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Easy Ways to Unclog a Drain

Table of Contents:

  1. Evaluating the Clog
  2. Different Ways to Unclog Drains
  3. Use Drain-Cleaning Tools
  4. Drain-Cleaning Solutions
  5. Make a DIY Unclogging Solution
  6. Use Commercial Drain Cleaners
  7. Common Areas Where Clogs Occur
  8. Kitchen
  9. How to Unclog a Kitchen Sink Drain
  10. Bathroom
  11. How to Unclog a Bathroom Sink
  12. How to Unclog a Bathtub or Shower Drain
  13. How to Unclog a Toilet
  14. How to Unclog a French Drain
  15. How to Prevent Clogs in Your Drains

Do you know what is lurking in your home's drains and pipes? Many of us shook our heads in amazement or disbelief when we read about the 800-foot, 130-metric-ton "fatberg" pulled out of the London sewers a few years go. Sometimes as large as a dozen school buses piled together, these impressive globs of compacted grease, wet wipes and other waste can burst hardy sewer pipes and back up toilets throughout the neighborhood.

But you don't have to have an iceberg-sized obstruction growing beneath your feet to feel the frustrating effects of clogged drains. Maybe hair has collected in your shower drain, or perhaps someone in your household dumped chunky salsa down the kitchen sink. Maybe there is no cause you can think of — you just have a shower, sink or toilet that water will not go down.

Clogged drains affect many people every year. Sales figures show that the leading chemical drain cleaners in the United States bring in revenues of $267 million a year. That's a lot of people spending money on unclogging stubborn drains.

No matter how careful you are about preventing them, clogs occur every now and then for most people. More severe clogs may require a plumber's expertise, but many can be fixed with a DIY solution. In this post, we will talk about the different ways you can clear a clog.

Evaluating the Clog

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When you are evaluating a clog, consider the following factors:

1. The Severity of the Clog

Some clogs are only partial blockages. In this case, your water drains, but it drains sluggishly. This is because a buildup of grease, soap scum, or food waste has accumulated around the inside of the pipe, reducing the pipe's diameter and decreasing the volume of water that can flow through. Partial blockages are smaller and more likely to respond to gentler, DIY solutions.

Some clogs completely block your pipes, admitting no water. In this case, you will end up with a sink or tub full of standing water. DIY solutions can often work on these total blockages too, but you may need the help of chemical solutions, unclogging equipment or a professional plumber.

2. The Composition of the Clog

Consider what type of item could be the culprit.

In the shower, you can likely dissolve soap residue with a household cleansing agent, but dense masses of hair may require stronger chemicals or manual removal. In the kitchen, grease may dissolve with a little help, but a bolus of fibrous vegetable peelings may need a more advanced solution. Is your toilet blocked with soft paper products that a plunger can handle, or has a toddler sent his toy sailboat on a journey to the center of the earth? The answer will help determine how easily you can resolve the clog.

3. The Location of the Clog

If you have a slow-draining kitchen sink, you will probably be able to access the clog relatively easily. If your toilet is clogged, the same is true, though some strategies will work better than others. If your clogged drain is outdoors, you will need to consider different techniques.

Different Ways to Unclog Drains

The pipes of your plumbing system are not stick-straight, of course. They bend and curve like water slides, carrying water and waste from your home. The bends in your pipes create traps, where grease, hair, food particles and other debris collect and form hard masses. If you look at the base of your toilet, you can see the trap that forms within the twisting pipes. Another trap forms in the bend in the pipe under your kitchen sink.

The masses of waste material that collect here are your clogs. Clogs do not have to form in traps, though — they can also develop in any part of a pipe where waste matter builds up.

The best way to unclog your drains sometimes depends on how and where your clog has formed. DIY unclogging methods like poured boiling water will often work for a clog that builds up in the center of a pipe near the drain opening. Clogs that form in traps might be trickier and require unclogging equipment.

Use Drain-Cleaning Tools

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If you have any of these items at home or do not mind a quick trip to the store, you may have an easy way to unclog your drain. What tools can you use to unclog a drain?

  • Plunger: First, fill the tub or sink with some water and place the plunger over the drain. Then, use quick plunging motions to clear the clog. Remove the plunger every few minutes to see if the blockage cleared and the water drains down naturally.
  • Snake: Snakes are made of wire or plastic and are long and thin with a knotted part at the end. The knotted part goes down the drain first. Keep feeding the snake into the drain until it will not go any farther, then twist it around to entangle its head with the blockage. Pull it back out, and dispose of whatever was clogging the pipe.
  • Wire hanger: A more rudimentary, yet effective, method, a wire hanger can work similarly to a snake. Unwrap the hanger but leave the hook in its shape and feed it down the drain. Once you hit the clog, you can wiggle it around to get the hook around the clog and then pull it back up.

