10 Tips to Unclog a Sink Garbage Disposal 

Garbage disposals are one of the handiest, if not most problematic, appliances in your kitchen. They’re a great way to get rid of unwanted food particles and waste, but people often try to put things down at the disposal that don’t belong there. For this reason, clogged garbage disposals are a very common occurrence. 

There are several reasons why you might clog your garbage disposal, and you’ll use similar remedies for all of them. You can use natural remedies, chemicals, or store-bought tools to unclog your disposal. It’s always best to start with the least invasive method and work your way down the list to more invasive remedies. 

If you’re in the middle of a garbage disposal clog, you’ve come to the right place. This article will explore all the possible reasons why you’re having garbage disposal problems, especially clogs, and what you can do about them. Let’s get plumbing! 

Common Causes for Garbage Disposal Clogs 

Several things can lead to the clogged garbage disposal, and all of them are preventable. Understanding the main causes of clogs is the best way to keep from causing them in the first place. 

Improperly Using the Disposal 

The first step to using a garbage disposal properly is to have constant running water while you’re using it. If your disposal is grinding food away without enough water or any water, it will almost certainly clog up. You also risk damaging your disposal by constantly running it without water flushing through it. 

Putting Foreign Objects Into the Disposal 

The next way disposals get clogged and stop working is by sticking foreign objects into them. It’s surprisingly common for forks, knives, spoons, or even small toys to accidentally fall into the sink drain when you’re not looking. If you start the disposal unaware of this object, you’ll likely damage the impeller blades and clog the disposal unit or drain pipe. 

Putting the Wrong Food Into the Disposal 

The most common cause of garbage disposal clogs is because people simply don’t realize that not all food waste can go to your disposal. They get designed to handle soft food scraps and liquids rather than anything and everything in your fridge or pantry. Here are some foods and things that you should never put into your disposal. 

  • Coffee grounds 
  • Banana peels 
  • Potato peels 
  • Fibrous foods
  • Potato skins 
  • Fruit pits 
  • Large food particles 
  • Corn cobs or corn husks 
  • Too much food at a time

Hot Water While Using the Disposal 

Finally, it’s also important that you use the right kind and temperature of the water when operating your garbage disposal. Disposal clogs often occur when you use hot water instead of cold water while running your disposal. Hot water tends to spread fat, grease, and oils around inside the disposal, which can also cause a clog. 

How to Unclog a Garbage Disposal 

Now that you have a better idea of what’s causing your clog, let’s dive into ways to fix the problem. 

Turn Off the Power 

The first thing you’ll want to do when working on your garbage disposal is kill the power to it. Disposals operate on electricity like most of the other appliances in your home, and you run the risk of shocking yourself by working on them with live energy. To turn off the power, locate your panel box and flip the circuit breaker that controls the disposal to the OFF position. 

Perform a Visual Inspection 

After the power gets turned off at the main panel box, you’re ready to dig into diagnosing and fixing the issue. The first thing you should do is visually inspect the clogged sink drain. Shine a flashlight down into the drain opening and check for visible blockages such as utensils or toys. If you see anything out of the ordinary, use a pair of needle-nose pliers or tongs from your kitchen to reach into the drain and remove the blockage. 

Use a Plunger 

If you can’t see an object in the drain, there’s a good chance the clog is further down the line and not happening at the actual disposal. Your next step should be to take a toilet plunger and use it as a sink plunger. Place the plunger entirely over the kitchen sink drain on the side of your disposal, and start plunging. Work this handy tool the same way you would with a plugged toilet by pushing it up and down. 

A plunger works by creating suction within the drain and brewing enough circulation that the blockage works its way back to the drain opening. The plunger method will also work if you have standing water in your sink and need to unclog it.  

Try Baking Soda and Vinegar 

If you’re sure that your clog is getting caused by food items, the best way to remediate the situation is baking soda and vinegar. These two household items are some of the handiest and most versatile products you can have in your pantry. They’re great for cooking, cleaning, and even unclogging a sink or drain. 

To use this concoction, pour ½ to 1 cup of white vinegar into the clogged drain, followed by ¼ to ½ a cup of baking soda. Give the mixture around 10 to 20 minutes to work its magic before following it up with a gallon of boiling hot water. If your clog results from food particles, fat, grease, or oil, this concoction will likely take care of it. 

Use Chemical Drain Cleaners 

If, however, baking soda, vinegar, and hot water don’t do the trick, you may have to resort to chemical drain cleaners. These cleaners are usually more aggressive and can damage your drain pipes and eat away at the plastic parts in your system, depending on the material they consist of. 

Your best bet when it comes to chemical cleaners is to use Drano. Because there are many different types of Drano, make sure to choose the right one for your purposes. Once you have your Drano, follow the instructions for your specific product and attempt to alleviate the clog. 

Hex Wrench or Wooden Handle Method  

If pouring things into the drain isn’t doing the trick, you can also try manually turning the garbage disposal blades. Most disposals have a hexagonal hole on the bottom of the disposal that you can access by lying on your back and poking your head under your sink. Manually turning the blades is a great way to loosen them if they’re over-tightened or bound up. 

