How to Unclog a Drain

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We've all stared at a stubborn, cloudy puddle of water in our sink and thought, "Now what?" Anyone with indoor plumbing has come face to face with a clogged drain. Luckily, fixing a clogged drain and avoiding one in the first place is simple. Before you call the plumber or spend money on a harsh drain cleaner, read this.

The Problem

The biggest enemy of your bathroom drains is hair. If you haven't already done so, place a hair strainer over your shower and sink drains. Even though it can be gross, clean it regularly, especially if you have several people using the bathroom.

Clean your pop up drains once a month. This will prevent the gunk that forms on them from going into the pipes and causing a clog.

The kitchen sink can do with a strainer too, especially if you don't have a garbage disposal. Never pour anything down the sink that can harden, such as paint or grease. (That's why mom always poured bacon fat into an empty can) Coffee grounds, egg shells and celery strands are also a big no-no.

If you do have a garbage disposal, don't take it for granted! It's made to handle only scraps of food in small amounts. Run the disposal in short bursts and with plenty of water. For a few tips on how to keep it running in tip top shape, see What's That Smell? on our website.

Jane Tip: Every month, whether you have a clog or not, pour boiling water down all of your drains. This will dislodge any clogs might be in the process of forming.

Quick Fixes

  • If your drain is moving slower than normal, try flushing it with hot water for several minutes. Watch it carefully to avoid an overflow!
  • If confronted with a small amount of stagnant water in your drain pipe or shower, try treating it with a mixture of ½ cup of baking soda and ½ white cup vinegar. Pour the soda down the drain, then the vinegar. (Use a plunger too, if the clog is severe) You can also use this concoction once a month to avoid future clogs. Follow this treatment by running hot water for a couple of minutes.
  • When confronted with a sink full of stagnant water, try using a plunger with a suctioned bottom (made especially for drains) to pump it out. Remember to remove all strainers first and go at it for several minutes before giving up.

Creating a Vacuum: If you are using the plunger on a bathroom sink, plug the overflow outlet with a wet towel first. If you are working on your kitchen sink, seal the unclogged drain with a cloth.

  • Chemical drain cleaners do work, but should be used sparingly. They are highly toxic and their components can corrode your pipes if used too often. It's been our experience that "foaming" powder cleaners tend to work better than most heavy liquid cleaners and are a bit safer to use.
  • Safety Check!: NEVER attempt to plunge a drain after using any type of chemical drain cleaner and ALWAYS inform your plumber if you used a chemical drain cleaner before he/she gets started.

  • Place a bucket under the sink and remove the cleanout plug and washer. Prod the clog with a screwdriver.

If you try these methods with little or no success, you will have to get down and dirty. Here's how?

Getting Inside the Clog

First, investing in or borrowing a drain snake may be a good idea. Also known as a hand auger, these tools run about $25.00 and can be a great help. You can use it on any household drain, but never the toilet. The toilet has its own tool, called a closet auger, which we will talk about later.

How to Snake a Drain (Kitchen or Bathroom)

TOOLS

  • Hand Auger (aka Snake)

SUPPLIES

  • Bucket
  • Gloves
  • Eye Protection
  • Rag

Using a hand auger is kind of like fishing, but for a clog.

Step 1

Wearing gloves and eye protection, release the cable into the drain by turning the handle clockwise.

Step 2

Using your wrist, rotate the tool back and forth.

Step 3

Release more cable by turning the handle, then rotate the tool again.

Step 4

If you start to feel some resistance, this may be the cable turning the corner of the pipe and not the clog itself. Continue cranking until you feel the tension release from the cable. The cable will literally push through the clog. Make sure the gaskets remain in place for the p-trap or any other parts that are removed. If not, the trap will leak for sure.

Step 5

When you think you have hit the clog, pull the cable back by turning the handle counterclockwise.

Step 6

As the cable returns from the drain, you will find it's covered in gunk. Clean it off using a rag and place in the bucket.

