Clear Plumbing Clogs Quickly
Updated: Nov 16
Here's a few quick tips for DIY'ers who need to repair a clogged drain.
Need to unclog a bathroom sink? To fight a sink clog, most folks start by using a simple cup-shaped bathroom plunger. Pick a plunger with a large enough suction cup to completely cover the drain and create an airtight seal against the surrounding sink. Seal off any other outlets, such as the overflow drain in sinks, with a wet rag to create a vacuum, then fill the sink with enough water to cover the suction area. Push out any trapped air beneath the cup, then give the plunger 15 to 20 up-and-down pumping strokes to jolt loose the clog. You might have to repeat this 3 to 5 times to work.
If that doesn’t unclog the problem, you can remove the drain cover which closes the drain. The drain cover operates using a ball-and-socket lever at the back of the sink’s drain pipe.
To remove the drain cover, first place a bucket beneath the sink to catch water. Unscrew and remove the retaining nut that holds the “ball” of the lever to the socket on the rear of the drain pipe. This should allow you to slide the lever rod out of the keyhole on the bottom of the drain cover. You should then be able to pull the drain cover freely out of the sink drain, which is often what traps hair, objects and other debris in the drain. Use a plumbing auger (or a wire coat hanger) and hot water to clear out the drain pipe and thoroughly wash the drain cover before replacement.
If that still dot work, you can use a pipe wrench to remove the P-trap beneath the sink, in which a foreign object may have gotten trapped in the turn of the pipe. You can also run a plumbing auger or plumbing snake into the drain pipe past the P-trap to rout out clogs further down the line.
First step in clearing a drain with an auger is to remove the drain cap.
This inexpensive plastic plumbing auger is one of the best $3 or $4 purchases a DIY homeowner is apt to make. Available at most hardware stores, the augers are hooked to grab hair and gunk, stiff enough to shove through a pipe, but flexible enough to follow the turns in a P-trap or S-trap. Run the auger repeatedly down the pipe along all sides, and rotate the tool as you do. These things often get the job done.
To unclog a bathtub the same principles apply as when unclogging sinks. However, depending on the type of bathtub you have, a trip-lever tub stopper might be connected to the overflow plate. If so, remove the screws from the plate and pull it out to access the drain.
With the stopper out, scoop out any visible hair or soap scum from the drain. A plastic auger or straightened coat hanger can make a good tool to hook and remove obstructions.
If the clog remains, seal the overflow with a towel or rag, then plunge the drain with a cup-style plunger.
If there is no change, move on to a plumbing snake. A plumbing snake is basically a flexible steel cable that worms its way through the drain pipe and forces its way through clogs. In the case of a tub drain, inserting the plumbing snake into the overflow opening provides a better angle to the trap beneath the drain. You should snake both the overflow and the drain opening to make sure all pipes are clear.
Push the snake into the pipe until you hit the obstruction, then try to hook the clog by twisting the snake’s handle. When the clog is hooked, push the snake back and forth until the obstruction breaks up. Then flush the pipe with water. Plumbing snakes are available in different sizes, but the thinner augers are best for bending around corners.
Due to the nature of a kitchen, snaking out the sink might not be necessary. Kitchen sinks are less susceptible to hair clogs and more susceptible to built-up fat and grease from food. For this reason, you might want to pour boiling water into a clogged kitchen drain to see if that melts the problem away.
Kitchen sinks are generally built like bathroom sinks and have a P-trap, but they may also be connected to a dishwasher's drain line or to a garbage disposal.
A plumbing snake doesn’t work well in tight turns, so it might help to remove the P-trap and insert the snake directly into drain pipe. Snake the pipe until you hit the obstruction and break it up, then flush the pipe with water.
If this doesn’t fix or locate the problem, then check the other household drains to make sure the clog is only in one fixture. (If more than one drain is clogged, then there is a clog in the main drain pipe.)
Liquid Clog Removers
Frequent use of chemical cleaners can damage your plumbing, but they can be helpful opening the occasional plugged pipe. If water is slowly draining, but the pipe is not completely clogged, then a liquid cleaner may solve the issue. Be wary, however, of the thin liquid drain cleaners. You risk pouring the watery cleaner down a sluggish drain only to hear the product rush straight past the clog, leaving the problem stuck in the drain. That's a big waste of money.
Choose a thicker foam or gel product rather than the cheapest, thin liquid plumbing agents. The thicker products stick to the inside of the pipe and give the chemicals better coverage and longer contact with the blockage. Allow the product to sit as directed, usually about 30 minutes, and follow with running water to test the drain.
Be aware of red flags when it comes to chemical cleaners. The active ingredient is often chlorine bleach, which is bad news for septic tanks, because bleach can kill the beneficial bacteria of a septic system. These products are best suited for systems connected to a sewer system.
