James grew up working on a cattle ranch in Northern Utah, which taught him how to do many ad hoc repairs and to make use of limited materials. Two years of missionary and humanitarian work in the Philippines with Operation Smile instilled a great appreciation for the opportunity to work, to avoid wasting resources, and to help others. Now back in the U.S., James has worked as a programmer/data engineer for several Fortune 100 companies.
Picture this: you’ve just finished your meal, washed all the dishes, but before you can relax, you discover your garbage disposal won’t turn on! If your garbage disposal is not working, rest assured, it’s not the end of the world. We’re here to help you fix the problem so you can get back to, well, anything else you’d rather be doing.
From a motor that simply needs a quick reset to something lodged where it shouldn’t be, there’s a variety of issues that could cause a problem with your garbage disposal. Maybe your garbage disposal is humming but not actually moving, or it’s making a terrible grinding noise. Toys, jewelry, silverware — these things have a not-so-funny way of somehow ending up down the drain. Better to be prepared for the inevitable and know what to do when things go awry. Plus, if it’s jewelry that’s stuck in there, you can get it back!
We’ll explore some of the troubleshooting methods you can use to get everything back up and running again. A garbage disposal is great (when it works), so let’s get it functioning properly again!
Warning: The following how-to lesson contains activities that can result in harm to yourself or others if not completed properly. If you are unsure of how to complete any of the following steps, please consult a professional
For an initial test to discern why your garbage disposal isn’t working, start by running some water through the garbage disposal from the sink to remove any potential buildup. Test the garbage disposal again by turning it on using the switch on the wall. If it works, great! That was an easy fix. If not, let’s look at a more comprehensive approach to resolving the issue.
In many cases, garbage disposals will reset when the motor overheats. If this occurs, there is a reset button located on the bottom of the unit to get things working again.
Open the cabinet underneath the sink to access the garbage disposal motor and carefully determine whether it is hot to the touch.
Locate the reset button and press it. Again, try turning the garbage disposal on from the wall switch. If the garbage disposal still won’t turn on, then it’s time to take a more in-depth approach.
Pro Tip: Even if the motor isn’t warm, it’s still a good idea to try pressing the reset button as the first method to troubleshoot the issue. Sometimes these systems just need a quick and easy reset.
When servicing any garbage disposal — aside from pressing the reset button — it is crucial to unplug the unit first. It’s perfectly safe to service garbage disposal units so long as you disconnect it from the power source. Leaving it plugged in could result in serious injury to yourself, and we certainly don’t want that to happen. So let’s do ourselves a huge favor and not skip this step!
Once the garbage disposal is disconnected from the power source, run water from the tap and reach into the unit from the sink’s drain. Feel around for any solid or hard objects, like forks, avocado seeds, or little rubber duckies that might be jamming the system.
We understand that the thought of reaching in there can be pretty gross. If that’s the case, we suggest using a pair of rubber gloves. This will separate your skin from anything that might be lurking down there. Don’t worry; it’s probably leftovers from last night’s dishwashing!
If you don’t feel anything and still haven’t discovered why your garbage disposal isn’t working, then it’s time for us to move on to the next step.
Locate the manual gear-turning bolt underneath the motor of the garbage disposal unit. The bolt can generally be found in the center. Notice that it features a hexagonal opening, perfect for attaching an Allen wrench/key. Using an appropriately sized wrench or key — the standard for garbage disposals is commonly ¼ inch — connect it to the motor’s gears.
Ensure the Allen wrench/key is a good fit to avoid damaging the bolt. Unless, of course, you’re actually reading this article to learn how to sabotage your neighbor’s garbage disposal. We were pretty upset by those leaves left on your lawn too!
Manually rotate the motor gear by turning the Allen wrench back and forth in both directions. Try to complete a full rotation if possible, and pay close attention to whether it feels like it’s grinding, rubbing, or having any difficulty moving.
Should the gear move freely while turning the Allen key, remove the wrench and plug the garbage disposal back in. Now turn on the switch to test whether the jam has been removed.
If the garbage disposal is still not working, it’s time to unplug the disposal again and disconnect the unit to get a closer look.
Removing the garbage disposal unit to get a better look inside requires disconnecting the drain pipes, and this can be messy.
Push a bowl, bucket, or anything capable of catching any water that might be left inside the disposal or drainage pipes beneath the disposal and pipes. This saves you from having to do some extra cleanup afterwards.
The J bend is the curved section of piping attached to the garbage disposal’s drainage system. A J bend also bears an uncanny resemblance to the bow pose in yoga. Don’t worry, we struggle with it too. Plus, with your help, it could also become this year’s trending dance move. Bustin’ out J bends on the dance floor, yes, please!
The entire pipe assembly is known as the P-Trap, as it resembles the shape of the letter P. Some older model sinks will use what is called an S-Trap, which features a curved sideways S shape, and is used when the drain pipe runs into the floor underneath the sink instead of the wall.
To remove the J bend, simply use your hands to rotate the plastic lock nuts from the pipe. There will be two lock nuts on each side of the J bend.
After releasing the lock nuts, make sure to retrieve the plastic washers, as well. They ensure a tight, leak-free seal, so we’ll need them when we reattach the pipe later.
