Since leaving college, Paul has worked in a variety of roles, including: painter and decorator, general handyman, and freelance writer.
Garbage disposals are prone to getting clogged up, 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.
Important: Safety Tips Before You Begin
The blades of a garbage disposal are very sharp and are capable of doing your fingers serious damage. It's vital that you do the following before anything else:
- Make sure that the unit is switched off before you start working, I always turn the power off at the fuse box too, in case there is an issue with the unit's switch, it's better to be safe than sorry.
- Do not put your fingers or hand down inside the sink drain opening. You shouldn't need to make any direct physical contact with the blades to fix the clog.
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.
What Tools Do I Need to Unclog the Garbage Disposal?
- If the unit is blocked up with food waste, then you may be able to get by just using a special wrench. Basically, it has to be the hex or Allen wrench that fits the six-sided hole in the base of the garbage disposer motor. If you are lucky, the person who installed the unit will have taped the wrench to the unit. If you don't have the wrench that came with your unit, you will need to find the right size Allen wrench.
- If the clog is caused by something more solid, such as jewelry, or broken crockery, then you will need a pair of pliers.
- Depending on the nature of the clog, a plunger can also be useful.
How to Fix a Clogged Garbage Disposal: 3 Easy Methods
Note: You may find that you need to combine two or three methods to unblock your unit.
1. The Wrench Method
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.
2. Using Pliers or Tongs
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.
What If a Valuable Possession Is Clogging the Garbage Disposal?
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.
What If Nothing I Try Works?
If you've tried using the wrench, the pliers, plunging, and nothing works, then there are essentially two possible situations to consider.
- You will have to call a plumber to fix the clog.
- The problem may not be a clog. It's possible that there is a problem with the functioning of your garbage disposal and it may need fixing or replacing.
Symptoms of a Clogged Garbage Disposal
There are a number of indicators that your garbage disposal could be clogged. I've listed the three most common below.
- The unit is making a lot of noise or abnormal sounds. Classic symptoms are either a clattering sound, like there is something being struck by the blades, or just a humming noise, because the blades are being impeded.
- There is the smell of rotting food emerging from your kitchen sink.
- The drain opening backs up and causes a mess.
Preventing a Garbage Disposal From Becoming Clogged
There are a number of ways in which you can minimize or prevent your garbage disposal from getting clogged. Here are some tips below.
- Always run cold water when you switch on your garbage disposal to ensure that the waste is flushed away.
- Never tip oil or grease down a kitchen sink drain, regardless of whether you have a garbage disposal, it can cause serious clogs.
- Certain foods just don't break down very well and should be thrown away with the household garbage. These include bones, seeds, nuts, eggshells, rice, pasta, coffee grounds, and potato peels.
- Put ice cubes in your disposal to sharpen the blades.
- To create a fresher smell, try putting small pieces of lemon peel in the disposal.
How to Clean a Garbage Disposal
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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 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.