Furthermore, liquid clog removers aren’t intended for all household clogs. They are not designed to remove the waste that may be clogging your toilet. Also, laundry drain clogs are often due to accumulated clothing fibers, and liquid drainers don’t dissolve these fibers.
The general rule of chemical cleaners: Read the instructions on the label and only use it as intended. Always use in a well-ventilated area and wear rubber gloves. Don’t use a plunger if a liquid cleaner is in the drain, or you risk splashing caustic chemicals on your skin. And don’t pour in a liquid cleaner if the drain is completely blocked, because if it doesn't work, you'll be stuck with a sink full of caustic water.
Septic Tank Tip: Although chemical cleaners can harm septic tanks, treating a clog with vinegar and baking soda will not. First, pour hot (but not boiling) water into the drain to loosen the clog. Add 1/2 cup of baking soda into the open drain. Then, pour 1⁄2 cup of white distilled vinegar down the drain. You will hear the mixture fizzle as it begins to foam. Allow the mixture to act on the clog for 15 minutes to an hour, then try to rinse the obstruction away with hot water. A solid clog, such as hair buildup, will need to be broken up manually.
Toilet clogs can often be handled with a plunger, but you've got to use the right plunger. Plungers have different shapes to conform to different surfaces, i.e. the flat bottom of a sink or the funnel-shaped drain of a toilet. You'll find it difficult to create a plunging seal if you use the wrong shape.
If plunging doesn't work, you might try using a closet auger, which is a tool similar to a plumbing snake, but the end of the auger is bent to fit through the tight curves of a toilet trap. A closet auger operates using a hand crank to rotate a cable encased in a rigid shaft.
If more than one fixture is clogged, then you may need to clean out the main drain line. To do this, locate the clean-out plugs on the large drain pipes in your basement or crawlspace. These drain lines may be found in a garage or outdoors, along the foundations of the house. Each plug has a cap with a square fitting at the top.
Remove the cap with a wrench. Be ready with a bucket to catch dripping water. Also, make absolutely sure no one is going to be using the facilities while you have the main drain line open. Use a plumbing snake or auger to break up any clogs in the open main line, running it in both directions of the pipe.
When all else fails, you can always resort to the Yellow Pages.
Hire a qualified, full-time professional and not just a “handyman” that does the work on the side. This especially applies to bigger jobs, but even the smallest job can become expensive if not handled correctly.
When choosing a plumber, request an estimate and talk to them about the overall cost of the job, even if it seems like it's going to be a small project. Also, check for a license, ask for a time-frame and professional references, and confirm their insurance credentials.
SIDE NOTE: "Hey, boss ... This job STINKS!”
I rented a plumbing snake to clear out the main sewer line of a relative’s house. Tree roots had encroached into the drain line and clogged it. This resulted in smelly, dirty water backing up toward the house. To grind through the roots, I recommend the larger 5/8” auger size rather than a 1/2” or smaller, which is more likely to break against the roots. Plumbing snakes have a coil of steel rope with a cutter-head on the end to drill out the blockage. You feed the rope into the drain (through the clean-out plug, in our case) until it hits resistance, and then use the machine's foot pedal to spin the auger. We fed the auger into the pipe several times, ground through some blockage, then pulled out the auger to measure its length and mark our progress. After repeating this procedure several times, we finally broke through the clog so the water could drain. Note that if you attempt to use the machine, always wear gloves and be careful of the metal auger which can crush your fingers if they get caught in the rope. - M. Weber
SIDE NOTE 2: Pressure-Blast Plumbing Tools
If you don’t have a plumbing snake handy, or you want to avoid removing the P-traps, you might try a clog-removal tool that utilizes water-pressure or compressed air.
A common tool among plumbing professionals is a plumber's blow bag (AKA a drain flush bag, plumbing bladder, or pipe bladder). This is a heavy-duty rubber balloon that is attached to a garden hose to clear drain clogs using water pressure. The bladder is like an uninflated balloon, which expands to seal the drain opening and forces pressurized water into the pipe to power through the clog.
Hardware and home stores now sell products that shoot compressed air into a drain to force the clog to move. Some compressed-air products are sold in disposable cans, which often work quite well. However, if the air-burst doesn’t work and requires repeat treatments, the disposable cans can get expensive. Other tools use a pump design to generate up to 150 lbs. of pressure.
Another type of compressed-air product is a reusable device that uses cartridges of compressed CO2. Once the tool is loaded with a CO2 cartridge, just press down firmly on the handle, and a needle punctures the cartridge, sending a powerful burst of air into the drain, instantly unclogging it. The advantage is that you can keep the tool for future clogs, and all you have to replace are the individual cartridges.