Most garbage disposal makers send a hex wrench, also known as an Allen wrench, with the disposal when they sell it. They do this because disposal clogs are common, and manually manipulating the blades is an excellent way to fix them. It’s extremely important, however, that the power to the disposal gets terminated before you manually turn the blades. 

  1. Locate the hexagonal hole on the bottom side of your disposal. 
  1. Use the Allen wrench that came with the disposal or find another one that fits the hole. 
  1. Insert the wrench into the disposal and turn it clockwise and counterclockwise. You’re trying to work the blades back and forth to free them up if they’re jammed. 
  1. Once the blades start to spin freely with each turn, it’s a good sign that you fixed the jam. 
  1. Recheck the drain opening with a flashlight to see if there are any visible pieces of food or debris and remove them. 
  1. If your disposal doesn’t have a hexagonal hole at the bottom of the disposal, you can use a broom handle or wooden spoon to achieve the same ends. 
  1. Insert the wooden handle into the disposal and manually move the blades back and forth until they start to turn freely. 
  1. Perform a visual inspection of the inside of the sink and remove any debris or particles that you see. 

The Reset Button 

Another thing that you can try depending on how modern your disposal is is pressing the reset button. Not all disposals have this feature, but the reset button is the easiest way to fix a clogged garbage disposal if yours does. 

Clean the P-Trap or Drain Trap

If nothing you’re doing is fixing the clog and you’re at your wit’s end, cleaning the p-trap on your kitchen drain is your last option before calling a professional plumber. Cleaning the p-trap is the most in-depth garbage disposal repair, but it’s also one of the most common. Here’s what you need to know. 

  1. The P-trap is on the side of your garbage disposal and has the shape of a U. 
  1. Before loosening the trap fittings, put a bucket underneath the trap to capture any water sitting inside. 
  1. Next, use a set of Channellock pliers to loosen the union on the trap, or you can manually loosen the slip nut fittings if that’s the style of your pipes. 
  1. Once the fittings are loose, you can manually remove the trap from underneath the sink. 
  1. Use a soft scrub brush, a coat hanger or wire hanger, or a drain snake to manually remove clogs from within the trap. 
  1. If you check the trap, but it doesn’t appear to be clogged, the problem is likely in the trap arm. The arm is the small section of pipe that connects the trap to the side of the disposal. 
  1. Loosen and remove the trap arm and perform the same cleaning methods on it. 
  1. If the trap arm and p-trap appear intact and clog-free, the problem is likely further down the drain line. 
  1. Use a drain snake or plumbing snake and work it through the plumbing pipes downstream from the p-trap. 
  1. Make sure to work the auger slowly down the drain so that you don’t damage your pipes. Worm it back and forth as needed and repeat the process until you’re satisfied that the clog gets removed. 
  1. Once you’re finished, it’s time to reassemble the p-trap, trap arm, and the rest of your drain and garbage disposal. 
  1. With everything reassembled, flush the system with a steady stream of cold water and attempt to operate your disposal. If everything checks out and your disposal is working, you’re good to go. 

Important Tips for Garbage Disposal Maintenance

If you want to avoid disposal problems or having to buy a new garbage disposal every couple of years, it’s important to maintain your current one. While not putting things into your disposal that you shouldn’t is a good start, there are other things you can do to protect it. 

  1. Use your disposal regularly. 
  1. Only run cold water when you’re using your disposal. 
  1. Avoid putting the foods listed above into your disposal. 
  1. Perform regular checks on your sink drain to ensure that foreign objects haven’t fallen inside. 
  1. Never over-fill or stuff the disposal with food items. Feed disposal-safe items into the disposal one at a time and wait until you hear the typical garbage disposal hum before inserting a new item. 
  1. Have your water running full force when operating your disposal. Not enough water isn’t much better than no water at all. 
  1. Clean your disposal every two weeks by pouring Dawn dish soap, vinegar, baking soda, and cleaners into the disposal and turning it on. Always accompany these things with cold water. 
  1. Running dawn dish soap and tiny amounts of orange, lemon, or lime peels is a great way to prevent food odors from wreaking havoc on your kitchen. 

Related Questions 

Is it ok to put citrus fruit peels down my disposal? 

In very small amounts, it’s ok and beneficial to run citrus fruit peels through your garbage disposal. 

What’s the easiest way to unclog a garbage disposal? 

The easiest way to unclog your garbage disposal is to press the reset button on the side or bottom. However, if your disposal doesn’t have a reset button, you should follow the steps above to fix your clog. 

What does it mean if I smell bad food coming out of my disposal and it’s draining slowly? 

If you smell rotten food coming out of your disposal, accompanied by a slow drain, food is likely clogging your disposal or your drain pipes. 

Final Thoughts 

While many things could be causing your clogged garbage disposal, there are also many ways to fix the problem. It’s always best to try the least invasive methods first, such as the reset button or a plunger, before progressing to more in-depth remedies. However, if you’re willing to work through the problem and try different things, you should have no problem unclogging your garbage disposal. 

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
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