How to Clean a Garbage Disposal

Garbage disposal

 Garbage Disposals: The Smelly Truth

We might view our garbage disposals as these mysterious pits in our sinks that take our waste and get rid of it for us, somehow, so we don’t have to worry about it. When we flip the switch that turns our disposal on, we hear the motor and assume that any kind of food that finds its way into that disposal will end up as so many microscopic particles that make their way easily down the drain.

This is only partly true. The full truth is that disposals aren’t magical tools that can take anything we throw at them without some sort of consideration. The part that we don’t often think about is how a sink disposal unit gets rid of that waste. If we did, we’d understand that some foods and improper use can turn a clean unit into a clogged, smelly mess.

 As we’re pretty sure that no one wants to think about rotting food in their sink, we are here to discuss some basics for cleaning your disposal unit and keeping it clean. That means knowing that some foods can get stuck in a sink unit, impacting its performance and causing backups in the sink. It also means knowing that there is only so much you can do before calling in the professionals.

Don’t resign yourself to sticking your hand in the sink to remove a clog, consider some of these tricks to help you keep a clean garbage disposal.

DIY Methods for Cleaning Your Sink Disposal

  There are some fairly straightforward techniques to help keep your disposal clean. Luckily, none of them involve sticking anything in your drain to clean out a mess. But if you do these when light clogs come up, then you can prevent sink water or bad smells from backing up into your kitchen.  

  • Baking Soda and Vinegar. If you have a lighter clog or an emerging smell from your unit, then pour some baking soda down that drain, followed by some vinegar. Let it sit for 15-20 minutes, and then flush the unit with hot water while you have the motor running. The combination of baking soda and vinegar can help break up organic materials and eliminate smells.  
  • Ice and Vinegar. For tougher clogs, try running some ice and vinegar in your unit. Ice helps dislodge food particles caught in the grinders, while the vinegar can break up stringy organic material and eliminate other materials that can cause rotting smells. 
  • Citrus Peels. If you consistently find that your disposal unit smells bad, then try dropping a few citrus peels or left-over pulp into the unit with other food waste. The acid of the citrus (lemons and limes work great here) can eliminate the odors, help break up and lingering food, and actually replace the original bad odor with a cleaner-smelling scent.

Professional Methods for Big Problems

If your problem goes beyond a common clog or dirty sink disposal unit, then it’s probably best to get the professionals involved. You don’t want to mess with a disposal unit on your own for several reasons:

how to clean a garbage disposal
  1. They are linked to the electrical system. Some units plug in to an outlet underneath your sink, while others are directly wired through the wall. In either case, dealing with a garbage disposal means you are dealing with an appliance that carries a significant amount of electricity, which is never to be taken lightly.  
  2. They contain powerful motors. These motors aren’t going to power a boat, but they can hurt if a finger gets caught. That’s not to mention that the grinders are made to grind, which means that they can cause damage to anyone who decides to, say, stick a utensil in the unit.  
  3. They have several points where food can get caught and clog a grinder. If you decide to work on a unit you might not know how to work out catches or clogs in the motor or grinder system. What could be a simple job for a professional could take you the better part of the day if you don’t know what you are doing.

If you aren’t familiar with the inner workings of your unit, then you probably don’t know the best way to clean the garbage disposal. Best to leave it to a professional plumber

Practice Preventative Care 

  There are also preventative steps you can take to keep your unit clean and fresh-smelling.

First, don’t dump just any piece of food down the disposal. The grinders work best with hard food items (bone, non-fibrous vegetables, ice, etc.) and tend to get gunned up with stringy or fibrous foods (meat, celery, banana peels).

Second, don’t wait until you have a bad smell to put a little citrus in there. If you regularly use oranges or lemons in your cooking, then dump the peels in the disposal and immediately grind them up with hot water to release the essential oils and acids that will help keep the unit clean.

Third, regularly use backing powder and vinegar in the unit to help break up any food that gets stuck in the grinder.    Even with these basic steps, you can prevent a huge number of clogs and problems with your sink disposal unit. And the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is very true here. The less you have to do with your disposal unit, the better.


Keep It Clean and Fresh All Year Round 

When it comes to how to clean your disposal unit, it is best to work with prevention and basic, non-invasive approaches that can keep the unit running smoothly. But as with all the best laid plans of mice and men, it doesn’t guarantee that the unit will always work as it should.   If your garbage disposal unit stops running, or if the motor unit gets stuck, then don’t try to perform mechanical surgery. Call your local plumber to have them not only take care of the problem, but to ensure that your unit functions at its best for years to come.


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