Having to deal with clogged drains in your house is one of the most common plumbing occurrences.
Whether you’re in a house, apartment, or even a mobile home, having your drain stop up is really inevitable…and frustrating. It’s just part of living in modern civilization.
Thankfully, there are usually typical explanations to this typical problem. The cause of a clogged drain can usually be dealt with as easily as the clog forming itself.
In reality, it’s usually due to some accumulation of solid waste such as small objects, hair, or clumps of soap and grease.
Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to unclog a sink that won’t drain or a bathtub or shower that is slow to drain.
We’ll start with the easiest, cheapest methods first. The ones that require less effort and expense, and are safe to use on kitchen sinks or porcelain tubs, and more importantly on your precious pipes.
Isolate the Problem Drain to Save Time
It’s often helpful to narrow down just where your drain is clogged within your plumbing system. This will save you time by telling you how you should attempt to fix the problem or if you need to hire a plumber.
A quick test is to confirm that only one fixture (drain) is presenting a clog problem.
So, if your bathroom sink is clogged, check that an adjacent sink or bathtub is draining normally.
If one sink is clogged or slow to drain try this:
Wait for the water to go down, if it will. Now turn on the water for a few seconds.
If the water drains like it should for a couple seconds before backing up the sink, then the clog is at the trap. This is the elbow of pipes just below your sink.
If you have more than one drain that is affected, such as a sink and a shower that is slow to drain, then your problem is a bigger one, unfortunately.
You may have blockage in a branch of pipe leading to the affected area. For example, and upstairs bathroom may have a clog in the main second level drain pipe, or the vent stack for the upstairs.
Assuming you have a simple clog near the actual drain of your sink or bathtub, the following is the best path to take to get things working again.
Plunging Tips for Clogged Drains
We are all familiar with this handy household tool: The plunger.
This rubber-cupped tool has saved many a-homeowners, that’s for sure. It’s an effective device that can solve most drainage problems if used just right.
Here are a few tips when using a plunger to unclog a drain.
For a kitchen sink:
Fill both sink basins with 4-5″ of water. You may have to hold a rag or stopper over one of the drains if it is draining properly.
Next, use your plunger to pump up and down as vigorously as you can. The strongest person in the house should do this!
Do this 10 to 12 times successively. If the drain doesn’t break free, switch to the other sink and repeat from that side.
For a clogged shower drain:
Remove any strainers or drain covers. Fill the shower pan up to a depth of 1 inch. Plunge forcefully 10-12 times. Repeat as necessary.
Using an Auger or Snake to Unclog Drains
Sometimes, stubborn clogs require more than the rapid, vigorous plunging covered above.
You may have the clog occurring further down the pipe line, i.e. beyond the “P” trap elbow.
In bathrooms, it’s usually just too much hair and soap residue all tangled up. This happens all the time with bathtub clogs. In this case, pressure isn’t going to do the trick. The stuff needs to be torn out, literally.
For really clogged sinks:
The best approach here is to remove (unscrew) the trap and remove it temporarily.
Be careful of spilling water. Have rags or old towels and a small bucket nearby for water leaking or gushing out when removing the trap.
When the trap is off, insert the end of a hand auger. Loosen the auger set screw (the one that holds the cable in place), and pull out the cable about 12 inches.
Feed and push the cable down the pipe until it meets resistance. This could either be the clog itself, or just a bend in the pipe.
If the auger has met the blockage that’s causing the clogged drain, have faith that it will burrow through and push the clogging material or let your snag it and pull it back out.
Now, tighten back up the set screw on the auger and turn the handle clockwise. The cable should start to move forward.
Loosen the screw again and feed the cable until it stops like before. Repeat this over and over until the auger feeds freely for a long distance, or if you think you have snagged the blockage material.
Wind the cable back in and check the tip for the culprit behind the clog…most likely a yucky mass of gunk.
For clogged bathtubs:
To use the auger here, unscrew the pop-up drain assembly. Flip the drain lever up and pull out the drain plunger completely.
Remove the overflow cover plate by undoing the screws. Then, lift out the linkage. Now, auger the drain as described above for sinks.
If you’ve used both a plunger and an auger to no avail, then your clogged drain may actually be a clogged main pipe.
It may also be a bigger problem than just a clog. At this point, you probably have no choice but to have a plumber come out and investigate.
Using Chemicals to Beat Clogged Drains
For slow drains such as showers or bathtubs: First try the plunger and auger. You may also try liquid drain cleaners.
Remember though, that these are chemicals, and there is really no guarantee that they will work, despite any claims the label makes.
Be sure to inform a plumber about any harmful chemicals you tried, as they may be sitting in the pipes.
General Tips on How to Unclog Drains
Handle with care
Be careful when using an auger. Sharp, hard metals from these tools can damage sink and tub surfaces as well as internal walls of plumbing pipes.
Stick to hand snakes for clearing drain clogs. Power drill augers may be too large for the job if you don’t know what you’re doing.
A few knocks can tell the story
If you have exposed pipes such as in an unfinished basement, crawlspace or garage, try the following if you’re unable to locate where your clogged drain blockage is.
You can knock on the outsides of your pipes to locate the stoppage.
From your drain to the clog, there will be water. From the clog forward (i.e. out to the street), there will be nothing.
Hit the pipe with a piece of wood (not metal!). If you here a ringing, hollow sound, then the pipe is empty.
If you hear a dead thud like sound, then you’ve found the clog. If possible, find the closest clean-out and run your auger in from there to clear the clogged pipe.