Why is that convenient appliance installed under the kitchen sink which grinds down food waste alternately identified as a garbage disposer and disposal? A clue may be found in the origins of the device. History tells us that the first garbage disposal unit was invented in 1927 by an architect named John W. Hammes, who worked in Racine, Wisconsin. The company he started to put his invention on the market in 1940 was called “InSinkErator”, an unwieldly moniker that, nevertheless, remains well-known today as a leading brand-name of garbage disposers.
However, the actual origin of the disposer is in dispute as it appears that behemoth of twentieth century industry, General Electric, introduced its own model in 1935 which was called “The Disposall”. Clearly, the name of the product is a combination of the words “dispose” and “all” as in “this little appliance will dispose all of your food waste”. Was this model popular enough that the product name “Disposall” simply became “disposal” in the common vernacular? Perhaps. Apparently, the appliance has also been identified as a “garburator”, but let’s not go there!
Regardless of what it’s called, how does it work?
Garbage disposers (or disposals) are designed to grind solid food waste into particles small enough to be washed down the drain. To do this, the unit is installed between the kitchen sink drain and the drainpipe which sends water and debris to the outside of the home.
Standard disposers are usually hard-wired to a wall switch near the sink whereas “batch feed” disposers have a start switch that is activated by a stopper attached to the top of the unit. When the switch is actuated, 120 volts of alternating current flows to the disposer motor. The motor rotates a grinding, or shredder, plate to break down the food waste. A steady stream of cold water should be running through the disposer for this process to work effectively. Disposers use a splash guard attached to the top of the unit or positioned in the sink drain opening to prevent water from being slung upwards during operation.
Why is the disposal/disposer not working?
Even the sturdiest garbage disposers can fail to work properly due to a faulty part or inappropriate items being inserted into the unit. Here are the top four reasons your garbage disposer may not be working as expected:
- Defective Start Switch – As noted above, “batch feed” disposers use a stopper to activate a start switch, but if the switch is defective, the disposer won’t receive the voltage it needs to run. You should first check to see if a house fuse has blown or a circuit breaker has tripped. If you’ve determined the disposer should be receiving power, you can use a multimeter to test the start switch for “continuity” – a continuous electrical path present in the component. If the switch tests negative for continuity, the part is defective and will need to be replaced with a new one.
- Faulty Wall Switch – If the disposer is started by flipping a wall switch, this switch can fail in the same way as a “batch feed” disposer start switch. Again, test the wall switch with a multimeter to determine if the part has electrical continuity or not.
- Worn Out Motor – Over time, the motor bearings can simply wear out, especially if the motor is continuously being strained by a jammed shredder plate. Since the bearings cannot be repaired, you will need to replace the disposer itself if the unit’s motor has worn out.
- Defective Safety Switch – In order to protect the motor, disposers have a safety switch that will shut the motor off if the grinding plate jams and needs to be unclogged. You should first try to press the red reset button on the side or bottom of the unit to restore power. You can also try to manually turn the motor and grinding plate to clear any obstruction. If you’re still unable to get the disposer to work, it’s possible the safety switch is defective. As with the start switch and wall switch, you can use a multimeter to test the component for continuity to determine if the part has failed.
Bonus troubleshooting tip
The disposer’s grinding, or shredder, plate will often jam if fibrous food materials such as potato peels, corn husks, or celery are inserted into the unit (we recommend depositing fibrous food waste directly into the trash bin). To unclog the unit, you can often insert an appropriate-size Allen wrench into the opening on the bottom of the disposer housing and rotate the wrench back-and-forth. If your model doesn’t have an opening on the bottom of the housing, a wooden broom handle can be inserted through the sink drain opening to turn the plate in order to clear the obstruction.
Find the right garbage disposal/disposer parts with Repair Clinic
Whether you prefer the term “disposer” or “disposal”, Repair Clinic carries all the appliance parts you need to fix or maintain the unit, from splash guards and flange gaskets to stoppers, start switches, safety switches, and shredder plates. Just type the full model number of the appliance in the Repair Clinic website search bar to see a complete list of compatible parts. You can then use the part category and part title filters to narrow that list down to the specific part you need. While Repair Clinic stocks garbage disposer parts for all the top brands including Kenmore, Frigidaire, GE, Whirlpool, Insinkerator, Sinkmaster, Moen, Waste King, and Whirlaway, it’s important you select the part that is a direct match with your model.