If these tools don't work or if you want a less hands-on solution, try a chemical agent or one of the below homemade declogging solutions.

Drain-Cleaning Solutions

Sometimes, you can clean your drains without resorting to specialized tools.

Make a DIY Unclogging Solution

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Do you know how to make DIY drain cleaner? Using these simple items you likely have around your home can often be just as effective as a declogging tool:

  • Boiling water: This is the simplest solution. Fill a kettle or pot with water and bring it to a boil. Pour it slowly down the drain in bursts and check in between each pour to see if the water flow is improving.
  • Baking soda and vinegar: Pour half of a box of the baking soda down the drain without adding any water. Add a half cup of vinegar and put something over the drain. Wait half an hour and then pour boiling water into the drain.
  • Dish detergent: For a clogged toilet, pour a quarter cup of dish detergent into the bowl and then pour hot water over it. Use a plunger. Just as dish soap gets the greasy gunk off of your pots and pans, it can help dislodge a greasy clog in the pipe.
  • Lye: Lye is typically used as a disinfectant and in soap-making, but you can also use it to unclog a drain. Carefully pour several teaspoonfuls of lye directly into the drain. Pour a small amount of water down after it. Let the lye and water sit and do their work for 30 or 40 minutes, and then pour boiling water down the drain.

A baking-soda-and-vinegar mixture is ideal for cleaning drains because of the chemical reaction that takes place. The chemical reaction between the acidic vinegar and alkaline baking soda is what produces the fizzing, foaming bubbles. It also provides a scouring agent to help remove the buildup that's backing up your drain. Since baking soda and vinegar are not as harsh as store-bought chemical formulas, they can take a while to work, but ultimately they will leave your drain working freely once again.

Additionally, knowing how to unclog a sink with baking soda helps protect the environment. As compared to harsh chemical solutions such as store-bought drain openers, cleaning agents like baking soda and vinegar are a more environmentally friendly drain cleaner. Though harsher cleaners may be necessary if you are confronting an exceptionally stubborn drain clog, more eco-friendly solutions help keep our water and environment clean.

Lye is extremely corrosive — the reason it is useful as an unclogging agent — so be careful when using this substance. Do not let the lye touch your skin. Your metal pipes should be safe, but lye can severely corrode soft metals like aluminum, so make sure you keep any aluminum pots and pans out of harm's way when you are using this method.

Use Commercial Drain Cleaners

Store-bought products specifically formulated for breaking up tough clogs are an excellent solution if your DIY efforts and elbow grease yield no results. Though they are harsher on the environment, they sometimes succeed where DIY methods do not. Just make sure not to use these products in areas where they could potentially come back at you — say from an overflowing toilet — and cause skin redness, eye irritation or even chemical burns.

Common Areas Where Clogs Occur

Clogs typically form in a few different areas throughout your home.

Kitchen

Because of all the grease, detergent and food residue that goes down the kitchen sink, kitchen drains sometimes become clogged.

How to Unclog a Kitchen Sink Drain

Knowing how to unclog a kitchen drain helps you keep your kitchen sink functioning as it should. To unclog a kitchen sink drain, you can try a variety of different methods.

1. A Clean Plunger

A clogged sink drain responds to pressure just as a backed-up toilet does. Do not use the plunger from your bathroom, but if you have a clean spare or have time to run to the store, plunging can be an excellent start. If your sink has two basins, cover the working side with a stopper or stuff it with a rag to focus the flow of air. You may need to rest and repeat your efforts a few times before you see the water start to drain.

2. DIY solutions

Try a DIY method like boiling water, dish soap or baking soda and vinegar. First, you will need to use a scoop to remove the standing water from the kitchen sink so your chosen method can work at full concentration.

If you are using boiling water, boil a pot of water and carefully pour the water down the drain. If you are using baking soda and vinegar, pour baking soda down the drain, follow up with vinegar for the scouring benefits of the chemical reaction, put a stopper over the drain opening to concentrate the cleansing reaction inside the pipe and then flush with boiling water. If the baking soda collects on the rubber of the drain instead of going down the pipe, use a kitchen utensil to guide it down.

As with the plunging method above, you may have to try a few times before your efforts succeed.

3. Chemical Drain Openers

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Use chemical drain openers that are specially formulated for unclogging your drains. Be sure to read and follow the manufacturer's instructions for safety reasons and so that the chemicals work most effectively. Generally, you will pour the liquid into the drain, wait half an hour or so, and then flush the sink drain with hot water. Be sure to keep the liquid away from your food, and clean your food-preparation surfaces thoroughly with soap and water after using chemical drain openers in the kitchen.