Remove the J bend and drain the pipe. Check to see if there is any blockage in the joint. If there is, clean the J bend's interior to remove anything that may be clogging it. We recommend using a pipe brush or bottle brush.
Using the same method we used previously to remove the J bend, use your hands to unscrew the tailpiece lock nut that connects the drain to the disposal. Once again, keep track of the washer because we’ll need it for reattachment when we put the system back together.
Gently move the drainage pipe away from the garbage disposal unit, and again, check for any blockages in the pipes. If found, remove them.
We’ll warn you now, there can be some fairly disgusting things in these pipes, so gloves are definitely handy. Also, make sure to have some cleaning supplies, like paper towels, disinfectant wipes, and cleaning brushes at the ready to tackle any nasty build-ups. Don’t worry, though. It’s usually just wet food particles. Nothing we can’t handle!
Once the drainage pipes are disassembled, we’re now ready to take off the disposal unit itself, detaching it from the sink.
To do this, first locate the latches on the metal mounting bracket. They are the cylindrical openings on the sides of the metal bracket.
Insert a screwdriver into the latch. Use the screwdriver to rotate the bracket clockwise, and it will begin to loosen.
The garbage disposal will slide off the metal bracket track, so be prepared to hold its weight. Make sure the bowl is underneath to catch any excess water drainage.
There may also be some more blockage in the downward-facing pipe coming from the disposal unit itself. Search for clogs and try to remove any of the debris now, if possible.
Once the garbage disposal is removed from the sink, it’s now time to take off the rubber cap from the top of the garbage disposal. Doing this allows us to get a better look inside the unit.
The rubber caps are removed by simply pulling them off the top of the disposal. However, the rubber cap can be quite slippery, so we suggest using gloves to achieve a firm grip.
Now that the cap is removed let’s take a good look inside the garbage disposal and see if we can determine why it’s not working.
To get a better look, use a paper towel and disinfectant wipes to wipe down the inside of the garbage disposal. This will also help to remove any buildup that could reduce the overall performance of the disposal. Pay close attention to any obstructions, like hard pieces of food or seeds that could potentially cause the system to jam.
Carefully examine the garbage disposal after a thorough cleaning. Like we’ve mentioned earlier, you never know what might have ended up down there, from safety pins to small toy building blocks. Blockages can often be challenging to see, so take your time to check over each component of the disposal. Pay special attention to the gears along the bottom edge.
If you are still unable to determine what is causing the blockage, manually turn the motor again until the item preventing the motor from turning is revealed.
In our example scenario, the guilty culprit was a small screw — almost unnoticeable at first glance — lodged in the bottom. The screw was preventing the motor from turning properly. How it got in there, who knows, but let’s get it out!
Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, dislodge the obstruction by grabbing it and pulling it out of the disposal. It can be difficult to remove, so be patient, keep trying, and don’t be discouraged if you can’t get the blockage out immediately. Be sure to remove any and all blockages found, as they can cause significant damage to the motor.
Now that they’re removed, we’re ready to reassemble the unit and get back to living our lives, free from garbage disposal stress!
Secure the rubber seal cap by pushing it back onto the top of the garbage disposal’s opening.
Raise the garbage disposal back up to the sink bracket, and align it with the bracket track. We’ve highlighted the track with a green arrow.
Once you have aligned the garbage disposal and metal lock nut with the track, use a screwdriver to rotate the metal lock nut counterclockwise until it is securely fastened to the sink bracket. Essentially, we are using the opposite motion from what we did during the removal process.
The harder you use the screwdriver to pull on the lock nut, the tighter it will become. Ensure that it is nice and snug to avoid any leaks.
Finally, it’s time to reassemble the drainage pipes. Start by connecting the tailpiece to the garbage disposal drain pipe and secure it into place by attaching the washer and screwing the lock nut until it is nice and snug.
From here, attach the J bend and then tighten the two remaining lock nuts.
Be sure to put the washers back in place and tighten the pipes by firmly using the plastic lock nuts. Hand-tighten them until they are fully sealed.
Pay close attention to avoid cross-threading the lock nuts to the pipes. Cross-threading can lead to damage to both the pipes and lock nuts and could also cause leakages.
Now that the garbage disposal and drainage pipes have been reattached, turn the tap on and let water run through the system. While the water is running, it’s time to carefully inspect the work and make sure there aren’t any leaks from any part of the unit or drainage pipes.
Once it looks good, and everything has been deemed leak-free, plug the disposal back in and flip the switch. Everything should be back up and running again!
Suppose our garbage disposal troubleshooting guide wasn’t able to fix your specific issue. If the disposal is completely cleared of debris and the motor still hums or remains silent when turned on, the engine will likely need to be replaced. Start by calling the garbage disposal manufacturer to determine if your unit is covered under warranty. If not, they can provide you with information on the purchase price of a new unit. Most new disposals start in the $100 price range.
We’d also love to hear your input on other ways you’ve found on how to fix a garbage disposal that’s not working. If you have any tips, tricks, or interesting stories, we encourage you to share them with our Makey community and help make garbage disposal frustration a thing of the past!