5 min

A garbage disposal is hardly a glamorous item, but there are reasons to pore over its details the same way you do with any other kitchen appliance, lest you wind up with a shrieky, leaky or clog-generating device. These tips about garbage disposal features, cost, installation and maintenance will help ensure you purchase a product that fits your needs and will last for years.

Horsepower. A garbage disposal’s job is to grind food waste into pieces small enough to pass through your plumbing. The most important choice you will make is the motor’s horsepower (hp). Horsepower equals grinding power and ranges from ⅓ to one hp. Take into account your family’s size, how often you cook, how much food waste you generate and how often you will use the disposal. Though economical, a ⅓-hp unit will probably fail quickly, says Bob Harrah, general manager at SAK Electric Plumbing in Arizona. Most households are well served by a ½- or ¾-hp motor. Large families and home chefs may want to consider a one-hp unit.

Size. The higher the horsepower, the larger the grinding chamber, both in depth and diameter. You want to buy a disposal that fits into the cabinet space under your kitchen sink. If you are replacing a disposal, measure the length of the existing one or measure from the cabinet bottom to the sink, says Aaron Mulder, a journeyman plumber and co-owner of Mr. Rooter Plumbing in San Antonio. If space is an issue, consider compact models that have just as much horsepower.

Noise. Garbage disposals are not quiet appliances. The stronger the unit, the louder it will be. Manufacturers are now producing models with sound insulation jackets, claiming to cut noise by up to 60 percent over standard disposers, but serenity comes at a price. A one-hp unit with sound-reduction technology may cost twice as much as its uninsulated counterpart. “It’s personal preference. Some people don’t care about noise, and others are really bothered by it,” Mulder says.

Cost. A basic ⅓-hp model can cost less than $100, while a one-hp unit with sound-seal technology could be as much as $750. On average, a quality disposal will cost between $150 and $250. Experts advise sticking to tried-and-true brands such as InSinkErator or Moen. A standard installation typically runs from $125 to $325. Many home improvement stores offer professional installation services, and some plumbers will give you a deal on installation if you purchase the disposal from them.

Installation. Doug Greene of Signature Properties in Philadelphia specializes in flipping houses and outfits each kitchen sink with a new garbage disposal. “I’m a strong proponent of DIY, but if you do the work yourself, you are on the hook if anything goes wrong,” he says. “Take inventory of your skill set. Have you ever done a plumbing project, worked with PVC pipe and understand how to seal pipes and other joints, so there are no leaks? If not, you may want to find a professional plumber.”

Mulder agrees: Although installing a disposal is not a hard job, he says, “you do have to line things up, especially if the new unit is not the same make and model as the older one.” Note that if you are installing a disposal under a kitchen sink that doesn’t have one, you may also need to invest in piping or electrical work. (A disposal needs a power source.) And although a pro will cost you, with a plumber, you’ll get an installation warranty and the manufacturer’s warranty.

Jams. Some models tout anti-jamming features such as “reverse grind.” Experts say you don’t need them. Standard models typically come with an Allen wrench and/or a reset button. If your disposal stops running, make sure it’s not jammed before assuming it must be replaced. Unplug it, insert the wrench into a hole on the bottom of the disposal and manually turn the disposal blades to free the jam. Or you can unplug the unit, stick your hand into the disposal to clear the jam, plug it in, then push the reset button.

Maintenance. With proper care, a garbage disposal can last some 30 years or more, Mulder says. Still, there are some tricks to avoiding jams, clogged pipes and gross smells caused by bacteria and food buildup. Greene tosses ice cubes and baking soda into his disposal every week or so to deodorize it. Although in theory tossing an orange or lemon into your disposal makes it smell great, the solid peels are the bane of plumbers, because they can get caught in the unit. Harrah says you should also avoid eggshells, stringy foods (potato peelings, celery or carrot shavings, for example) and grease. (It can get stuck in pipes and eventually cause clogs.) Drain products are another no-no, because the caustic chemicals can damage plastic pipes. Mulder says a green-certified, all-natural enzymatic treatment can be used to dissolve organic material in drain pipes.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.