Garbage Disposal won't turn on? Here's how to troubleshoot common issues

by Team HomeServe |
Garbage Disposal won't turn on? Here's how to troubleshoot common issues

Behold the underrated luxury of a modern kitchen: the garbage disposal. It gets rid of your food waste in seconds with the simple flip of a wall switch, saving your kitchen from the smell of rotting food scraps. Of course, they're not quite invincible, considering they don't do well with items like coffee grounds, eggshells and paper products. Still, it's easy to overlook how precious this little machine is until it stops working.

The good news is that most garbage disposal repair is easy enough to perform on your own. Whether it won't turn on or it's acting strange when it does, there are several ways to repair a broken garbage disposal.

Safety first

As with any do-it-yourself project, safety always comes first. No matter the source of the issue, your prep should always be the same: Turn off the garbage disposal, unplug the unit and maybe even shut off power to the machine entirely from your main circuit breaker before beginning repair work. The less likely you are to encounter an electric shock, the better.

Another important safety consideration is to never, under any circumstances, put your hand down the drain or blindly run your fingers inside the disposal where the blades can do damage. Finally, brief yourself on these important tips for DIY plumbing repairs.

With safety in mind, you're officially ready to tackle your broken garbage disposal.

If the disposal refuses to turn on at all…

When you flip the switch and nothing happens, there could be something wrong with the power source. For instance, the garbage disposal's overload circuit may have automatically shut off due to a power surge or malfunction, or the electrical circuit connected to the machine may be off.

The fix: Think back to your safety prep for a moment. Was the plug loose when you pulled it from the socket? Maybe the circuit breaker switch was already in the "off" position? If so, the simple fix may just be plugging in the unit properly or flipping the circuit switch back on. However, just to be safe, press the reset button on the bottom of the garbage disposal. DoItYourself.com noted that the red button will already be sticking out if it tripped, which means pressing it should solve the problem. Head back to the circuit breaker and manually flip the switch back to the "on" position. Now try to turn on the disposal again.

If that doesn't work, you may need to do some detective work to find the source of the power malfunction. It could be the wall switch, outlet, power cord, wiring or another electrical element. If you find a faulty component, you may need to call a professional to inspect the issue, as the repair may be beyond your electrical and plumbing knowledge. However, if you can't find any signs of trouble, your best option may be to replace the unit.

If there's a humming sound…

If the garbage disposal won't turn on or fails to grind food waste, but the motor still ekes out a humming sound when you flip the switch, the problem is probably a jam. It's common for food or other debris to block the impeller and other components inside of the disposal.

The fix: Turn off the disposal immediately, as humming without any grinding action can burn out the motor, according to HomeTips. To fix the jam, insert a hex wrench or short wooden broom into the hole on the underside of the disposal. Turn your tool clockwise to dislodge the flywheel, continuing until you feel the blades turn freely. If you can see the blockage in the disposal, use tongs or pliers (not your hands!) to dislodge the item from the unit. Cleaning it out may require removing the unit entirely and reattaching it once the obstruction is gone.

From there, turn the power back on and press the reset button on the bottom of the unit. Then, run water from the faucet and quickly flip the disposal switch on and off a few times to wash away residual obstruction that could still be blocking the flywheel. If all goes well, you should be back in business at this point.

If you notice leaking…

The vibration of the garbage disposal can loosen connections over time, often leading to a leak. When there's water dripping from the garbage disposal into the base of the cabinet, you'll need to determine the source of the leak to fix the problem. It's usually one of three culprits: the flange that connects the disposal to the bottom of the sink, the hose that leads to the dishwasher or the drain pipe that connects to the sewage system.

The fix: Inspect the drainage pipe first, looking for loose screws. Use a screwdriver to tighten them, and then run the water to see if the leaking continues. If the leak appears to be coming from the sink flange, tighten the mounting bolts. The Spruce also noted that worn down plumber's putty could be the reason for the leak. If that's the case, loosen the bolts and push the sink flange up into the drain opening. Remove the old putty and apply a fresh amount around the flange. Next, re-tighten the mounting bolts and put the flange back in place. Wipe away excess putty. Test your work with the water running so you can ensure the leak is fixed.

Note that if there are cracks in the unit or water is dripping from the garbage disposal reset button, your best bet is to replace the machine.

If draining happens painfully slowly…

In the event that the garbage disposal turns on but fails to drain the water or disposal water comes back up into the sink, the drainage issue likely stems from a clogged disposal or sink.

The fix: Start by running boiling water down the drain to free up blockages. If the clog is too stubborn for that simple fix, you can use a plunger to unclog your kitchen sink. Some clogs will require removing the discharge pipe that connects to the disposal so you can clear the debris with a sink auger or coat hanger. If the clog is in the disposal, try one of these three methods to remedy the issue.

If you smell an unfortunate odor…

When bits of food get stuck in the garbage disposal blades or drain pipes, the result is generally a less-than-ideal smell coming from your sink.

The fix: Run a big cup of ice and about half a cup of salt through the disposal to scrub away the debris. You can also throw in some lemons for a much more pleasant citrus scent. Another way to banish bad odors is with an equal mixture of baking soda and vinegar. Simply pour the solution down the drain and cover the opening with a stopper, letting the ingredients sit in the drain for about 10 to 15 minutes. Flush with hot water to complete the process.

Once you solve the smelly garbage disposal problem, routine maintenance can keep the bad odors away for good. For example, the Spruce suggested grinding up pieces of lemon peels and ice cubes on a regular basis to maintain proper disposal performance.

If these DIY solutions fail to fix the problem, it may be time to call in a professional plumber. When the garbage disposal continues to perform poorly despite your handy efforts, there could be more complex plumbing system problems at play.

Preventing future problems

Avoiding future malfunctions requires some dedicated rule following. While disposals are durable shredding machines, they're serious about their do's and don'ts when it comes to what you can send down the drain for grinding. Some of the big no-nos, for instance, include fats, coffee grounds, bones, shells, metal, rubber, paper and glass.

When it gets to the point that you can't get your disposal to turn on or perform with the same efficiency, you may be better off replacing the unit. Keep in mind that even normal wear and tear limits garbage disposals to about 10 to 15 years of use. A new one usually costs between $80 and $200, according to estimates from Thumbtack. The Home Depot sells residential disposals that range from about $50 to $500, although most homeowners will be fine sticking with a unit that falls within Thumbtack's average range. And with your savvy preventative maintenance skills, you can extend the life of your new disposal, avoiding premature issues or replacements.

Being prepared for garbage disposal troubles before they arise is always a good strategy. See how plans from TotalHome Warranty by HomeServe can help with the costs of covered appliance and home system repairs.