Care and feeding of a garbage disposal
October 19, 2016 5:22 PM   Subscribe

I am a chronic ruiner of kitchen sinks. What rules do people follow to avoid clogging or breaking their garbage disposal?

I've left two garbage-disposal-equipped apartments behind me now with mysteriously, intractably slow-draining sinks. Whatever I did to them, it seems to be beyond the powers (or interest?) of maintenance to reverse. I don't think I put anything super weird into them, but I suspect maybe I'm just overestimating their power.

Now that I'm moving to a fresh, new apartment with an un-ruined sink, I want to try to keep #3 from developing a similar permaclog, particularly since I want to try to do more cooking.

Are there unwritten rules about what a garbage disposal can handle? Secrets to disposing of wet leftovers without dumping vast quantities of liquid into the trash? Are garbage disposals kind of like dishwashers in that you have to basically pre-do the same work you 'd do without one? Does everybody just do a lot of straining?
posted by space snail to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I had a plumber tell me once that cheap garbage disposals are basically... well, disposable. A couple of things I have learned:

- run water when running it, always (it keeps things lubed and cool)
- Look at it under the sink and find the manual crank. If it starts getting slow you can use an allen wrench or whatever your model needs to manually turn it until it's clear so you don't burn out the motor.
- Keep fats out of your plumbing in general.

Otherwise, yeah, they kinda suck and basically need to be replaced periodically when the motor burns out.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:29 PM on October 19, 2016

Best answer: The big deals are no grease/oil and nothing that turns into glue (i.e. starches) and watch it on the stringy stuff. Here's an outline on Angie's List. Beyond that I mostly make sure I'm not putting down too much at once, I'm running cold water when I'm using it, and if there's something that seems stuck in there, I turn the whole thing off and try to free the thing (be careful with this).

To your other question, there are a few things you can do

- save vegetable scraps and make soup stock
- put "wet trash" into a bucket in the freezer in a supermarket bag if you have space and then toss it out
posted by jessamyn at 5:32 PM on October 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Garbage disposal sinks are not very common at all here (I've never used one), and I don't think we do anything all that radical to manage without.

If there is a handful of scrap in the sink I just pick it up, squeeze it out or drain it against the side of the sink, put it in the bin and call it done. This goes for everything bigger than tea leaves and works fine, there are no issues with too much liquid in the rubbish.
posted by deadwax at 5:33 PM on October 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I follow the rule of looking at garbage disposals as backup & secondary - and not a primary way of dealing with food waste. So I use this OXO strainer - if it slips through the holes, I don't worry. Otherwise I just empty the strainer - it's effortless once you make it into a habit, and far easier than dealing with plumbing issues. My then landlady put a new disposal in 5 years ago, and I haven't had a single issue in the 3.5 years since I bought the condo from her.

(ditto with using 1-ply toilet paper like Scott 100 - it's virtually uncloggable - or dissolves on its own on the rare occasion it does clog - either a plumber's best or worst friend, depending on how you look at it)
posted by raztaj at 5:35 PM on October 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Coffee grounds are recommended to neutralize odor, but I've also been told that they can dry out and create a clog.

In general, scrape food waste off of plates into the trash before you wash.

Stringy things, like celery, can get wrapped around the blades.
posted by meemzi at 5:36 PM on October 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

You also have to consider the age and condition of your pipes. Many are simply not up to the loads of debris a garbage disposal creates. I use my disposal only for what drops accidentally into the drain and gets past my strainer. I tend to flush really wet, soupy stuff and compost/toss the rest. Leafy items and fats are a no-no as they love to clump into a smelly, cloggy mess in the pipes. My plumber said that heavily used garbage disposals and "flushable" toilet wipes keep him in business.
posted by quince at 5:39 PM on October 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

For me, the cause has always been vegetable rind/pulp/skins. I've had to do some terrible surgery to unclog those damn things.
posted by destructive cactus at 5:43 PM on October 19, 2016

Don't think of your disposal as "the monster that will eat everything in unlimited quantities so that I don't create trash or compost." Especially when dealing with raw scraps, think of it more like "a little monster that will eat reasonably small quantities of stuff." And then look at that Angie's list link above.
posted by sheldman at 5:45 PM on October 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have read that crunching up egg shells helps clean a garbage disposal. No expertise on whether that's actually efficacious. I don't purposely let a whole lot else go down the disposal, and have never had one go bad.
posted by lakeroon at 5:46 PM on October 19, 2016

