Plumbers' trade secrets to unblocking clogged drains

The awful instant the toilet won’t flush or sink doesn’t empty is when you know there’s a problem. Don’t panic! These plumbers' trade secrets to unblocking clogged drains can help.

Plumbers' trade secrets to unblocking clogged drains

Time: 5 minutes – 1 hour
Frequency: As needed
Difficulty: Simple to moderate
Tools: Cleaning solutions, hook, plunger, auger/snake, protective eyewear, respirator mask, cleaning supplies

Simply put, clogged drains are messy and inconvenient. At the root of most common blockages you’ll typically find hair, food, hardened grease, baby wipes and feminine hygiene products, among other things. So what’s the good news? Although a professional plumber’s services may be needed for more complex issues, for basic jobs these five steps will show you how to unclog a drain on your own.

Step 1: Prep your work area

When dealing with a clog, it’s hard to anticipate how messy it will get. For that reason, preparation is key to keeping your work area safe and your tools within easy reach.

  • Clear the area beforehand. Keep children and pets away for their safety and yours.
  • Place cleaning solutions, plunger, auger, pipe wrench, bucket, mop, rags and any other tools needed within reach.
  • Wear personal protective gear such as goggles, gloves and a respirator mask, in case the drain backs up with chemicals and debris.
  • If you’re using corrosive drain cleaning products, always read, understand and follow the directions on the label.

Although not every clogged drain is an accident waiting to happen, it never hurts to take precautions.

Good to know!
Keep the area you’re working in well ventilated. Fumes from commercial cleaners can be harsh in a small space, and in some instances are toxic to inhale.

Step 2: Start with a simple solution

Most home drain blockages occur beneath kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, showers/bathtubs, and toilets. Although blocked drains can happen in any part of the plumbing system, the u-bend (in the pipe) is the usual culprit.

  • Common signs that trouble is brewing include a constantly running toilet and/or water that drains slowly (or not at all) through the sink or shower drains.

Homemade solutions

There are two simple methods you can try to unclog a blocked drain. Both are safe, easy and a good place to start, especially for smaller blockages.

  • Squirt dishwashing liquid down the drain, wait 5 minutes, then follow up by pouring hot water in it. It’s an old-school technique that many claim works well.
  • Another solution thought to be effective is to sprinkle baking soda down the drain, followed by vinegar. After about 10 minutes of fizzing action, slowly pour in hot water.

Store-bought drain cleaners

Sometimes you need a cleaner with a bit more punch. While store-bought chemical drain cleaners are usually effective on mild clogs, repeated use can eat away the pipes and damage your plumbing system.

  • If you must use one – and it’s sometimes unavoidable –follow the directions carefully.
  • Store-bought cleaners contain a mix of chemicals that dissolve clogs. They come in liquid, gel, foam or crystal forms; are easy to use; and require no additional tools.
  • Always store the container away from children and pets. Drain cleaners are nasty stuff!

Step 3: Take the plunge

When homemade or store-bought drain cleaners aren’t doing the trick, it’s time to grab your toolbox, haul out the plunger, and prepare to get your hands dirty.

 Before you begin:

Make sure your tools are ready to go. That includes:

  • A plumber’s hook: Sometimes gunk can plug the drain. A plumber’s hook can help pull hair and debris out. You can purchase one, or carefully bend a coat hanger into shape.
  • A plunger for applying pressure to break up blockages is the top choice of plumbers and DIYers everywhere.

When you’re ready to start:

  1.  Manually empty as much water as you can from the sink or bathtub.
  2. If you’re plunging a sink, plug up the overflow hole with a wet cloth. (This increases pressure on the clog and encourages it to break up more quickly.)
  3. Use your hook to try to pull out any easily accessible debris.
  4. Partially fill the sink with water and plunge vigorously.
  5. After you’ve worked up some good suction, quickly yank the plunger from the drain opening to break up the clog.
  6. As the debris breaks up and water starts to trickle through, follow up by running hot water into the sink.
  7. Continue to plunge until the water drains smoothly.

Plungers can clear away minor clogs in toilets as well. However, if the blockage in your toilet has advanced too far into the up-curving trap, it may be time amp up your efforts and give an auger a try. The same goes for stubborn sink clogs.

Step 4: Step up your efforts

An auger (also called a plumber’s snake) can dislodge clogs that can’t be broken up with an ordinary plunger.

  •  It consists of a long, metal, rope-like device that snakes along the inside of pipes and, through sheer brute force, punches through your clogged drain.
  • The main difference between augers for sinks and those for toilets, is the latter are specifically for toilet blockages; usually have a long metal shaft to help prevent the cable from twisting; and their design reduces the chance of scratching the porcelain finish.

To use an auger on a sink:

  • Remove the sink trap.
  • Empty water from the trap into a bucket and visually check for clogs.
  • Turning the cable counter-clockwise with one hand, feed the auger with your other hand, pushing it into the pipe as far as it goes.
  • Continue to work through the clog to break it up (and hopefully push past it) by moving the cable back and forth as you rotate it.
  • Once the clogged drain has been opened, run hot water through the sink to make sure all is clear.

To use a toilet auger:

  • Place the auger end into the toilet bowl and feed it into the drain.
  • Hold the tool shaft with one hand as you push down and crank the handle with your other hand. At the same time, push the cable into the toilet drain as far as it can go.
  • Continue to work through the clog to break it up by moving the cable back and forth while you rotate it.
  • Pull the auger out slowly and flush the toilet.
  • Repeat if required.

Step 5: Go all-out for heavy-duty jobs

When more muscle is needed to break up tough or tricky blockages, it may be time for an electric auger.

  • Electric augers are used by professional plumbers and aren't a practical purchase for home-repair use.
  • If you’re DIY-inclined, however, you can rent this tool on a daily or by-project basis.
  • With a powerful electric motor, this auger can efficiently battle the most resistant clogs, including tree roots.
  • As with any tool, it should be handled with care to avoid causing more harm than good. Be sure to carefully follow all safety and operating instructions.

Do regular preventative maintenance

While some drain blockages are unavoidable, there are a few simple things you can do to help keep your home’s plumbing flowing:

  • Be mindful of what you dispose of down the drain. Hair, food, grease, baby wipes, paper towels, feminine hygiene products and other objects can cause build-up and clogs.
  • Install drain traps/covers to catch unwanted debris and clean them often.
  • Flush drains out weekly with hot water to help keep them clog-free.

Although especially stubborn blockages may call for the expertise of a licensed plumber, for the most part, there’s no blockage that a little bit of patience and effort can’t defeat.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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