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I recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at vocational school as well as a morning at a home maintenance and repair program for first time home buyers. The visits reaffirmed my belief that basic knowledge and skills can empower people who are willing to spend some time learning the ropes. The preceding was just my way of preparing you for this week's installment of helpful hints for new homeowners.

Today, the care and feeding of your garbage disposal. I think calling this appliance a garbage disposal leads to considerable abuse, as well as clogging and damage. So let's refer to it from now on as a “food disposal unit.”

How do people misuse their unit?

My plumber once got a call from a woman who said her unit was jammed and wouldn't work. What he found on his arrival is that the woman had tried to use it to grind a tree limb about 1.5 inches in diameter.

That's a definite no-no.

Other things that don't belong down the disposer include bones, corncobs and stringy vegetables, such as celery, which tend to wrap themselves around the blades.

Just an aside -- and we'll get into sink clogs in a few paragraphs -- don't pour cooking grease down the kitchen drain. It's not that it will do anything to the disposer. It's just that grease tends to coagulate and cling to the sides of the pipe, narrowing the opening and reducing the flow of water.

Keep a container for grease in the kitchen and dispose of it in the regular trash.

Before you turn on the disposal unit, run cold water, then start adding soft food waste. Continue running cold water after you shut off the disposer to completely clear the drain.

If the appliance jams, head for the electrical panel, turn off the circuit breaker to the disposal and then try to free the object. You might have to remove the splash guard to get access to the blade area.

Be careful. Don't turn the power back on until you have dislodged whatever was blocking operation. Open the cabinet doors under the sink and look at the disposal. You'll notice it has a reset button — probably red — that is easily accessible.

If the disposer shuts off in the middle of operation, it may mean that you've been asking it to do too much and it needed a rest. Wait a few minutes and press the reset button. If it doesn't start, you may have burned out the motor and the unit may have to be replaced.

Until recently, disposal units were not recommended for use with septic tanks, but now there are several models available for such use. You'll notice that the disposal can emit odors. I pour lemon juice or grind up a lemon periodically to freshen the drain. I also grind up ice cubes to keep the blades sharp.

Now to unclogging sinks.

First, I shy away from chemicals, since some are so caustic that they tend to take a toll of older pipes.

Instead, my plumber has long recommended using washing soda – available in the laundry-detergent section of the supermarket – every couple of months to keep all drains flowing. A cup of washing soda with the hot water running seems to do the trick.

The best defense is a good offense, which means put a metal strainer in the sink to catch the big stuff and periodically empty that strainer in the garbage can.

What I said about grease still goes.

It is rare that clogs occur overnight. If you notice that the water in the sink is draining slowly, a problem is in the making. Try not to wait until the sink simply fills up with water and begins pouring on the floor.

With the bathroom sink, it is usually accumulated strands of hair entangled in ever-increasing volume around the removable metal stopper. Just lift out the stopper, clean it out and reinsert it. Often, the clog is in the trap below the sink, and this will have to be disassembled, cleaned and reassembled. If the jam-up is below the trap, it might require plunging mightly, a plumber's snake or a phone call to the plumber.

In our old house, there was a clog in the trap, but when I took the pipes apart, I couldn't reassemble them. It even took the plumber five hours to get it back together. He left this warning with my wife: If you see Heavens get within five feet of any plumbing, sit on him and call me immediately.

That's advice you can take to the bank.

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