Your garbage disposal is headed into crunchtime. The holidays, with their endless vegetable peels and plate scrapings, make this hardworking appliance, found in just over half of American homes, work overtime.
“The day after Thanksgiving is our busiest day of the year,” says Paul Abrams, spokesman for Roto-Rooter, a major provider of plumbing, sewer and drain cleaning services. “It’s the time your plumbing is getting a real workout.” Abrams has a file of horror stories he’s compiled from his plumbers, involving disposals clogged with whole Cornish game hens and chunks of green glass from Little Kings Cream Ale bottles.
Many of the disposals grinding away in homes across the land aren’t exactly state of the art. Some may be builder-grade models, others just old and worn out. That is why there are such wide-ranging recommendations from manufacturers and service technicians about how to safely use them.
“There are a lot of myths about what you can and can’t put in,” says Chad Severson, president of InSinkErator, a major manufacturer of disposals founded in 1938. There are rules laid down by grandmothers generations ago: no eggshells, coffee grounds, bones, banana peels or pasta. Most units can now handle these foods in small batches. New, more powerful and quieter disposals have advanced technology and features. InSinkErator’s Evolution disposals can actually grind avocado pits and bones, Severson says.
Another urban legend floating around: You shouldn’t run your disposal while the dishwasher is operating. This is false, experts say. Just be mindful of what and how much you put in there, and read your manual.
Share this list of disposal mistakes with your household before the holiday crush. And keep those Cornish game hens away from the sink.
Using the wrong operating sequence. For best operation, follow this order, Severson says: First, start running cool water. Second, turn on the disposal. Third, gradually put food in (don’t shove it in all at once). Run the disposal until food is gone (usually 30 seconds is enough). Turn it off and let the water run for another 10 or 15 seconds to flush out the drain.
Not cleaning it correctly. Sprinkle in a bit of baking soda to freshen and clean. Have a couple of lemon or lime slices left over after a party? Toss them in; they work as cleaners and can eliminate odors. Grind up a few ice cubes, which will knock off bits of food that may be caught inside the disposal. Never use bleach or harsh drain cleaners, Severson says, as they could cause a malfunction.
Running hot water while grinding waste. Cold water is preferred, as it allows any fat or grease to move through the pipes intact, Severson says. Hot water could melt fat and clog a pipe.
Shoving in nonfood items. The list of no-nos includes wooden matches, cigarettes, rubber bands and twist ties, and of course glass. Stick to only food waste, Abrams says.
Pouring grease or fat into the disposal. Grease can solidify in the pipes like candle wax, Abrams says. In this case, your grandmother’s system of pouring bacon grease into a coffee can kept by the stove is still good today. Use any metal can, glass bowl or jar and let it cool.
Calling for service too soon. Resist the urge to call for repair before you have tried these two things, Abrams says: Start by turning the unit off. Press the reset button under your unit (it’s usually red). This acts as a local circuit breaker and hopefully will let you reestablish power. If that doesn’t work, get out your jam key, which is sold with most disposals. (No worries if you can’t find it; a quarter-inch Allen wrench also works fine.) Insert the tool into the hole in the bottom of the disposal housing. Rotate it back and forth to see whether you can clear the jam.