Why Did My Garbage Disposal Suddenly Stop Working?

Garbage Disposal in your home

The garbage disposal is a modern-day invention. It is rare to find one in homes over 40 years old unless it was installed “aftermarket”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a new home built without one.  A Wisconsin architect, John W. Hammes invented this kitchen appliance in 1927. It would be 1935 before he received his 1935.

It was 1940 before he put his invention on the market under the company name of InSinkErator, but GE would dispute it as being the first garbage disposal, with claims that their disposal was first introduced in 1935. Either way, whether it was Hammes or GE, the garbage disposal has become a mainstay in many, if not most, American homes.

Today, if you have a garbage disposal or not, most of us take the garbage disposal for granted. So much so, that when it isn’t working, we may panic, especially if we’re amid cooking a big dinner. While most of us can’t live without this kitchen appliance, we know little about them, and with that, we will answer some commonly asked questions, like: 

How does garbage disposal work?

The garbage disposal is mounted under the cabinet, attached to the drain. It is powered by electricity and with the aid of water flowing into the drain, enabling it to grind up food scraps that are put in the drain. Today, local safety codes require the electrical switch for a garbage disposal to be so many feet away from the water source.  When you consider electricity and water are not a good combination, this makes sense. 

Inside the garbage disposal is a grinding chamber consisting of shredding blades that break down food. Then there is an impeller arm that uses centrifugal force to force the ground particles and liquid down through the drain which is shared with the dishwasher. This shared drain allows the large food particles to be ground up thoroughly before reaching the drain.

Do I need a plumber to install a garbage disposal? 

If you are a handy DIY person, there should be instructions that come with garbage disposal. Also, there are many YouTube videos available that can walk you through the installation. However, calling a licensed plumber is recommended. This will assure that it does the job and if there are any incidents with the existing plumbing, you’ll have the professional on-site already. If local building codes require a GFCI outlet for the electrical part of a garbage disposal, you will need to call a licensed electrician before the plumber can do their part.

How long does a typical garbage disposal last? 

The life expectancy for most garbage disposal units depends on the size of the motor and the usage. The average lifespan with normal usage is between 8 years and 15 years, not as long the life of your roof, but for several years. The more it is used, the quicker the blades wear out, or the motor quits. There are 8 food items that can damage a garbage disposal and make it necessary to replace it before it has reached its life expectancy.

  • Fruit Skins & Vegetable Peels: The peeling and skins from apples, mangoes, onions, and potatoes can get caught around the disposer blades and prevent the garbage disposal from working. If you do use the unit to dispose of these, experts recommend cutting in small pieces and only process a few at a time.
  • Pasta & Rice & Tea Grounds, Tea Leaves: Pasta, rice, tea grounds, and tea leaves stick to the blades and pipes, creating a clog in the sink.
  • Celery Stalks & Stringy Vegetables: Celery is rubbery and has strings, spinach is stringy, and both can cause the same effect as apple skins and potato peelings inside the garbage disposal.
  • Bones & Shells: Bones and shellfish shells can break and dull the blades in a garbage disposal, causing it to jam and thwart the blades from functioning. Over time, this will eventually burn out the motor.
  • Fruit Seeds & Pits: Cherry, durians, nectarine, and peach seeds are hard and typically large. They can blunt the blades over time and can even cause the garbage disposal to freeze up.
  • Fats, Grease, or Greasy Foods: Foods that are fat and greasy, or direct fat, grease, or oil will coat the blades with a film and reduce their effectiveness. In time, that grease film will putrefy, causing the garbage disposal to smell the entire kitchen with a pungent odor, perhaps the entire house. In addition to this smell, the pipes get clogged and the grease will harden inside the drain, which will keep it from working properly.
  • Egg Shells: A rumor got started somehow that eggshells sharpen a garbage disposal blades, but that is the furthest thing from the truth. There is a stringy membrane layer inside eggshells that become wrapped around the shredder ring. While they will grind up to a consistency like sand, over time, it will clog the pipes.

Additionally, if it isn’t a food item, it doesn’t belong in the garbage disposal! Professional plumbers have found some items in non-working garbage disposals that have no business being there to start with, such as:

  • Cigarette butts
  • Fabric
  • Plant clippings
  • Pull tabs
  • Rubber bands
  • Sponges
  • Spoons
  • Twist ties

These are things that cannot break down in a garbage disposal and will only end up clogging the drain after it burns the garbage disposal motor.  If something accidentally gets in the garbage disposal, you’ll know this by the garbage disposal is humming loudly, like a dishrag or utensil, UNPLUG the unit before you attempt to remove it. If you can’t easily remove it without pulling on it, thus risk bending the blades, call a plumber.

Will a garbage disposal cut you?

Garbage disposals fling inserted debris with centrifugal force, bouncing it around until it is broken up or chewed up. A garbage disposal doesn’t have a downward suction, so pushing a hand down inside the unit before turning it on, will yes, cut it, maybe break your fingers, but it won’t pull your arm in. 

Why does my garbage disposal smell so bad?

Theoretically, garbage disposals are self-cleaning. However, from time to time, gooey and sludge will build up inside them and food particles stick to the grinders. When this happens, a phantom odor will overtake your kitchen, maybe your whole house. No need to panic though – your garbage disposal simply needs to be flushed. 

You can do this yourself by plugging the drain, filling the sink with hot water, and then adding a good amount of dish liquid. Turn the garbage disposal on, then pull the stopper out so the water can flush through the unit. 

For the next step, drop some ice cubes and a half cup of kosher salt in the drain where the garbage disposal is and turn it on. The ice will knock any stuck-on food off and the salt will scrub the sides. Repeat the process for good pressure but add grounded lemon peels (remember to ground them up!).

Grind with Care

Your garbage disposal is an awesome kitchen assistant, but like any other component of your home, it needs to be taken care of. Starting by not abusing it with items and products that it isn’t meant to grind up. Doing the cleaning part that we described at the end of this article on a monthly basis will keep it from smelling, and the ground up lemon peel will make the whole kitchen smell fresh. For garbage disposal repair in Sherman Oaks, CA, call (818) 975-2131 for SAL Plumbing and Rooter Inc..