Unclogging a Disposal

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Dear NH,
I need to find out how to unclog a disposal. The reset button works, but it just hums. This is a fairly new disposal (2 years old).
SB from Salt Lake City, Utah

Dear SB,
The humming indicates that the motor is still trying to turn, but the grinding mechanism is jammed. First things first! Turn off the power and look inside the grinding chamber of your disposal a flashlight to see if there is any visible object - large staple, coin, dentures - that might cause the disposal to jam. If there is some nondescript object in the disposal (nobody would recognize you either if you just took a ride in a wild garbage disposal) you must remove it before testing. I use a special extraction tool - a simple magnet attached to a telescoping metal rod. It looks like the antenna from a cheap portable radio, actually!

Unfortunately, the magnet will only work on steel and iron objects. You may need to use some ingenuity to remove coins, which are generally not magnetic. Duct tape rolled onto the end of a pencil might help you grab it, or even a piece of chewing gum! Two butter knives used like chopsticks can also be effective - use your creativity. Please be sure the power is off before trying any of these improvisational techniques!

Sometimes you will see an object in the chamber but it will be impossibly jammed between the grinding mechanism and the side of the disposal. Or sometimes you will see nothing. In either case the only way to release the jam is to turn or "spin" the grinding mechanism by hand... the disposal's motor is not powerful enough to do the job itself. Virtually all the newer disposals have a hex head slot directly under the center of the disposal. To see it, use a mirror and a flashlight to look underneath the disposal. By inserting an appropriately sized Allen head (also called hex head) wrench into this hole, you can gently turn the disposal mechanism back and forth to free the blockage.

Sometimes by "spinning" the disposal mechanism with the wrench, the offending item passes through the disposal like a rock. Other times it pops back into the chamber and taunts you! Check the chamber again for any loose material. Then and only then can you turn on the water and test the disposal. You may have to repeat this procedure a few times before you get a gold star!

Most reputable installers leave the correct turning tool with the disposal, though they tend to "disappear" with multiple homeowners and tenants. Search under the sink first. It might even be in a plastic pouch glued to the side of the disposal! If not, you will have to go to a hardware store and buy one.

If you are unfortunate enough to have a disposal without a hex head slot underneath, you will have to spin the disposal with the use of a piece of wood and creativity. Insert the piece of wood - a 1"x2" board or even a broom handle will do nicely - into the chamber and deftly push it against the grinding arms to loosen the mechanism. Be patient and try to work in both directions until the mechanism spins freely. Don't try to put a wrench on the exposed nut in the middle of the chamber - this holds the whole shebang together and loosening it may cause an unexpected disaster!

Worst case: the jam is total and cannot be freed with either method. The best solution in my opinion may be to replace the disposal. Yours is not really that old, but the labor costs to remove the existing unit, disassemble it and "possibly" fix it may not be worth the risk.

Have a small home repair question for THE NATURAL HANDYMAN? Just click here NaturalHandyman.com/aitikia. For more home repair information, visit NH's growing list of original home repair articles and quality links NaturalHandyman.com. If this information has been valuable to you, please consider making a small donation to support NH's free service to the home repair community! For more information, please visit our "Friends" page NaturalHandyman.com/Friends.

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