Among the handiest of kitchen tools, a garbage disposal can last for years with good maintenance. It's also one of the most misunderstood and mistreated appliances which can cost you a lot of money and aggravation.
Like any digestive system, there are appropriate foods for the teeth and stomach of the disposal. Garbage disposals are supposed to chew up and liquefy nearly anything organic you put down the mouth, which makes them tempting to use instead of a trashcan for many items.
So before you put that banana peel or egg shell down the disposal, stop. Certain foods should never be put in the disposal, like anything greasy, stringy, ultra-starchy, fibrous, bony or rocky. That includes melted butter, shortening or bacon grease, celery or carrot sticks and potato peelings, pasta or rice, corn husks, artichoke leaves, onion skins, steak bones, and avocado and peach pits.
What's wrong with apple and banana peels? They can clog the blades, and if you want to stick your hand down there to pull them out, you're flirting with a horror movie. And egg shells? They don't liquefy, which means they break up into little pieces that get stuck in grease and clog the drain line.
Some foods may fool you. Chicken skin may seem harmless, but it's greasy and fibrous. It's better to be safe than sorry, so if you're in doubt about a food, use the trashcan instead.
Don't confuse your disposal with a trash compactor. While you can put paper and cigarette butts in a compactor, they will trash your disposal. If it's not food, don't put it in the disposal.
Disposals work with water, so make sure you accompany any food with lots of water. Don't stuff the disposal anymore than you'd cram your mouth with food. Just as you would choke without water to flush your bites down, the disposal can choke, too.
A sure sign your disposal needs some maintenance is the smell of decay. Grease build-up and unliquified food can make your disposal stinky, so to reduce smells and potential clogging, run cold, not hot, water down the drain after running the disposal for about 15 seconds.
Why cold water? Hot water can help melt grease deposits, but think about it -- grease can resolidify further down the drain, building up to an inevitable clog.
Improve bad odors with liquid chlorine bleach, drain cleaner, or baking soda mixed with white vinegar. For weekly maintenance, grind ice cubes to clean the grinder teeth, and mix in orange or lemon peels for a fresh scent. Take your drain apart periodically, and you'd be surprised at what you find. When you do, clean the pipes with enzymatic cleaner.
How you use your disposal also makes a difference. Don't ever stuff it full of food. Run cold water first, then slowly add the food to the running water. Let water run for a bit after disposing of any food. Don't use extremely toxic cleansers -- they can destroy the metal or your pipes, or both.
If your grinder clogs for any reason, turn it off before you put your hand to loosen food from the teeth. After you've removed the obstruction, hit the reset button, run some cold water and you're good to go again.