Best answer: A plumber once told me, "You know who I think invented garbage disposals? A plumber! Because they keep us all employed with all the problems." He said to never put anything down a disposal on purpose, and if small things get past your sink strainer, run hot water first, then the disposal for a while, and then more hot water. And every so often, plug up your sink and fill it with hot water and dawn and then pull the plug, because the hot water and dawn will help to degrease the sides.
posted by umwhat at 5:58 PM on October 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Our plumber's tips: don't put thick peels (lemon, orange, etc) in the disposal. Do occasionally put ice cubes and Comet in the disposal to freshen it and keep the blades sharp.
posted by dayintoday at 6:01 PM on October 19, 2016

Egg shells were clogging our pipes after going through our (super cheap) disposal at our old rental house every other month for a year before we figured it out. We were putting them down intentionally to clean the blades. Once the plumber found the cause, no more clogs.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:02 PM on October 19, 2016

Regularly pour dish detergent in the drain to help get rid of oils and fats.
Careful with throwing a lot in there - Trash can is your friend. Or learn to compost.
posted by Neekee at 6:07 PM on October 19, 2016

Another "we don't really have those here." When I lived in the US I noticed they were ubiquitous, but here in Canada I don't think I've ever seen one, even in the fanciest of kitchens. A US building super once told me that broken ones were about the biggest part of his job. (He also considered them pretty disposable.)

I have a compost box now, but when I lived in apartments I just kept a work basin full of scraps while cooking, and used a reasonably thick shopping bag to dump the contents into if they were runny, and tossed it into the trash. In the US I was so baffled by the idea of throwing biggish things down the drain that I didn't really use them. The noise is kind of annoying, too. I did compost in an apartment, too -- nothing complicated -- using an old garbage bin, dumping in dirt when I re-potted a plant and doing the odd stir; that worked surprisingly well.
posted by kmennie at 6:32 PM on October 19, 2016

To make matters more interesting, a rarely used disposal will have a tendency to seize up or freeze requiring that allen wrench at best or replacement at worst. So use it, but not too much. Meats can make them struggle, so don't put big hunks of it down there. Onions, celery, potato peels can all get wrapped around the blades and cause trouble.

My builder special model froze never to work again and I replaced it with a powerhouse disposal. It's awesome.
posted by cecic at 6:33 PM on October 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Haven't had a disposal in ten years. When we remodeled our kitchen we decided we didn't need one. Use the trash can instead.
posted by LoveHam at 8:38 PM on October 19, 2016

Egg shells were clogging our pipes

Yeah, don't do this. They don't rot like soft food waste and can build up in the pipes. As others have said, always run cold water forcefully when grinding.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:17 PM on October 19, 2016

After my husband appeared to be hell-bent on destroying every one of my favorite spoons (why only the spoons??), I got this Oxo silicone sink mat and did not cut out any of the segments. It's very easy to pick up by a corner and shake if there's bits on it that need to go down, plus it protects the sink from us banging around the cast iron skillet and stock pot in there. Twice a month or so I run it through the dishwasher.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:19 AM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Really high volume and/or "tough" materials tend to cause the most problems, in my experience. Now I compost things that I used to (attempt to) put in the disposal such as watermelon rinds, pineapple skins and tops, or egg shells, and I (knock wood) haven't had problems with my current disposal (a basic In-Sink-Erator that came with the house).

My experience suggests that if you have to make a special effort to chop or prep something in order to get it down the drain (thinking here of the watermelon rinds), it's a lot easier to compost it.
posted by theorique at 2:25 AM on October 20, 2016

Onion, specifically the papery or tough outer skins, is what caused our problems.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:34 AM on October 20, 2016

Keep a ziplock bag of food waste in the freezer, toss on trash day when it gets full.
posted by raisingsand at 7:24 AM on October 20, 2016

I once killed a garbage disposal when I was a kid by putting mountains of potato peels in it. So, don't do that I guess. Also, no meat or bones (a bf once killed the one in his rental by putting bad, raw ground beef in his).
posted by vignettist at 7:52 AM on October 20, 2016

Another vote for don't-throw-food-down-your-sink-at-all. Besides the fact that the thing is going to clog or break eventually, it's environmentally bad (raises nitrogen levels in local bodies of water), and it creates problems in the city's infrastructure: "Kitchen garburators increase the amount of organic material in the service lines, which can stick to the lines over time and cause blockages. In addition, like you said, they put unnecessary strain on the sanitary sewer system. One of the engineers at the City explained it in an interesting way — he said that when we use gaburators we put clean, useable material into a system where it needs to be cleaned and treated. Doesn't make sense, right?"