4. Bent Hanger

Use a bent hanger. Untwist the hanger wire and put the hook down the drain. Jiggle it inside the pipe and hook the clog as if it were a fat, shimmering trout. Then pull the clog back out the drain opening.

5. Emptying the Trap

If none of the previous methods succeed, you can also try taking the pipe beneath the sink apart. Unscrew the pipe, either manually or with a wrench, and then clean out the trap. If you find a clog of food particles there, remove it — and you have likely solved your issue. Make sure to place a bucket or small trash can underneath the pipe as you work to catch any water that spills out.

6. Drain Snake

If the kitchen sink is clogged past the trap, you may need a small drain snake to reach down and break up the obstruction.

Smaller than the toilet auger used for a toilet, a drain snake is an effective tool for breaking up stubborn clogs. If you do not have a drain snake, you can purchase one at a hardware store. Then remove the horizontal pipe under your kitchen sink. Insert the textured end of the drain snake's cable into the pipe until you feel resistance. Crank the handle of the drain snake while pushing deeper into the pipe. Wrangle with the snake until it hooks the clog. When the textured end snags the clog, crank the handle the other way to pull the clog out of the pipe.

Bathroom

With all the water fixtures that fill the bathroom, clogs are highly likely in this room too.

How to Unclog a Bathroom Sink

Knowing how to unclog a bathroom drain makes life much easier. Generally, you can use the same methods on a slow-draining bathroom sink that you would use in the kitchen. One difference is that depending on the construction of your bathroom, you may not have under-sink cabinets or an easy way to take the pipes apart. So if you plan to use a drain snake for your bathroom sink, you may have to thread the cable into the small drain opening in the basin.

1. Clean Plunger

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Use a clean plunger. A clean plunger works just as well for a bathroom sink as it does for a kitchen sink. Form a tight seal with your plunger over the drain opening and plunge away, resting and repeating as necessary.

2. Boiling Water

This option is more cumbersome than it would be in the kitchen, where you can boil and pour the water within steps of each operation. For your bathroom sink, boil the water on the stove and carefully carry it to the bathroom and pour it into the basin. If that doesn't work, scoop some out and try again or move on to a different method.

3. DIY Solutions

Try dish soap or baking soda and vinegar for their scouring, cleansing power. These clogged bathroom sink home remedies work gently and reliably.

4. Chemical Drain Openers

Use chemical drain openers. Purchase your dissolving liquid of choice, pour the recommended amount into the drain, let it do its work and flush the drain. Repeat as necessary if your clog persists.

5. Bent Hanger

A bent hanger often works well on a clogged bathroom sink. Straighten the hanger, leave the hook, and fish out the clog. You will probably pull out some hair and soap residue that you can toss into the garbage.

6. Drain Snake

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Experiment with a drain snake. The snake may take some finagling before it slithers through the pipe and catches on whatever obstruction is down there. With a little practice, you'll get the hang of the technique and know how to unclog a bathroom sink drain in a variety of ways.

How to Unclog a Bathtub or Shower Drain

Knowing how to fix a slow draining bathtub or clogged shower drain is essential for your quality of life in the bathroom. You can unclog a bathtub or shower drain using many of the same techniques you would use for kitchen and bathroom sinks. However, you may want to try methods other than boiling water to avoid having to bend down to floor level with a hot, steaming, heavy pot of water in your hands.

With shower and tub areas, you'll also want to be particularly precise with any chemicals you use so that no chemical residue remains on the surfaces the next time you want to take a nice hot shower or bubble bath.

1. Clean Plunger

Form a tight seal with your plunger over the shower drain opening and plunge away, resting and repeating as necessary.

2. DIY Solutions

Try dish detergent, baking soda and vinegar or lye. Whichever method you choose, be sure to let your cleansing agent sit for a while to have the maximum effect before you flush the drain.

3. Bleach

Though you might not want to use bleach in your kitchen, near your food, knowing how to unclog a bathtub drain with bleach is helpful. Carefully pour some bleach into a cup and dump it down your bathtub or shower drain. Let it sit for about 15 minutes and then flush the drain with hot water. Don't leave the bleach much longer than that, or it may corrode your pipes.

4. Commercial Drain Openers

If you have tried all the DIY options and you still can't figure out how to unclog a bathtub drain full of hair, a chemical drain opener is a logical next step. Pour your drain opener down the tub or shower drain and wait to see whether it works its magic.

5. Bent Hanger

A bent hanger can work on a shower or tub drain, too. When your hanger hook catches on something, you'll probably pull out a clog of soapy hair.

