Can A Garbage Disposal Catch Fire?

Garbage disposals work overtime every day, effortlessly grinding food scraps into a fine texture your plumbing system can handle. However, like most of the other appliances in your home, there are times when the unit might go on strike. Perhaps it stops working altogether, refusing to turn on at all. 

Or maybe it’s emitting a disconcerting smell of smoke, leading you to believe it might spontaneously combust. Since burning down the kitchen isn’t the ideal way to start (or end) your day, the smell of smoke will raise some alarm bells. 

Should you be concerned about the smoky smell coming from the disposal? Will it catch fire if you don’t do anything about it? While garbage disposals rarely catch on fire, the smell of smoke is an alarming symptom of a problem, so you should address it immediately. Here’s what you should do. 

Can A Garbage Disposal Start A Fire?

Garbage disposals rarely catch fire, but it technically can happen. In the past 20 years, there have been a few complaints surrounding garbage disposals and fire hazards, although most of the occurrences fell between 2005 and 2017. 

In most of these complaint scenarios, the underlying cause of the fire threat was either a jeopardized sink outlet or issues with the power module. However, it’s important to note that according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1.4 million garbage disposal switch recalls occurred in this same period. 

More often than not, the disposal itself wasn’t the problem. Instead, the problem originated with electrical issues with the outlets or switches. So, many of these garbage disposals didn’t directly pose a fire threat. 

Aside from these scenarios between 2005 and 2017, more recent models rarely cause or catch fire. Most reports state the presence of a burning smell or smoking. In many more recent cases, the issue causing the burning smell was either an overworked motor or a burnt-out motor. 

While these problems aren’t something you should dismiss quickly, they likely will not cause a fire. 

Why Does My Garbage Disposal Smell Like It’s Burning?

For the most part, burning and smoky smells emanating from your garbage disposal are the results of one of two things: an overheated motor or a burnt-out motor. In the case of an overworked motor, the smell may come from too many food scraps and too little water. 

When your garbage disposal can’t work through the food scraps in the canister, the system may begin to overheat as it works to grind the particles. Improper items might end up in the canister, including nonfood items such as silverware, small dishes, etc. Since the disposal isn’t built to handle these items, the result could be an overworked motor causing a smoky smell. 

Or, let’s say you rarely run water when you grind food scraps. Without water to keep everything moving through and grinding efficiently, food waste may get caught in the canister, causing the motor to overwork itself as it tries to dislodge and crush the food. 

Think of a blender: if you toss a few food items in there to make a smoothie without any liquid, it probably won’t blend very well. Let’s say you’re making a protein shake, adding a few greens, a couple of pieces of fruit, yogurt, and a scoop of protein powder. Without any liquid, the blender probably won’t do much. Once you add liquid, the blades can spin easier, preventing the motor from overworking itself. 

The same concept applies to your garbage disposal. Without any liquid, food scraps can build up and become hard to grind, making your garbage disposal’s motor overtax itself, leading to a burning smell.

Alternatively, the smell could come from burnt-out components within the motors, such as dead motor capacitors. 

How Do I Fix A Burning Smell Coming From My Garbage Disposal?

Repairing a garbage disposal that’s emanating smoke or a burning smell can be pretty straightforward. In some cases, it might be as simple as clearing the clog or removing the foreign object. In other scenarios, the motor capacitors might be burnt out, which usually translates to replacing the unit. 

Here’s what you need to clear your garbage disposal’s jammed motor:

  • Kitchen tongs or pliers
  • Allen wrench (or the special tool that comes with the machine)
  • Flashlight 

Turn Off The Power To The Unit

Before you start working on the disposal, you need to turn off the power to the unit. Unjamming your garbage disposal isn’t worth a trip to the ER for cuts or severed fingers. So, save yourself the headache of dealing with that mess and turn off the power to the unit before you start. 

Turn off the power at the breaker box by shutting off the breaker that controls the system. Generally, the breakers are labeled and easy to read. For extra measure, you can also unplug the unit from the wall. 

Remove Debris

Peek into the canister of the disposal using a flashlight. Look for debris that could be causing the issue, such as hard shells, silverware, or plastic linings and wrappers. You might need to open the rubber piece around the drain (the baffle) to see inside the canister.

Once you find the debris, remove it using a pair of kitchen tongs or pliers. Since there isn’t power to the unit, there shouldn’t be any issues with reaching in with your hands, but you can always use tongs or pliers to be on the safe side. 

Remove any and all debris you can see in the canister. 

Spin The Impellers

After you remove the debris causing the issue, you need to clear the grinding plate. To do so, rotate the impellers manually using an Allen wrench or the unique tool that came with the unit. Generally, there’s a small hole at the bottom of the disposal’s canister. 

Insert the Allen wrench (or designated tool) into the hole and rotate the impellers. If there are still small particles of food scraps left behind, the blades might be hard to move. Start by spinning the impellers one way until you meet resistance. 

After you meet resistance, turn the impellers the other way until you feel resistance. Continue the process over until the blades spin freely in both directions. 

Flush The System

Now that the impellers are free to spin and the foreign objects or blockages are removed, you can turn the unit back on. Plug it back in and turn the power on to the circuit. Turn on the cold water to flush the canister, then turn on the disposal and let it run for about 30 seconds. 

If you repaired the issue, it should sound normal and won’t produce any burning scents. However, if the problem persists, this could mean you need to replace the entire unit. While you could replace the motor, it might be more cost-effective to replace the whole garbage disposal unit at once.

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