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Garbage disposals are prone to getting clogged up sometimes, especially if you mistreat them by putting foods down the sink drain that are difficult to break down (see the section on prevention at the bottom of the page).
When a clog occurs, the temptation is to panic and call out a plumber to fix the problem, but you should seriously consider trying to fix the issue yourself. Most garbage disposal clogs can be fixed quickly and easily without the need for expensive tools or special skills, in my experience. It goes without saying that fixing the problem yourself can save you a substantial amount of money.
The blades of a garbage disposal are very sharp and are capable of doing your fingers serious damage.
Plumbing work can be messy and unhygienic, so you will need to wear rubber gloves and old clothing for certain tasks, for example, plunging the sink.
It's important to identify what's causing the clog so that you can identify the best approach to take. Shining a flashlight down the drain opening can sometimes help you to identify what is going on. Most of the time, the clog is formed by some form of food waste, in my experience, but occasionally it can be something more solid, such as an item of jewelry, or a piece of plastic, metal, or broken crockery.
Refrain from running the garbage disposal too much when testing to see if it's clogged. You might overheat the engine and damage it.
Note: You may find that you need to combine two or three methods to unblock your unit.
This approach has a high chance of success if the garbage disposal is clogged up with organic matter. Insert either the hex wrench that came with the unit, or an Allen wrench into the slot underneath the garbage disposal and twist clockwise and counterclockwise. If you encounter resistance, don't be afraid to use a little force. When the wrench can move freely in either direction, run some water and turn on the unit to test it.
Some models also have a red button under the unit which will push out when tripped. This button will need pushing in again for the garbage disposal to work.
If the clog is caused by something solid, then you should switch the unit off and use a pair of pliers to carefully remove the item that is causing the blockage. Then follow the instructions above for using the wrench. Pliers can also be used to clear away excess food waste and give you a better view of the clog.
If you are impeded by standing water, bail out some of the water into a bucket, to make your job easier.
Using a plunger can break up or dislodge the clog. Plungers get better suction when submerged, so you should fill up the sink with a few inches of water. Plunge the drain opening to remove stubborn debris.
If the clog is caused by, for instance, a wedding ring, or another item that has a lot of material or personal value, then I would seriously consider calling a plumber - you have less chance of losing the item that way. You can, of course, try fishing the item out of the unit yourself with pliers, but it can be risky if you don't know what you're doing.
If you've tried using the wrench, the pliers, plunging, and nothing works, then there are essentially two possible situations to consider.
There are a number of indicators that your garbage disposal could be clogged. I've listed the three most common below.
There are a number of ways in which you can minimize or prevent your garbage disposal from getting clogged. Here are some tips below.
You should never pour chemical cleaners designed for sink drains into your garbage disposal, as this can damage the plastic parts of the unit. If you want to use something to dissolve some of the general grime and grease, I would recommend using a homemade mixture of baking soda and vinegar—simply pour down half a cup of baking soda, followed by a cup of vinegar and the resulting fizz should have a cleaning effect. Leave it for at least 15 minutes and then flush with water.
© 2019 Paul Goodman
Louise89 on July 24, 2020:
This was extremely useful, thanks!
CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 03, 2019:
Just a few weeks ago, a colleague came to me (has a new place and new to its "luxuries") asking how to fix the garbage disposal. So I taught her the wrench method. Appeared to work. She has other issues, so I'm going to pass on your hubs. They're super informative for a new homeowner. Thanks.