What’s that Smell? The Care and Feeding of Your Garbage Disposer


Are less than fragrant fragrances emanating from your kitchen? Don’t blame the chef. It could be your garbage disposer.

As the new year and a new quarter start, I thought I’d mention something I do at the beginning of every quarter…clean my Garbage Disposer.  Many people don’t ever think of cleaning the garbage disposer, and then wonder why that side of the sink often smells so sour.  Before we talk about cleaning your disposer, I think you’ll find it helpful, if not somewhat surprising, to understand how they are made

All garbage disposers are made essentially the same; they have an ‘upper hopper chamber’ that the food, debris and water from the dishwasher goes down into, and a ‘lower hopper chamber’ where the slurry and water collects, and is then pushed out into the drain.

The main thing to understand is that there are no blades or knives of any kind that ‘chop things up’, in any garbage disposer.  Instead, the bottom of the ‘upper hopper chamber’ contains a kind of ‘Plate’ or ‘Flywheel’ with many holes or slits in it. Connected to the top of this ‘Plate’ are what people consider the ‘teeth’ or cutter blades, but they’re actually little ‘impeller blades’.  Their job is to not only smash stuff up, but to force the resulting slurry down through the holes or slits in the Plate/Flywheel, acting like an impellor.  ( A propeller pushes, an impellor pulls things through it.)

Once the stuff we put into the disposer is smashed up, liquefied, and shoved through the holes or slits in the Bottom Plate/Flywheel, it simply collects in the bottom hopper and drains out the drain, helped by the pull of gravity and the impeller ‘teeth’ working correctly.  Consequently, it’s important NEVER to put anything in the disposer that won’t either break up into tiny pieces or totally dissolve.  Fiberous things like banana peels and celery, or things that ‘clump’ badly like potato peels or lots of rice will not go through the Bottom Plate/Flywheel well, and should never be put into a disposer.

Cleaning the disposer is simple.  Here are the steps.

  1. Turn the unit on and have the cold water running.
  2. Empty 2 to 4 trays of ice cubes into the sink, and feed into the disposer as quickly as it will take it.  This will freeze all debris causing it to ‘chunk off’ the impeller blades and out of the holes in the plate/flywheel.
  3. Let the water run for a full minute after the last cube is broken up.
  4. If the unit has been smelling badly, you can chop up a lemon and feed it down the unit, but be sure to feed small chunks so the ‘impeller blades’ can deal with the tough peel without trouble.
  5. Better yet, use a safe, biodegradable drain cleaning product in the disposer like ‘Bio-Clean’.  Do not use cleansers (they are mainly fine sand and bleach) or caustics like ‘Drain-O’, they will corrode your units ‘guts’ very quickly and cut the life of it in half.

An additional note; if your disposer ever jams or clogs, first of all make sure it can spin freely.  My Grandma use to do that with a broom stick deftly applied with just the right amount of ‘twist’.  A better option is to use the Allen wrench provided on the ‘Flywheel Turning Wrench Hole’ on the bottom of the unit, where the reset button is also located.

If the unit is spinning, and the disposer side of the sink is clogged, but the other side drains, then the clog is in the pipes immediately below the sink connected to the disposer, and they will likely need to be taken apart and cleaned manually.

One last thing, and probably the most important to remember with garbage disposers …whenever they are used, run water…  lots of water.  Run water before, during and after you put anything into it.   Always!  Over my last 3-plus decades as a plumber, my experience has taught me that garbage disposers rarely get clogged if used properly, and you can extend their life for years with a little periodic maintenance. Is there a bad smell coming from your kitchen? Before you point an accusing finger, poke your nose in the sink… it could be your garbage disposer!

Bruce Davis Sr.

Licensed Journeyman Plumber

Licensed Electrician, HVAC/R

Electrical Administrator, HVAC/R

Certified WA State C.E.U. Instructor


2 Responses to “What’s that Smell? The Care and Feeding of Your Garbage Disposer”

  1. Amen to running water through the disposal. Some people don’t take the time to learn how to use these things properly. The ice/lemon combination is a favorite of mine: simple and effective!

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