Why Does My Garbage Disposal Keep Backing Up?

Let’s be honest: A clogged garbage disposal is just ewwww. First, there’s the mystery smell. Then there’s the inconvenience of a slow-draining sink, complete with bits and pieces of yesterday’s breakfast floating around in there. Gross.

Garbage disposals back up for plenty of reasons—including these top three.

Disposal Clogging Culprit #1: Incorrect Use

File this problem under “things they should have taught us before we became adults but didn’t because, instead, they wanted to see how fast we could run a mile.”

Way too many homeowners use their garbage disposals as a replacement for their trash cans, putting everything and anything down that poor drain. But there are definitely some things you should never, ever expect your disposal to deal with:

  • Fibrous foods, like celery, asparagus, or sprouts
  • Fats, oils, and greases
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grinds
  • Bones
  • Starchy food, like peels, beans, rice, or pasta

The problem isn’t necessarily that these things will hurt your disposal. The problem is how these food items react to water after they’re ground up. If poorly ground-up or sludgy food waste is left over time, it will eventually clog up your disposal completely.

Another way you might be misusing your disposal is not using enough water. Without sufficient water to flush the ground-up food through your pipes, the waste will build up and cause a blockage. Keep a decent flow of cold water running for a few seconds before and after putting your food scraps down the drain.

And this should go without saying, but  we’ll say it anyway: Don’t put non-food items down your disposal. Ever. 

Clogging Culprit #2: Dull “Blades”

If you put the wrong things down your drain or don’t keep up with regular maintenance, your disposal “blades” might just be too dull to do the trick. Once a month, grind up a handful of ice cubes. This can help keep them in tip-top shape.

For those who are curious, we put “blades” in quotation marks, because garbage disposals don’t really have blades; they have impellers. The impellers aren’t particularly sharp… until they spin really fast. (Here’s another “it goes without saying”:  Never put your hands inside a disposal when it’s turned on. In fact, it’s best to keep your appendages out of it altogether—running or not.)

Clogging Culprit #3: Old Unit

Garbage disposals aren’t invincible to typical wear and tear. Eventually, the impellers will wear down too far or the motor will burn out. In general, you should expect your disposal to last anywhere from eight to 15 years. But you may be looking at a replacement in three to five years if your disposal isn’t properly used and maintained.

Five Steps to Clearing a Backed-Up Disposal

  1. Turn off the power. You can either unplug it from the outlet or turn off the circuit breaker at your home’s main panel.
  2. Inspect the disposal with a flashlight. If you see an obvious clog, clear it with tongs, pliers, or a wooden spoon. Move your tool of choice around the blades to make sure they’re moving freely. Don’t use your fingers!
  3. If you don’t see an obvious clog, use a sink plunger. Fill the sink with a few inches of water, place the plunger over the drain opening, and start plunging. Look for obvious clogs again and remove any debris.
  4. If your sink still seems backed up, try some DIY drain solutions. Don’t waste money on pre-mixed or chemical solutions; they’ll probably hurt your disposal in the long run. Instead, mix one part baking soda to one part vinegar and pour it down the drain. Wait about 30 minutes before pouring hot water down the disposal to flush out any broken-down debris. Then, let water flow for about a minute.
  5. Turn the power back on and test it. Run water into the disposal, and flip the switch on and off for a few short bursts to make sure all debris is unclogged.

If your garbage disposal won’t turn on at all, make sure it’s plugged in first. If it is, press the reset button on the bottom of the unit under your sink. Sometimes, a circuit trips and a quick press of a button can solve the problem.

Finally, if your garbage disposal seems to be working just fine, but your sink is slow-draining or you’re constantly running for the plunger, your problem might have nothing to do with the disposal. We’re happy to help you figure out what’s up.

Still need help?

It’s time to call a plumber. We don’t recommend tearing apart your disposal because we don’t want you to do permanent and expensive damage. We’re Paso Robles’ most-trusted plumbers, and we can handle whatever your disposal wants to throw at us. (Hopefully not literally.) Give us a call!

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