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How to Clear Clogged Drains

As the pool of water collects around the drain, you get a sinking feeling in your stomach. You dread another costly visit from the plumber. However, clogged drains, while inconvenient and messy, are usually easy enough to correct on your own. This how-to explains a number of simple ways to unclog drains and how to avoid clogged drains in the future.

plumber Are chemical drain cleaners safe and effective?
Where is the clog?
Unclogging a drain

Unclogging the main drain
How can I prevent clogged drains? 

Are chemical drain cleaners safe and effective?

When drains clog, your first impulse may be to rush to the store and buy a chemical drain cleaner. For some blockages these cleaners will work; however, other mechanical procedures will usually clear the clog more completely and safely.

If you decide to use a chemical drain opener, make sure to read and follow the directions on the bottle. These cleaners contain harsh chemicals, so wear goggles and rubber gloves to protect your eyes and skin. Also make sure that drain cleaner is safe for your septic system by reading the warnings on the back. Some cleaners contain chemicals that can disrupt the bacterial action of your septic system. After following the directions on the bottle, remember to run plenty of water to flush the chemicals out of your pipes.

Where is the clog?

When faced with a clogged drain, the first thing you need do is to figure out is where the clog is. If only one sink, shower, bath, or toilet in the house is backing up, relax. Your task should be fairly simple since the clog is probably confined to the trap of that fixture. If more than one fixture is clogging up, the blockage will usually be in the main drain line. Unclogging the main drain is a little more difficult but not impossible.

Unclogging a drain

One home remedy

One simple method for clearing small clogs is to use a tried-and-true combination of baking soda and vinegar. Empty one-half cup baking soda down the drain, followed by one-half cup white vinegar. Cover the drain and let mixture stand for a few minutes. Then pour a pot of boiling water down the drain. The baking soda and vinegar dissolve fatty acids, allowing the clog to wash down the drain.

Cleaning strainers or stoppers

Many clogs collect around the strainer or stopper in the sink or bathtub, so to unclog the drain, all you may need to do is remove the strainer and clean it.

  • If there is a strainer over the clogged drain, you should remove any screws holding the strainer in place and then pry the strainer up with the tip of a standard screwdriver. When the strainer is loose, remove and wash away anything that has collected around the strainer. Clean around the top of the drain.
  • Stoppers need to be cleaned on a regular basis since hair tends to twist around their base. First remove the sink stopper. Some stoppers are removed by turning them with your fingers. Others require that you unscrew a pivot rod that is connected to the opener. This rod should be located under the base of the sink. If you need to use pliers to remove the stopper, make sure to pad them so you won't chip the chrome finish. Once the stopper is removed, clean it and wipe out the base of the drain opening.

Using the plunger

One of the most trusted tools for unclogging drains, the plunger, can usually clear the blockage if it's not too far into the main drain. Follow these tips to make plunging more effective.

  • Block the overflow holes, other drains in adjacent sinks, or any other openings by stuffing wet rags into the holes.
  • If water is not already present in the basin, run two to three inches of water over the drain hole. The water helps to force the obstruction out of the way and lets you know when you succeed in pushing the clog out.
  • Apply a thick layer of petroleum jelly to the rim of the plunger. The petroleum jelly helps to create a tighter seal, thereby producing greater suction.
  • Force the plunger handle down powerfully numerous times. After plunging for a minute or two, stop to test whether water will drain from the sink. Try plunging again if the drain is still sluggish. When clear, run hot water to flush away any remaining particles from the clog.

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Cleaning the trap

If a plunger won't clear the clog, you'll need to clean the trap under the sink.

  1. Make sure you have a bucket in place to catch waste water.
  2. Check to see if there is a clean-out plug in the trap; it will be a square or hexagonal plug in the base of the bend. If so, remove the plug and push a straightened coat hanger or bottle brush around the bends of the trap to remove debris.
  3. If the trap does not have a clean-out plug, remove the trap by loosening two couplings that hold the trap in place. If you have chrome pipe fittings, you'll need to pad the water pump pliers to protect the finish. Penetrating oil may help to loosen a stubborn trap joint.
  4. Hold the trap over the bucket and insert a straightened coat hanger or bottle brush into the trap. Force the hanger or bottle brush around the curves and push out debris.
  5. Wash the trap with hot, soapy water.
  6. Before reconnecting, check the trap for wear or corrosion. The metal or plastic material may begin to thin and start to leak. If you notice wear, replace the trap. When you reassemble the trap after cleaning, you many need to reseal the threads. Use pipe joint compound or Teflon tape.


Using a sewer snake

If the trap is clear and the drain still clogs, the blockage is further into the sink's drain pipe or the main drain. To clear these drains, you'll need a plumber's auger or, as it is more commonly called, a sewer snake.

  1. With the trap removed, insert the snake into the sink drain line and push in until you meet the obstruction.
  2. When the tip of the snake is against the clog, try to hook the clog by twisting the snake's handle clockwise.
  3. When the debris is solidly hooked, twist and push the clog back and forth until you break up the clog. Flush the pipe with cold water.
  4. Once the clog is gone, reassemble the sink's trap. When you reassemble the trap after cleaning, you need to reseal the threads. Use pipe joint compound or Teflon tape. Run water for a few minutes to make sure the clog is completely flushed and the trap is not leaking where it has been reconnected.

main drain cleanout

Unclogging the main drain

If more than one sink, bathtub or toilet is clogged, you'll need to clean out the main drain line or the sewer.

  1. To clean out the main drain line, find the clean-out plugs located on the large drain pipes. Look for these plugs on the vertical pipes in your basement or crawl space. In some houses these drains may be located in a garage or pantry closet, or there may be access to these plugs outdoors along the foundations of your house. Usually these pipes will be vertical, but occasionally a plug may be located on a horizontal pipe.
  2. When you find a steel or plastic cap for the pipes with a square fitting at the top, remove the fitting with a wrench. Be sure to have a waste bucket in place when opening up the drain.
  3. Use a plumber's snake to break up any clogs. Make sure to insert the auger in both directions of the pipe. You can also use a powerful stream of water from your garden hose to break up any debris.
  4. Replace the steel cap of the drain pipe.

How can I prevent clogged drains?

Okay, you've finally gotten that drain unclogged. You'd prefer never to experience the mess and inconvenience of a clogged drain again. Keeping your drains clear is probably easier than you think. With a few simple precautions, you can prevent your drains from clogging.

Tips for the kitchen sink

Tips for the bathroom

General Tips

Source: Lowe's Home Safety Council founded by Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse. (Used with permission)

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