Hands-on and unharmed by FirstBuild's new safety-conscious disposer

GE's FirstBuild factory is rethinking a classic. Its new kitchen sink disposer will be smaller and promises to be more efficient and safer with the help of clever design.

Andrew Gebhart Former senior producer
4 min read

When I think about exciting new technology, my brain doesn't often turn to the garbage disposer. This basic household appliance works just fine as it is, and hasn't been retooled for years. The goal of GE's FirstBuild Microfactory in Louisville, Ky., though, is to rethink the household items we take for granted. With a community approach untethered by the constraints of mass manufacturing, that's exactly what it was able to do with its redesign of the classic disposer.

FirstBuild's primary objective with this disposer was simple, make the old model shorter so it takes up less space without sacrificing power. Its FirstBuild Space-Saving No-Stall Disposer trims 3.5 inches (about 8.9 centimeters) off of the length of a normal version and still takes advantage of all 120 volts of power from a standard plug to efficiently grind your food until it can be rinsed down the drain. As the product is still in development, no pricing or availability information has yet been announced.

It's definitely shorter. Colin West McDonald/CNET

The FirstBuild team didn't stop at just making it smaller. In addition to a more compact engine, they tweaked the design in a number of ways to increase power efficiency, while decreasing the tendency for it to clog, and adding more safety features. Most disposers work with centrifugal force. Small impellers bookend a spinning plate and cut food while forcing it into the grinder ring on the side. The impellers spin themselves, on top of the spinning plate, and fall within easy reach of a stray fork or finger.

The new model works on largely the same principle. It still uses centrifugal force and an impeller, but by simply increasing the diameter of the plate, the engineering team gave this new disposer faster blades that sit further back from the entrance, so they'll be much tougher to reach accidentally. They've also only used a single impeller, along with small, curved, bumps in the metal that will help push food to the side without adding any element of danger.

The curved bumps on the right and the spinning impeller to the left will push food to the grinders on the side. Colin West McDonald/CNET

To top off the simple safety adjustments, a metal knob juts well above the impeller. This more centrally located piece will spin fast enough when the disposer is turned on that your finger will hit it on the way down. You'd have to be lightning-quick to reach past it, actually, and this metal knob won't cut what it hits, just give you a warning that you're reaching too far. A simple knob should make it extremely difficult for anything that's not supposed to be there to get past it.

In theory, the plate's wider diameter means the blades will grind food more quickly and be more difficult to clog as well. Since it spins at the same rotations per minute as a normal disposer, the fact that the grinding ring sits further from the center will cause food to hit it at a greater velocity. Think of it like a racing track -- cars on the outside lane have to go faster just to keep up with cars on the inside, since an inside edge means a shorter distance to travel. In this case, the longer distance, with the increased speed, should equate to more flow and better grinding.

The rest of the design tweaks mirror this deceptively effective simplicity. The outtake valve will no longer require a pump, granting even more power to the spinning plate. The reason -- FirstBuild simply repositioned it so the bottom side of the plate will push the water flow out naturally as the top side does its work.

As the plate spins, its bottom half pushes water from this valve. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Finally, by adding a snap-on mechanic to the installation, the disposer should be much easier for a single DIYer to put in place. I didn't get to see this in action, nor did I get to see the disposer actually run. But as the engineer patiently explained the physics to me while contrasting the design with a typical model, I was impressed. FirstBuild used simple science to theoretically create vastly improved results from the same pieces that disposers have been using for years.

Their primary challenge will be raising interest enough to get this thing sold. Nothing about this disposer will jump out to the tech-savvy consumer right away. It doesn't offer any flashing lights or Wi-Fi-connected smart-home buzz. It doesn't look like an iPhone or offer any touchscreen music-playing capability. It's a disposer. That's it. Few people will seek this new appliance out, as shopping for a disposer tends to happen out of necessity, not interest or enjoyment, and nothing here will really change that.

The plastic top is designed to easily snap in place beneath your sink. Colin West McDonald/CNET

That said, it looks like this FirstBuild invention will be a really good disposer, perhaps leaps better than the competitors, while taking up less space, being easier to install, and offering more safety. Again, I didn't get to see it in action, but I did see it, and the reasoning behind all of this is sound. If the tweaks the team made effectively meet this potential while reducing clogs, the new disposer from FirstBuild might be good enough to warrant a switch, and it'll certainly be worth a look when that time of necessity comes.