6. Drain Snake

If you're wondering how to unclog a drain with standing water, one effective method is to use a snake tool. Especially if your sink and bathtub are clogged at the same time, the clog may be located so far down the pipe that a snake is your best option. Though trying to thread the cable through the floor-level drain can feel unwieldy, you will often come away with quick results. With some practice, you will learn how to unclog a shower drain with a snake.

How to Unclog a Toilet

Dealing with a clogged toilet is never fun. Fortunately, using the practical tips we list here, you will soon be on your way to a clean and functional bathroom once more.

If you have a clogged toilet, you can use many of the techniques you would use for sinks or showers. There is one crucial difference, however. Do not use harsh chemical agents like chemical drain openers, bleach or anything that could come back out at you through an overflowing toilet and give you chemical burns.

1. Plunger

Probably the first tool people reach for when their toilets back up, a plunger is often all you need to fix a clogged toilet quickly and easily. The type of plunger with an extended rubber ring at the bottom works especially well, as it forms a tight seal and helps you plunge more effectively.

2. Boiling Water

Sometimes you do not have a plunger handy, or though you work and work, you can't seem to loosen the clog. In that case, try switching to boiling water to break up the clog.

3. Toilet Auger

The toilet auger you would use for a toilet is larger and stronger than the drain snake you would use on the sink. It has a metal tube with a bend at one end. The bend fits snugly into the hole at the bottom of the toilet bowl and allows the textured end to reach the trap, where blockages often form.

Other Drain Types

For other types of drains, you will use different strategies. Outdoor drains require different unclogging tools than the drains in your kitchen and bathrooms.

How to Unclog a French Drain

A French drain consists of an outdoor trench filled with rocks or gravel. The trench usually runs down at least a slight incline, and it contains a pipe with small holes drilled in it. You can use this type of drain to direct rainwater or floodwater out of your yard using the force of gravity.

If your French drain becomes clogged with leaves or dirt, you have a couple of options.

1. Sluiced Water

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Open the top end of the drain and use a hose to direct a steady stream of water from the higher end of the drainpipe to the lower one. With any luck, the force of the water will unclog your drain. If you have a pressure washer you can use for more concentrated force, all the better.

2. Sewer Snake

A sewer snake is a heavy-duty, motorized version of the toilet auger you can use to unclog your toilet. Sewer snakes, especially professional-grade models, are expensive, but you can rent them.

If you choose this option, insert the cutter head of the sewer snake into the opening of the drain and guide the piping until the head reaches the source of the clog. You will feel resistance from the snake when this happens. Move the end of the sewer snake around to try to break the clog into smaller pieces. When you think you have broken up most of the obstruction, flush the French drain with hose water to remove the small pieces of debris.

How to Prevent Clogs in Your Drains

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Knowing how to clear a drain clog is great, but not having to do so is even better. With drain and toilet clogs, the old adage is true — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Flush Only Toilet Paper

It is vital to be careful with what you flush down your toilet so that you don't end up with a clog.

Wet wipes, for example, may seem flushable‚ but unless they say they are, they're not. Sometimes, even when they say they are, they're not. In the U.K., for instance, wet wipes make up a jaw-dropping 93% of the material in the infamous sewer fatberg blockages. Though you can't tell with the naked eye, baby wipes contain plastic, which can solidify into a hard mass in the swampy environment of the sewer pipes. Feminine hygiene products also contain plastic — internally, not just in the applicators.

If you have feline friends at home, dispose of the cat litter in the garbage instead of the toilet to avoid chunky clogs.

2. Throw Away Grease and Food Waste

Americans can be particularly hard on their drains around Thanksgiving time. If you pour the grease from your 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey down the kitchen sink drain, the grease may cool, congeal and clog the drain.

At all times of the year, make sure to dispose of your grease in the garbage to keep your drains clean and open. Dispose of food waste in the trash as well. Even if you have a garbage disposal, foods can leave a slimy residue that contributes to clogs over time.

3. Use a Hair Trap

In the shower, use a hair trap to keep hair and debris from going down the drain. Clean out the trap after every shower to prevent hair accumulation.

4. Clean Drains Regularly

A little preventative cleaning goes a long way too. By flushing your drains with baking soda and vinegar a couple of times a year, even if they are not clogged, you can help keep buildup to a minimum and make sure your plumbing continues to drain quickly.

Get Help With Your Drain Clog From Mr. Rooter Plumbing

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When it comes to drain clogs, Mr. Rooter Plumbing is here to help. No matter how stubborn your clog may be — say if you have a clogged drain and your snake is not working — clean and clear drains are just a quick phone call away.

If you have tried several of these DIY solutions without any luck, contact Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Syracuse, and one of our licensed plumbers will get your plumbing clear in no time.