Step 7

If you got the clog, it will be at the end of the cable. Put it in the bucket and throw away.

Step 8

Flush the drain with hot water for several minutes.

OTHER OPTIONS

The P-trap is the pipe underneath your sink that forms a U, and because of the shape, it's where most clogs are found. However, you may remove the P-trap and find there is no blockage inside of it. More on that later.

Removing the P-Trap

TOOLS

  • Wrench

SUPPLIES

  • Bucket
  • Gloves

Step 1

Place a bucket underneath the sink where you are working. Using a wrench, loosen the slip nuts. (To reduce the gross-out factor, wear rubber gloves)

Step 2

Remove the P-trap and check for blockage. If there is, clean out completely.

Step 3

Check for cracks or damage. If you detect some, replace the P-trap.

Step 4

Put the P-trap in place and tighten the slip nuts to secure into place. Make sure to carefully replace any gaskets or other parts that were removed; otherwise, the P-trap will leak for sure.

Combating a Deep Clogs

If the clog is not in the P-trap, a little more work is needed. With the P-trap removed, check the pipe that extends to the sink, called the Waste tee. If the clog is not here, it is further down the pipe.

The pipe closest to the wall is called the trap arm. It is secured to the wall by a slip nut. To remove it, loosen the slip nut using pliers and wrench.

Inspect the trap arm and clean out any clogs that may exist. If you don't find any, the clog is behind the wall and needs to be snaked out. Again, be very careful when going after deep clogs of this nature. Call in a pro if and when your comfort level starts to wane.

UNCLOGGING A TOILET

If your toilet is not flushing properly, (i.e., water is rising instead of going down) a plunger will usually fix it.

Jane Tip: To test the toilet, try flushing it. If the water starts to rise and overflow, cut the water supply by turning the oval-shaped knob at the base of the toilet.

If the water has completely drained out of the toilet, fill it to the rim with water and then plunge. Putting petroleum jelly around the rim of the plunger will help to keep it from slipping and help with suction.

Snaking the Toilet

If plunging doesn't work, you will have to snake the toilet using a closet auger. This is a long tube that you stick into the toilet. A cable is dispensed from one end, which snakes underneath your toilet and releases the clog. Use it just like your hand auger, cranking the handle until you feel the tension on the cable slacken. Be careful when using this tool as you can damage your pipes if not used correctly - if you have no luck reaching the clog on the first or second try, it's time to call in a pro.

UNCLOGGING A BATHTUB

If flushing, plunging or treating the clog with an organic drain cleaner doesn't work, you are going to have to get underneath your tub. (Remember, if you've already used a chemical drain cleaner, you won't be able to proceed with the following, as you run too much risk of injury.)

The clog may lie in the drum trap, which is a small, canister-looking device under your tub. Older homes have a drum trap, while newer ones have what's called a tubular trap.

Unclogging the Drum Trap

SUPPLIES

  • Bucket
  • Rubber Gloves

Step 1

To get at the clog in a drum trap, remove its lid. (Place a bucket under your work space)

Step 2

If it is corroded, try oiling it and try again in a few minutes.

Step 3

Wearing rubber gloves, reach inside the trap and its connecting pipes, removing any debris. You are likely to find hair and soap scum.

Step 4

Replace lid firmly. Flush drain with hot water for several minutes.

Unclogging a Tubular Trap

Place a bucket underneath your working area. Remove the two nuts at the bottom of the tubular trap. This will loosen the bottom half of the drum, allowing you to remove it. Clean out the drum and the connecting pipes. Replace the bottom half of the drum and wash out any remaining debris with hot water.

You can most definitely take care of most drain issues on your own. But the things to remember are: 1) Use a chemical drain cleaner only as a last result. Once you go this route, you won't be able to plunge; 2) If you've tried a number of ways to get to a clog and still have no success, the clog might be part of a bigger issue at which time it's more than okay to call in a pro. But give it a shot on your own - after all, the best part about this project is that you get to literally watch all your troubles go down the drain!

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