Put your leftovers in the green bin if you have one or in the garbage otherwise.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:04 AM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

When you peel carrots, potatoes, or other vegetable or fruits, don't put the refuse in the disposer. The peelings can slide past the blades and down the drain where they get stuck in the trap or other bend in the pipe. I clogged the plumbing twice before I broke the habit.
posted by wryly at 10:44 AM on October 20, 2016

We removed our disposal because it was badly installed; we always intended to have the plumber come back and do it right, eventually....and eventually just never happened. We use the same OXO strainer that raztaj does, and it's been totally fine. We are thinking of selling next year and I've been told that most agents will recommend installing a disposal if you don't have one because most buyers want one; I'm thinking we'll just offer a credit for the buyers to have the plumber come back and do what we never bothered to do. I don't know if I'll ever want a disposal again.

But to answer your question - as others have said, don't use the disposal like a garbage can. Just use it to make sure anything that slips past the strainer doesn't cause a clog.
posted by devinemissk at 10:49 AM on October 20, 2016

They are pretty simple devices. In my experience as just a guy who has installed and disassembled several, the slowness is almost certainly downstream [and may well be because of something that went down the disposal in the first place].

Typically, there's a disk mounted on top of the motor which has a small gap between it and the housing. The water and ground-up stuff drains out through that tiny gap, then into a cavity below the disc, which just drains out the side into your plumbing. There are typically some attachments on top of the disc that could plausibly be described as "blades", but they're not like knife blades or anything. They seem to smash stuff up by brute force rather than slicing it into tiny bits.

All the "frozen" disposals I've disassembled and cleared have been frozen by a tiny little piece of something wedged into that little gap. Often that little piece of something is not a substance that you would have expected to wedge the whole thing motionless. A tiny piece of plastic or something.

The location of the slowness is pretty easy to diagnose. Disconnect the pipe which connects the disposal to the plumbing. Put a bucket under it, and run the faucet into the sink. If the slowness is still evident, the problem is within the disposal. It should also be pretty evident when you take the pipe off if that's the case, because the hole in the side of the disposal will probably be full of gunk. I've never seen that be the case.

Chances are it's downstream, in which case probably taking the whole trap apart [I'm assuming recent plastic plumbing, where you can do this by hand with no tools] and flushing out the gunk in there will probably clear it. If it's still slow, you can use a snake [a few bucks at a hardware store] to clear further down the line.

It will be messy, gross work, but it's not difficult. Just possibly disgusting.
posted by chazlarson at 11:49 AM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

As others note, the key is to basically NOT use it. All our food waste goes into the compost bin or the garbage. Little bits that slip past us into the disposal are what we don't worry about. Periodically we run it with the water running and maybe a squirt of dish soap to get rid of any funkiness. That's it. (I think of it like a sink strainer I don't ever have to touch--not a substitute for the compost bin or garbage.)
posted by purple_bird at 4:24 PM on October 20, 2016

Agree with everyone who says that you shouldn't intentionally be putting food down there. I've heard the same from a plumber. Run it regularly with running water. I have that same flippy OXO catcher and it's great. I live in a rental and although I don't know anything about our disposal, I am certain it's not expensive, and in 3 years I've had no problems.
posted by radioamy at 7:06 PM on October 20, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers!

I feel like I should clarify that I'm not frivolously dumping (solid) food into it, particularly not food prep trash or full servings of meals. What I AM guilty of putting down there is... the liquid part of soup, mostly, with solid particles that slip past. And obviously anything that comes off of plates and silverware when I'm washing it. I don't get plates pristine before they go in the sink, but I'm also not scraping anything larger than a few rice grains or chunks of cooked carrot in there intentionally.

It sounds like maybe the buildup over several years of bits of starchy things and greasy soup stock may have congealed?

At any rate, I'll install a strainer in the next one and see if that helps.
posted by space snail at 7:29 PM on October 20, 2016

They also can/should be cleaned and unclogged sometimes. Our old disposal would clog up the drainage line from the dishwasher and the dishwasher overflow valve would pour water on the counters. But the line could be cleaned out.
posted by Lady Li at 12:24 AM on October 21, 2016

You definitely don't have to be deeply precious about it. Surely you are routinely running really hot water down there in the course of doing Sink Things, just flip the switch once every day or two while that's happening (all the better if there's a little dish soap involved) to swirl up anything in there, and then now and then throw a couple of ice cubes down (it'll dislodge the stubborn-er cruft directly under the blades).

If you have a dishwasher, you may want to make a point of running hot water and giving the disposal a quick go just before you turn it on - this makes sure the washer fills with hot water instead of cold, and clears the disposal for whatever particles come with the drainwater.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:15 AM on October 21, 2016

The Washington Post has an article called Six common mistakes you make when operating your garbage disposal. Here's one:

Running hot water while grinding waste. Cold water is preferred, as it allows any fat or grease to move through the pipes intact, Severson says. Hot water could melt fat and clog a pipe.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:54 AM on November 19, 2016

« Older SF Filter: Best bar to watch debate?   | does one actually get a job? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.