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How to Unjam a Stuck Garbage Disposal Safely

I'm a home handyman who has used this technique to successfully free stuck garbage disposals for my customers.

how-to-unjam-a-stuck-garbage-disposal

Step 1: Diagnosing a Jammed Up Garbage Disposal

Kitchen sink garbage disposals, also called garburators in Canada, can sometimes become stuck, but chances are, you won't need to call a plumber.

There are several reasons a garbage disposal may have quit working, including debris that's become jammed in the blades, or if food waste was simply too much for the motor to handle. An overloaded motor may have caused a breaker located in your home electrical panel to trip, or has caused the small reset button on the bottom of the disposal to pop out.

(A small reset button is often located on the underside of garbage disposal units and, in most cases, it can be reset simply by pressing upward on it.)

If There's No Sound Coming From Your Garbage Disposal

If you've turned on the switch to your kitchen garbage disposal and nothing happens, chances are either a breaker inside your home's breaker panel has tripped, or the small reset button on the underside of the motor has tripped and needs to be reset.

If You Hear a Buzz—Turn It Off!

If your garbage disposal is making a humming or buzzing noise and seems stuck, turn it off at once! The buzzing sound is most likely an indicator that some debris has become lodged between the blades. You can easily burn out your disposal's motor, so keep it turned off until you've solved the problem.

You Might Just Get Lucky

In some cases, you may be able to solve a non-working garbage disposal by simply pressing your disposal's reset button, which is normally located on the underside of the unit (as seen in the photo above). First make sure the disposal's wall switch is off and try resetting it, then try turning the switch on again while running soapy, warm water down the drain.

Very Important Safety Tips

Be extremely careful when flipping a "popped" breaker or reset button back on. Only turn a breaker back on once you've removed any debris from the disposal and freed its motor. If the breaker keeps tripping off, consult an electrician.

Never look down inside a garbage disposal when turning it back on. Debris may be ejected from it, causing eye injuries.

Also, when turning on a breaker, first make sure that you've turned off the wall switch at the disposal, since these are often left on. Communicate with all other people who may be working on the repair, so that power isn't accidentally restored when repairs are underway, or worse, when someone's hand is inside the unit!

If You Do Hear a Humming Sound Coming From the Disposal

If there is a humming sound coming from your disposal when you turn it on and it's still not working, the blades may have become jammed or stuck. In this case, you'll have to proceed to the next step, which is to free or unjam your garbage disposal using an Allen wrench.

Turn off the wall switch and either unplug the disposal before using the hex key, or turn off the breaker.

Turn off the wall switch and either unplug the disposal before using the hex key, or turn off the breaker.

Step 2: Unjamming Stuck Garbage Disposal Blades

First, make sure the breaker is off or the unit is unplugged (with breaker off) and the wall switch is in the "off" position. If we mention this more than once, it's because this step is critically important.

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Before trying to free the stuck disposal, take a quick peek down inside the unit while using a flashlight. If you can't see any debris stuck down inside the disposal, go ahead and proceed to the next steps.

Removing Foreign Objects From a Garbage Disposal—Be Careful!

In some cases, it may be necessary to reach a gloved hand down into a garbage disposal to retrieve items such as utensils, seeds, bottle caps or other objects that have fallen down inside. You should never reach your hand inside a garbage disposal without following these steps:

  • Turn off the power to the garbage disposal at both the breaker panel and wall switch.
  • For plug-in models, unplug the unit.
  • Wear tough gardening or utility gloves. Glass and other sharp objects often end up in the disposal, so be extra careful not to cut your fingers.
  • For wired-in models that can't be unplugged, practice "lock out, tag out". If there's a way to lock your home breaker panel door, go ahead and do so. If not, close the panel and place a notice—written in large letters—on the panel door as a warning to others not to tamper with it.

Manually Turning the Disposal Motor

After you've removed any visible debris, you can try to move the motor manually using a dishwasher hex key or Allen wrench. Most garbage disposals or garburators have a small hex key or Allen head slot that's located on the underside of the motor. In the case of our own disposal, an InSinkerator, this slot uses a 1/4" Allen wrench. This slot is provided so that you can manually turn the disposal's motor and break free any objects that might be stick in the blades.

Stop!

Before proceeding to the next step (or any other step that involves working directly on the disposal), double check that the wall switch is off, breaker is off, and unit is unplugged.

Insert the Allen Wrench (Hex Key)

  1. Next you can insert the Allen wrench or hex key into the key slot located on the underside of the motor. A small bathroom mirror, placed underneath the disposal, may make this job easier.
  2. Start by turning the Allen wrench counter-clockwise, then clockwise, until you can get the tool to turn all the way around freely. The tool may require a good pull to break through whatever foreign object that may be jammed in the cutters.
  3. Remove the hex key and after you've double checked that the wall switch you've already turned off is still in the "off" position, go ahead and plug the unit back in —or turn the breaker back on for wired in models. Again, when turning garbage disposal breakers back on, communicate your intentions with all others who are working with you on the disposal.
  4. Next, turn on the tap and try to run the disposal once more. If it runs freely, you've solved the problem. If you hear a loud noise that won't quickly go away, turn off the unit at once and contact a plumber.

At What Point Do You Call a Professional?

In some cases, the methods described above may not work to solve the problem of a stuck or non-working disposal. Occasionally garbage disposal motors can burn out, which requires replacement of the entire unit. In this case, you'll most likely need to call a plumber to replace the unit.

Is some cases, there may be an issues with the home's electrical system, which may be causing a breaker or reset button to trip. Such a situation would need to be addressed by a licensed electrician.

Never stick your hand in a garbage disposal without turning off the breaker or unplugging it, and making sure wall switch is off!

Never stick your hand in a garbage disposal without turning off the breaker or unplugging it, and making sure wall switch is off!

Garbage Disposal Maintenance

Under ordinary circumstances, a garbage disposal should work for years with little maintenance. To keep your unit running smoothly, you'll want to routinely flush the disposal with warm soapy water containing no food waste.

To help keep them odor free and clean, you can use a specially formulated garbage disposal cleaning product such as Affresh, which we used in this project. Affresh garbage disposal tablets work by breaking down small, hard waste particles that remain but which the cutting blades can't remove.

Never Use Chemical Drain Openers to Unclog a Stuck Garbage Disposal

Never, under any circumstances should you try using any chemical drain openers to free a stuck kitchen garbage disposal, since this can permanently damage the unit.

Hopefully our article helped you unjam your stuck garbage disposal unit. Always consult a professional plumber when you have problems that can't be solved by performing these steps.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Nolen Hart

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