If your garbage disposer seems to be struggling, you may be at risk of getting a clogged disposer and running up high plumber costs, if not winding up with a badly damaged unit that needs to be replaced. Julie Sussman, co-author of "Dare to Repair: A Do-it-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home," says that when a Disposall unit is starting to get clogged, you can hear it struggling to work. "(This) means that the flywheel inside isn't able to move all the way around," says Sussman. "We recommend that you don't try to grind whatever's in there into oblivion -- no matter how bad your day was! The garbage disposal's overload protector automatically shuts off the motor to protect it from burning out. This safety feature also serves to protect the electrical wiring within your home."
If you believe or can partially see that something is stuck in your garbage disposer, avoid the No. 1 mistake: "The biggest mistake people make is that they put their hand inside to see what's causing the jam," says Sussman. "Even when the power is turned off, we say, 'Never put your hand inside!' Use a flashlight to peek inside and use tongs to remove the obstruction."
Sussman suggests the following steps for a quick fix to your garbage disposer. You'll need a flashlight, kitchen tongs or needle-nose pliers, and a 1/4-inch Allen wrench (the L-shaped tool that came with the garbage disposal). Sussman lists these steps to follow:
"Turn the electrical on/off switch that operates the garbage disposal to the off position. Use the flashlight to look inside the disposal for the lodged object. Remove it using the tongs or pliers.
"If you couldn't find the object, then turn off the main power to the garbage disposal in the circuit breaker box (this may seem extreme, but we think that you're better safe than sorry). Locate the hole on the bottom of the disposal by feeling for it with your finger. Insert the Allen wrench in the hole and move the wrench in either direction, clockwise and counterclockwise, until it turns fully in complete circles. This means you've dislodged the object.
"You can remove the dislodged object with either the tongs or pliers and restore the power at the circuit breaker box. Push the red reset button located on the bottom of the disposal unit (this reactivates the overload protector) and run cold water for about a minute. Turn on the garbage disposal."
If your efforts don't solve the problem, it may be time to call in a professional plumber. "You shouldn't throw in the towel until you've tried a few times," says Sussman. "I once had a key get stuck inside my garbage disposal and it took me about 45 minutes to dislodge it. I was willing to work at it because I couldn't afford to hire a plumber and buy a new model. Another thing to consider is the age of the unit. Check the warranty of the model and when in doubt, contact the manufacturer."
Of course, always practice preventive maintenance when it comes to your garbage disposer. Sussman says, "Don't put things inside that you shouldn't, and if you did pour grease down the drain ... run cold water to flush it down the pipes. (Cold water helps the grease to stay congealed.)"
"We also recommend that you never put chicken skin, grease, plastic, glass, meat bones, fruit peel and pits (including artichoke leaves), or a drain cleaner into the garbage disposal," says Sussman.