposal can be caused by everything from clogs, to wear and tear on the pipe connections and grinding mechanism, and burnout of the disposal motor. 

Sound intimidating? Maybe. But before you rack up the bills with an expensive plumbing service call, you may be able to handle the fix yourself.

The Basics

  • For many of these efforts, you're going to want to turn off the power by flipping the specific breaker in the electrical panel or disconnecting it from the power source. You do not want your hands in a disposal if it could accidentally turn on.

  • Use a flashlight to peer inside the disposal before putting your hands in. You may be able to clear the debris with a pair of tongs or a spoon handle.

  • Gather necessary tools: a hex key (Allen wrench), pliers, a sink plunger, a flashlight, towels, gloves, and safety goggles (to shield your hands and eyes from hazards).

  • Read the manufacturer's manual for specific safety guidelines, troubleshooting tips, and maintenance instructions. This also helps understand any specific features of your garbage disposal model.

  • Avoid using chemicals to unclog the disposal, as they may damage the unit and pose a safety risk.

  • Clear the area around and under the disposal for space to work.

  • Turn on overhead lights to see inside the disposal.

  • Keep children and pets away to prevent accidents.

  • Use caution when inspecting the blades or impeller arms. Avoid placing your hands directly on them. Use tools like needle-nose pliers instead.

Diagnosing Common Garbage Disposal Problems

Garbage Disposal Not Turning On:

  • Locate the disposal's power switch and give it a quick turn it off and turn it back on.

  • Make sure it's getting power. Check that it's plugged into the electrical outlet and that the power cord is not damaged.

  • Check the circuit breaker, or fuse, and reset if necessary.

  • Make sure the electrical outlet is working by testing another appliance (i.e. charging your phone or plugging in a lamp)

Clogged or Slow-Draining Disposal:

  • Check the sink for solid food waste and use a plunger or a disposal wrench to clear blockages.

  • Use pliers or tongs to remove any visible debris or foreign objects from the grinding chamber.

Related: Is Using a Dishwasher More Efficient?

Garbage Disposal Jammed:

  • Use the hex key to manually rotate the motor from the bottom to dislodge any jammed objects.

  • Use pliers or tongs to remove any loosened debris from the grinding chamber.

Leaking Garbage Disposal:

  • Tighten loose mounting screws or bolts.

  • Check the rubber gasket for wear and replace if necessary. If there's a crack, you may need to replace the disposal.

Humming Noise but Not Grinding:

  • Use the hex key (Allen wrench) provided by the manufacturer to manually rotate the disposal's motor from the bottom. This may free up a stuck impeller.

Related: 29 Ideas to Transform a Small Kitchen

Garbage Disposal Reset Button Pops Out:

  • Locate the reset switch on the bottom of the unit and press it. This resets the motor's internal circuitry.

  • If the reset button keeps popping out, there may be an electrical issue or motor problem, requiring professional assistance.

Unpleasant Odors:

  • Grind up citrus peels (lemons, oranges, limes) for a fresh scent.

  • Run cold water and grind ice cubes to clean the blades.

  • Pour a mixture of baking soda and vinegar down the disposal to neutralize odors. Follow with hot water to rinse.

  • Remove the drain pipe and check for an accumulation of grease or sludge.

Loud or Unusual Noises During Operation:

  • Inspect the disposal for loose objects or foreign debris.

  • If the noise persists, there may be damage to the impeller or motor, requiring professional attention.

Excessive Vibration:

  • Check for loose connections in the mounting screws or bolts and tighten them.

  • Ensure the disposal is securely mounted to the sink.

Water Standing in the Sink:

  • Check for clogs in the sink drain and down into the drain pipe. Use a plunger or a drain snake to clear blockages.

  • If you suspect a blockage in the pipes, remember to put a bucket under the discharge pipe before loosening any pieces!

Eggshell, banana peel, potato peels, and coffee grounds are just some of the things you should not put down your garbage disposal.<p>Emily Fazio</p>
Eggshell, banana peel, potato peels, and coffee grounds are just some of the things you should not put down your garbage disposal.

Emily Fazio

Things You Should Never Put Down the Disposal

Your garbage disposal unit can handle a lot but you may not have realized that some common kitchen scraps are too hard on the system.

  • Grease, oil, cooking fats

  • Coffee grounds

  • Chicken bones

  • Fruits Pits

  • Fibrous Material (Celery, Shrimp Shells, Potato Peels, Banana Peels, etc.)

  • Eggshells, Pasta, Rice, and Large Chunks of Solid Food

  • Non-food items (plastic wrap, candy wrappers, harsh chemicals, etc.)

When to Contact a Professional

Contact a professional for persistent electrical issues, clogs, leaks, motor problems, physical damage, persistent odors, unidentified issues, installation or replacement tasks, and safety concerns. If you feel the problem is in the power supply or electrical connections, contact an electrician. A plumber or technician can provide expertise and ensure safe and effective resolution, especially in situations where DIY efforts prove unsuccessful or when facing complex problems.