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Steps to take the next time your unit malfunctions

By Bill and Kevin Burnett
Inman News®


Q: We had a small disaster on Christmas Day. While peeling potatoes for the mashers, I turned the garbage disposal on. It ground for a little while, and then the water level started to rise in the sink. I turned the disposal off and waited a few moments. The water level remained. I turned the disposal switch on, then nothing. I checked the circuit breaker in the garage. It wasn’t tripped.

Fortunately, I was able to get dinner on the table and the dishes done by using the laundry sink.

I had to work the next day, so I had the neighbor let the plumber in. He didn’t replace the disposal and left a message with the neighbor about “something happening with the trap,” along with a bill for $120.

My question for you guys is: What happened? And did I send $120 down the drain needlessly?

A: That’s bad news any time, but especially when preparing Christmas dinner. Kevin had a similar experience in his younger days: One Thanksgiving, the disposal refused to work but fortunately the sink did not plug up. He had enough know-how to fix the problem and go on with the holiday feast.

In your case, two things happened:

  • You ground the potato skins into a fine puree that plugged the trap under the sink. The plumber just took the trap apart, cleaned it out and reinstalled it. Problem solved.
  • Next, the disposal had to work too hard grinding all those skins. The internal circuit breaker tripped.

All the plumber did was clean out the disposal’s chamber and reset the breaker. It probably took him about 20 minutes to complete both jobs. Given that he had to drive over to your house and go back to the shop, $120 isn’t a bad deal. But if you had known where to look and what to do, the expense would have been avoidable.

Water and food enters a garbage disposal through the strainer in the sink. Food, mixed with water, is ground into a puree by whirling metal cutters in the disposal and discharged from the bottom of the disposal through a P-trap into the waste line and finally into the sewer system.

A P-trap is a curved pipe you’ll find under every sink in the house. It’s named for its shape that resembles the letter “P” lying on its side. A P-trap constantly contains water that blocks the infiltration of sewer gases into the house.

A P-trap is connected to the garbage disposal discharge and the drainpipe entering into the wall by what are known as “slip nuts” — one at each joint.

To remove the clog:

  • remove the trap and clean out the debris;
  • put a container on the cabinet floor to collect the water that will inevitably leak when you undo the fittings;
  • loosen the slip nuts by turning them counterclockwise; and
  • take out the P-trap, clean out the gunk and reinstall it, making sure to tighten the slip nuts.

Once the blockage is clear, it’s time to get the disposal up and running:

  • reset the internal breaker (all disposals have a reset button on the bottom — it’s usually red);
  • press the button until you hear a click — now you’ve got power;
  • turn on the disposal (if it works, great);
  • run the water and check that the fittings under the sink don’t leak (Note: If it just buzzes, something is preventing the blades from twirling. We’ve seen folks use a use a broom handle to jar the blades loose. Don’t do it. Every disposal comes with a hex wrench. The hex wrench fits a hole in the center of the bottom of the disposal. Insert the wrench in the hole in the center of the bottom and turn it back and forth. This will loosen the obstruction and allow the blades to turn again.); and
  • fill the sink about halfway with water, turn on the disposal, unplug the drain and let the water flush out the system — make sure you poke your head under the sink to check for leaks.              

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