How to Unclog a Garbage Disposal: What to do?

Wondering how to unclog a garbage disposal? 

It happens more often, to more people than you might think. In this article, I'll take you through some basic (easy) steps to get yours unclogged and running like new again.

First, I think it's important to point out the fact that there are a couple of different ways your garbage disposal can clog up. 

  1. Partial Clog: Unit still runs but contents don't fully dissolve or empty 
  2. Full Clog: Unit gets electricity but doesn't spin

Of the two, the first scenario - a partial clog - is far more common. 

Let's talk about that one first.

How to Unclog a Garbage Disposal with a Partial Clog

Partial clogs in a garbage disposal can happen pretty regularly, especially in weaker units that weren't meant to handle heavy waste.

This occurs when waste is partially ground up, but not enough to pass out of the interior of the garbage disposal. 

In my own kitchen, one of the most common causes of this type of clog is a lemon rind.

Some other common waste items that can cause a partial clog include the following:

  1. Fibrous vegetables
  2. Fibrous fruit
  3. Raw or under-cooked meat
  4. Fatty pieces of meat 
  5. Bones, fruit pits, or hard shells

When this type of clog happens, you'll turn the garbage disposal off and notice that the waste item is still on top of the shredder. When you turn it back on the waste will spin inside the flange but will not pass through the shredder.

In this situation, I'd recommend the following actions:

#1: Unplug the garbage disposal

While it's easy (and perhaps tempting) to reach directly down into the garbage disposal with the switch turned off, it is never advisable to do this unless the unit is also unplugged. Unplug the unit first.

#2: Remove the stubborn waste from the shredder

When the unit is off and unplugged it's safe to reach into the sink hole and removed the offending waste, if it's not stuck and comes out easily. If it's stuck, move to step #3.

#3: For stuck waste, use a gripping tool

If the waste is stuck and can't be pulled out by hand, I would recommend using some kind of gripping tool to remove the waste instead of trying to use your fingers.

#4: Run water and turn on the unit

Once all or most of the clogging waste is removed, plug the garbage disposal back in, run water from the faucet, and turn the unit back on. The remaining waste should now be forced down into the shredder and the disposal motor should run unimpeded.

In most cases, these four steps will solve a partial clog and get your unit running smoothly. If they don't, you'll need to consider consulting a plumber who can disassemble the unit.

Speaking of needing a plumber, let's talk about a full clog scenario.

How to Unclog a Garbage Disposal with a Full Clog

Partial clogs happen all the time and are reasonably easy to fix. This is not the case when you have a full clog where the motor is running but the shredder can't spin. 

This is fairly rare and means that a waste item - probably a bone or something just as hard - is stuck in the shredder and not breaking down. It also means that you've probably put something into the garbage disposal that shouldn't be there or that the unit simply isn't powerful enough to handle.

Checkout our roundup of the best garbage disposals for information on power ratings and what kind of contents different units can handle.

Once again, I would advise both turning off the disposal and unplugging it before you troubleshoot.

Short of calling a plumber, here are a few things you can try.

#1: Enzymes, DISSOLVE, or Drano

You can get enzymes that actually help break food down and make it easier for a garbage disposal to do its job. Drain cleaner like DISSOLVE or Drano could have a similar effect. You would need to pour the solution into your clogged drain and then wait an hour or two before trying to run the disposal again.

Here are a couple solutions that you could try:

#2: Manual Removal

It's possible that a manual removal can be your best bet, even if the garbage disposal is completely clogged. If the waste is close enough to the sink opening, it could be worth a try to attempt extracting it with your hands, especially if it's a bone or something hard (again, making sure the unit is off and unplugged). If not, you might need some kind of a gripping tool to grab hold of the waste.

#3: Call a Plumber

If neither of these options work, you'll need to call a plumber to come and take the unit apart. With a full clog, this is a more likely outcome, though in almost every case a good plumber can have everything in working order fairly quickly

Conclusion

Thankfully, garbage disposals usually just work.

Especially with the more powerful motors, you aren't likely to have problems with clogging. This goes double for those that are mindful about what kind of waste the disposal is designed to handle.

Take the time to understand how garbage disposals work and then take care of your unit accordingly.

If you do have a clog to deal with, go through the steps above to resolve the issue.

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