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How Does a Garbage Disposal Work?

A garbage disposal isn’t found in every home, though their popularity is growing rapidly. In 2001, only 44% of kitchens in the US had one. Today, millions of garbage disposals are being sold and installed all over the world.

However, the history behind who made them is actually debated. Many believe it was invented in 1927 by John Hammes. Others still believe it was General Electric who introduced the idea to them in 1935. But what is agreed upon is that the design and function of it has remained widely the same.

They’re little grinders that are attached inside the drain of your kitchen sink. They work by catching food and grinding it to bits, when turned on. When you run water with them, the grinded up food is flushed down into the sewer system to be removed and processed.

Interestingly enough, garbage disposals weren’t widely accepted in some major cities until recently. In the 1970s, New York City outlawed the garbage disposal because of fear around what the food waste would do to the city’s sewer system. The ban was lifted in 1997.

How Does a Garbage Disposal Work?

As we mentioned briefly above, a garbage disposal is mounted to the underside of a sink. To get to it, you have to go underneath your sink, or stick your hand down the drain (which we don’t recommend). So how does a garbage disposal work?

They’re designed to act as a catcher for any food and debris that goes down your kitchen sink. When you turn them on, usually via a light switch, a spinning plate turns rapidly. This plate chops up anything in the chamber so it can be flushed through the pipes without much issue. Always run water when you’re running the garbage disposal to make this process easier on your home’s sewer system.

It’s also a myth that the garbage disposal has sharp blades. When you can hurt yourself if you carelessly stick your hand or any other limb into it, you won’t find anything knife-like down there.

Most garbage disposals fit the standard drain outlet. Local safety codes may determine the distance the switch must be located from the sink—the farther away, the safer.

Can Any Go Down a Garbage Disposal?

Unfortunately, no. While a garbage disposal does its job well in most cases, some food isn't good for it. Anything fibrous could get caught around the disc and break it, and grease, oil, and pits should never go down your drain, even if you do have a garbage disposal.

How Do You Know If It's Broken?

Since you can’t see it that well, how do you know if it’s not working? There are a few signs to keep an eye out (and a nose out) for.

First, bad odors. If your sink stinks, even after you’ve cleaned it out, it could be due to rotting food wrapped around, or stuck in, the garbage disposal. A professional plumber can safely clean it out for you. Do not try to clean it yourself!

Secondly, a garbage disposal has near instant results. If it’s taking awhile for it to grind up food, it could be a sign that something is wrong. Thankfully, this is usually caused by a dull plate, and is easy enough for a professional to switch out.

Thirdly, garbage disposal is not meant to jam, even if you have a large amount of food going through it. This often means that it’s stuck on something, or it tried to grind up something that it shouldn’t have.

You should also be listening for weird noises, like screeching, or metal-on-metal grinding. Your disposal will make weird noises from time to time and that’s normal. So listen for a consistent sound.

Finally, if it’s leaking, then it definitely needs to be looked at immediately. Leaks can cause some serious damage if they’re left alone.

Fixing a Bad Smell

There are a few things you can do if you notice a bad odor. You can try pouring equal parts baking soda and vinegar into it, you can try grinding some lemon peels, but there’s something else that works way better.

Put a cup of ice cubes into the disposal and turn it on. While it’s running with the ice in it, add about half a cup of kosher or rock salt. The ice and salt will work together to scrub the gunk off the inside of your disposal.

Choosing the Right Garbage Disposal

A basic model of a garbage disposal can get the job done for most households. Some models do come with extra bells and whistles attached, which can be nice to have. For example, stainless steel grinders are more reliable and stay sharper than other materials, and some models have extra sound-proofing insulation to dampen the noise.

Two types of garbage disposal are commonly available: the continuous-feed type, activated by a switch as you run the water, and the batch-feed type, activated by turning a stopper after loading the disposal with garbage.

When in doubt, ask professionals! They’ll walk you through every model and ask questions that will lead you to the right machine for you.

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