Garbage disposals are one of those appliances you just assume will work every time. Shove debris in there, flip the switch, grind it up and make it go bye. And indeed, that's exactly how it should work.
But like any other home appliance, things can go wrong. You can preserve your disposal and give it a long life by giving it proper care and maintenance.
What not to put in the disposal
First up, don't assume it can chew up anything you put down it. The grinding blades are capable of tearing up many things, but they can get overloaded.
As a general rule, avoid putting fruits and vegetables down the drain. Artichokes, pits, banana peels, apple peels and especially celery can block up the disposal, slide through to form a clog or wrap around the blades and keep them from working.
Stay away from stringy foods, such as pasta, as well as rice, potatoes and beans. They swell up with water and can cause a clog. Greases, fats and oils will create film on the teeth, making them less effective, and can cause an unpleasant odor. And enough grease will eventually clog a drain.
Eggshells are also a bad idea, despite what you may have heard about sharpening blades. The stringy membrane can bind them up.
Never put any kind of non-food item down the drain. The disposal can't break them down enough to wash them down the drain.
Run your disposal at least once a day, even if you think there's not much in there. This keeps debris from building up, jamming or corroding the interior. Drop some ice cubes into the unit from time to time; they'll keep it clean and help sharpen the blade. And of course, always run the water before and after the disposal.
If you have a medium to large quantity of waste, dump it in the sink, turn on the water and disposer, and then use a tool such as tongs to push the waste down the unit a bit at a time. Too much at once can stop up your sink.
Lemon peels are an exception to the fruit-and-vegetable advice. Add some to the disposal every so often to improve the smell and kill germs.
Replacing a disposal
Most units have a lifespan of five to 10 years. If yours is acting up and near the end of its life, it makes more sense to replace rather than repair. New garbage disposals work faster and more efficiently than older models, saving you time and utility costs in the long run.
Replacing a garbage disposal can be a DIY job, but you should be at least moderately skilled with basic plumbing and electrical principles. If you hire a professional to do the work, expect it to cost between $20 and $40 per hour, and for it to take about three hours.
Paul F. P. Pogue is a reporter for Angie's List, a trusted provider of local consumer reviews and an online marketplace of services from top-rated providers. Visit AngiesList.com.