Maintaining your garbage disposal

Over the years, I've gotten a lot of conflicting advice about maintaining my garbage disposal.

One repairman told me to grind glass in the disposal occasionally to keep the blades sharp. A neighbor said to run hot water when operating the disposal to melt grease.

A friend suggested pouring baking soda into the disposal to cover nasty smells.  Be careful whom you take advice from. 

If I had listened to the voices above, I might have had even more disposal problems than I've had. And I've had plenty. Here are some tips (from manufacturers!) on how to keep your garbage disposal operating correctly - and smelling nice, too.

Garbage Disposal Maintenance Tips 

  • Don't let food build up in your disposal. Run it every time you put something in it. Food buildup may not only cause jams but bad smells, too. Also, acids from foods can cause corrosion.
  • Use cold water when operating the disposal. It turns out that you want the oils and fats in your disposal to solidify so that you can chop them up and flush them out.
  • Keep the water running at least 30 seconds after the grinding stops to make sure all the byproducts are washed away.

If your garbage disposal stops working, the good news is that most disposals have a built-in reset button. 

Heavy loads will sometimes cause the motor to overheat. If your disposal jams, turn it off immediately. 

Wait a minute or two, and then press the reset button (usually red) near the bottom of the unit. Then restart the disposal.

Typically, if a disposal refuses to turn on - unless the drain is filled up with garbage - this reset button is the quickest way to get it running again. 

Still jammed? Shut off the power to the disposal unit by either unplugging it or turning off the circuit breaker if the unit is hardwired.

Use the wrench that comes with the disposal to turn the mechanism and make sure it's not jammed (The wrench usually fits in a hexagonal recess in the bottom of the disposal). 

If it doesn't budge, shine a flashlight down into the disposal to see if you can determine the cause of the jam. If you don't find anything amiss there, or you see a lot of water, then insert the handle of a broom or plunger into the drain and move the handle back and forth.

This should dislodge the blade, which may be wedged against a piece of silverware, a bottle cap, or some other small item that has fallen in unnoticed. Use long kitchen tongs - never use your fingers - to pull the culprit out.

What Not to Put Down the Disposal

  • Anything that's not food. Especially metal, plastic, strings, or rubber bands.
  • No large bones. Small bones are OK.
  • Nothing stringy. I don't put in artichokes, banana peels, or cornhusks. I do grind celery and asparagus, but only a little at a time. Meat (especially raw meat) can also get stringy and wrap around the mechanism.
  • No grease or oil.
  • No flour.

Disposal Deodorizing Tips

Everyone has her favorite methods of deodorizing the disposal. Many people grind leftover lemons and limes for a fresh citrusy smell. Others grind lemons with ice cubes. Still, others freeze white vinegar in ice cubes and grind those up. 

I would not recommend the baking soda method. (I learned the hard way that floury materials tend to clog up somewhere farther down the septic line).

Here's my personal favorite for getting rid of disposal odors, and disinfecting the sink and kitchen sponge in the process:

  • Put the stopper in the sink so it will hold water. Fill the sink with hot water. Toss in the kitchen sponge.
  • Add one-quarter cup bleach and let sit for 10 minutes. 
  • Remove the stopper and sponge, and turn on the disposal. Allow it to suck away the bleach-water until it is nearly drained. Turn on the disposal and allow the last of the water to drain.

I've been using the bleach method for nearly 10 years now, and I haven't yet had to replace the disposal.

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