DIY 101: How to Unclog a Drain
Any drain in your home plays a pretty simple role: remove water and waste from living spaces and put them out of sight and out of mind. It’s downright silly how often this general principle fails, though, leaving unpleasant and unspeakable horrors very much in sight and very much on our minds.
Have you ever found yourself (desperately) wondering how to unclog a drain, once and for all? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Below, I’ve laid out all the tricks of the trade when it comes to unclogging toilets, tubs, showers and sinks. Put these tricks into practice, and you’ll rid your home of those annoying clogs for good.
Tubs and Showers
Nobody likes standing ankle deep in water when they’re humming a tune and getting ready for the day. That said, it happens sometimes. A drain begins to clog, and water has a tough time running out, so it pools in the bottom of the tub or shower.
The best way to avoid this problem entirely is by performing routine maintenance on your drains. Regular maintenance helps loosen and clear debris before it turns into a major clog. Typically, grocery store products like Drano and Liquid Plumr don’t do much once you already have an issue (unless it’s fairly minor), but they are good for avoiding the problem altogether.
Hair, soap scum and skin particles are what typically cause shower and tub clogs. But, just pouring one bottle of a grocery store product down the drain once a month will keep the clog monsters at bay. Make sure you read the instructions on the specific product you purchase, but typically it’s best to use half a bottle at a time. Try pouring one half down the drain, letting it sit, then pouring the other half down 12 or 24 hours later.
What if you already have a clog? Try using a snake (or drain auger), which is the most popular method for clog clearing. You can buy affordable hand snakes at your local home improvement store for about $20 to $40. Larger electric snakes typically run from $130 to $400, while professional-grade augers cost anywhere from $400 to $1,200.
Unless you’re planning on opening a plumbing business, purchasing expensive ones isn’t exactly practical. However, you can rent them from the big chain home improvement stores for a reasonable price. And that’s a general rule that you can typically follow: Many expensive home improvement tools can often be rented, which is a fantastic idea when it’s a specialized tool that you will only use every so often.
You can also use a drain clearing gun to get rid of the clog. These tools use CO2 cartridges to blow out the line. A lot of plumbers don’t use these drain guns since they prefer removing a blockage over running the risk of pushing it farther down the line.
Still, some plumbers swear by this method. Drain clearing guns can usually be found for about $50, replacement cartridges for $10 to $25. If you can figure out how to work them in a way that clears clogs without forcing them farther down the pipe, this is an exceptional option that may even be your best for the money. (And that’s what we’re all looking for, right? The best performance for the smallest possible investment?)
Heavy-duty drain products also work pretty well. Master plumbers often use products like Glug (which are made from concentrated sulfuric acid) to deal with major obstructions. This method was used pretty often in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as many waste pipes were filled with mud. Using these products is not recommended unless you really know what you’re doing since the acid can damage your pipes and the fumes can be dangerous.
One alternative that few people know about is a wet vacuum (or a wet/dry shop vac). For sinks, tape the overflow holes in the sides, and for tubs, tape over the overflow cover underneath the tub spout. Duct tape works best, but anything that will give you an airtight seal will do. An airtight seal is important for the vacuum to get maximum suction out of the pipes. A pair of needle-nose pliers can be used to help things along if the blockage gets stuck at the crossbar of the tub drain.
Most of the time — even with cheaper models — this trick will completely pull out whatever is clogging your drain. The beauty of this solution is that you can use this type of vacuum for a million other things, unlike an expensive drain auger. More affordable vacuums run $40 to $75, while top-of-the-line models go for $75 to $400. Just make sure you don’t use a regular household vacuum — otherwise you might damage it from sucking up liquid.
A clogged sink, as mentioned above, can be dealt with using a lot of the same techniques as a tub. The main difference is that you have to remove the P-trap (that odd-looking pipe in the cabinet below the sink) in order to snake the line.
Another common option for sink clogs is a drain stick. These are the plastic sticks with ribbed edges that you just stick down the drain and see what comes out. They’re about $5 at your local hardware store and really do get the job done for ordinary clogs. If you don’t want to shell out the $5 for a plastic stick, then a straightened metal coat hanger will also work when the end is bent to create a small hook.
A plunger can also be used to help the sink along, provided you tape the overflow holes closed. I should also mention: I always keep a clean plunger (relatively speaking) around the house for use solely on sinks. A sink-specific plunger helps you avoid the spread of nasty bacteria.
Clogged toilets can be a different problem entirely, at least when it comes to how you resolve the issue. The most common solution is a plunger, but don’t skimp and buy the cheapest one in the store. Those cupped red rubber ones don’t work especially well on toilets because of their design, which means it’s going to take you a lot longer to work out a clog using one.
The reason the cupped ones (or any flat-bottomed plunger, for that matter) work better on clogged sinks is because that’s what they’re made for. Toilet plungers are the ones with a protrusion at the end. You can find rubber toilet plungers just about anywhere, but I always recommend the accordion-style plastic ones, which are most often found at hardware stores and home improvement outlets. The accordion-style plungers are just about the same price as the old-school rubber ones, and they get the job done in half the time.
You can also find an array of pump plungers, which are fancier and designed to get the job done faster and with less effort. These models typically cost more, and most plumbers agree that they don’t save enough time to make the price hike worth it.
If a plunger doesn’t do the trick, then a hand snake will certainly get it. For toilets, the long hand snakes with the handle at the top work very well. They can go about 6 feet down the pipe, and you can stand far enough back from the toilet to avoid any splash-effect.
Final Thoughts on How to Unclog a Drain
Like so many tasks around the house, having the right tools is half the battle. Invest in tools specific to different types of drains, and you’ll find that clearing drains isn’t really a problem.
Also, seriously consider using a monthly drain treatment to keep problem drains clear. You can buy a liquid product at the grocery store once a month, pour it down your drain, and enjoy free and clear use of your tub, shower or sink. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Do you have a different method for how to unclog a drain? If so, let us know in the comments section below, or send us a message via our contact page.