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Common Garbage Disposal Failures

If your garbage disposal has stopped working or is making strange sounds, you may need a local plumber to come out and fix it. A broken garbage disposal is not typically seen as an emergency plumbing situation. However, if you’ve recently put something smelly down there (like raw meat) and suddenly the unit isn’t working, that can require immediate attention.

Use this guide to determine what could be wrong with your garbage disposal:

Grinding or Clanking Sound

A grinding, clanking, or changing sound is usually due to something finding its way down into the disposal that shouldn’t be there. Small items like silverware, straws, kids cup components, toothpicks, and food packaging can sometimes end up in garbage disposals, causing strange sounds. Clear these items out to avoid doing damage to the unit. If you hear a metal on metal sound, it’s possible that a blade has broken or come loose inside, requiring the services of a plumbing professional. Depending on the extent of the damage, a garbage disposal replacement may be needed instead of repaired. 

Won’t Turn On

Many homeowners assume when a garbage disposal won’t turn on that it's the result of the motor burning out. While that certainly may be the case, there can be other issues that would cause that as well.

If the unit gets unplugged it won’t turn on. This may sound obvious, but it’s oddly common for children and even pets to mess with the plug under the sink. First, make sure it’s plugged in. If it is, press the reset button on the unit. The built-in circuit breaker may have tripped, temporarily turning off power to the unit, and requiring that it be manually reset before it can operate normally again. If this still doesn’t fix the issue, check the main circuit breaker to ensure that hasn’t been tripped.

After ruling these causes out, you will likely need to call in a professional plumber to check the wiring and the motor to determine what could be causing the failure. The wiring may need to be disassembled to check for loose connections or burnt out components. A plumber can either fix the issue or replace the garbage disposal with a new unit.

Blockage

If you turn on the switch and hear the disposal turn on and then abruptly stop, the unit is likely receiving power but cannot operate normally due to a garbage disposal clog. This usually occurs if the garbage disposal isn’t run frequently, resulting in food matter to build up inside.

Turning it off, unplugging it, and then inserting a sturdy instrument inside to manually turn the blades is one way to unclog a garbage disposal. (Remember, never stick your hand inside to unclog the unit even if the power is turned off because when the blades become unstuck, they can spin and catch your hand inside, doing substantial damage.) Don’t use a metal implement like a butter knife because that can chip the blades, making them less effective. Use a strong wooden dowel or other implement to try to free the blades. Some models come with an offset wrench, and if you still have this tool, you can stick it into the turn hole underneath the unit to help the blades spin. If you’ve lost this tool and can’t get an Allen wrench to work, you can purchase a new offset wrench from a hardware store or appliance store that stocks parts for your specific garbage disposal.

If the clog is all the way into the tubing that empties ground up material, it will need to be removed and cleaned out. A licensed plumber can take the components apart and clean out the piping to get it running normally again.

Don’t risk it by tinkering with the unit unless you have the original repair and maintenance guide that came with your specific garbage disposal. Otherwise, you could risk inuring yourself or causing further damage to the unit. Plumbing professionals are familiar with many different styles of garbage disposals and have the tools and experience needed to diagnose the issue and fix it quickly. They’ll get your kitchen sink back in good working order in no time. Additionally, if your garbage disposal motor is burnt out, a plumbing company can get a new one installed to replace the broken unit.

Stuck Flywheel

If you hear a continuous hum of the motor when you turn on the switch but it’s not actually grinding up the food inside (as if you’ve turned it on while it was empty), it's likely that the garbage disposal flywheel is stuck. If the food that is keeping the inner flywheel from spinning correctly isn’t cleared, the reset button will usually pop. If it doesn’t, however, turn off the switch to keep the motor from burning out and then follow the directions to clear the blockage. Then, hit the reset button and try turning it on again.

Leaking

When you find water under your sink, call a licensed plumber right away. Avoid costly water damage and potential mold growth by having the leak fixed immediately. Anything can leak, but the most common causes are the sink flange, disposal housing, hoses, and discharge pipes are the most common sources of leaks. A professional plumber can investigate the source of the leak using specialized leak detection tools and determine if the garbage disposal is leaking or if the water is coming from the sink itself.

Additional resources:
Common emergency plumbing problems
Finding kitchen water leaks
Drain cleaning tips