How do I clear a clogged drain?

Have a clogged drain? Get do-it-yourself steps and helpful tips to fix most clogged toilets, clogged sinks, and leaking faucets without calling a plumber.

When people move into a house, typically, they're wrapped up in the excitement of its aesthetic qualities: the master bedroom with the large walk-in closet; the porch that wraps around the front of the house; or the modern-day kitchen with the oak cabinets and stainless steel appliances. But owning a home becomes a love/hate relationship as time goes on and the house gets older, because with all the luxuries come the problems that are simply unavoidable.

A perfect example is a clogged drain. All plumbing systems develop clogs. However, you can fix most stopped-up sinks, clogged tubs, and backed-up toilets without even calling a plumber. With the right tools and lots of determination, you'll combat the stubborn clogs and get back to enjoying the house you love so much.

Grab your tools.

Go to any hardware store or home center to find affordable plumber tools used to unclog drains. In some places, you can actually rent the tools you'll need. Here's a comprehensive list to get you started:

  • Plunger (Cost = $5 to $25): This is your best friend when it comes to clearing minor clogs from sinks, tubs, and toilets. Always try to use a plunger first, but don't ever exert too much force to avoid damaging pipes and fixtures permanently. If the plunger won't do the trick, consider the next three options.
  • Cable Auger (Cost = $5 to $15): This tool is also called a plumber's snake. It's a long, bendable steel cable wound around a spool that's fitted with a crank.
  • Closet Auger (Cost = $15 to $40): For those toilet clogs, you'll use this handy tool to snake out toilets. Like the plumber's snake, it has a hand crank yet the cable is encased in a rigid shaft. The auger end bends at a certain angle to fit through the tight curves of a toilet trap.
  • Chemical Drain Cleaners (Cost = $5 to $10). If a sink or tub drain is simply moving slowly, you can use a chemical drain cleaner. But proceed with caution-certain drain cleaners can damage some kinds of pipes and upset the delicate balance of a septic system. Be sure to read the drain cleaner manufacturer's instructions carefully. Generally, you can get several uses out of one bottle of liquid clog remover.

Now that you've got your tools, you're ready to take on those tough clogs! The following are various scenarios where you can use these tools most effectively.

Minor sink clogs: Use a plunger.

  1. Fill the sink with a little water, and then start plunging.
  2. Work the plunger up and down several times before pulling it off the drain opening. Use a rag in overflow holes or a secondary sink opening to help deliver more pressure to the clog.

Major sink clogs: Use a cable auger.

  1. Grab a bucket and put it under the sink trap (the P-shaped piping located under the sink).
  2. Unscrew the sink trap with a pipe wrench. If you have PVC plastic traps, unscrew the threaded coupling by hand.
  3. Drain the water into the bucket.
  4. Inspect the sink trap to make sure it isn't clogged.
  5. Remove the trap arm that sticks out from the wall.
  6. Feed the cable auger into the hole until you feel resistance.
  7. Pull out at least 18 inches of cable, and then tighten the lock screw.
  8. Crank the handle in a clockwise direction and push forward at the same time to drive the cable farther into the pipe.
  9. Pull out another 18 inches of cable and repeat the process until you break through the blockage. If the cable bogs down or catches on something, turn the crank counterclockwise and pull back on the auger.
  10. Once the cable is clear, crank and push forward again.
  11. Retrieve the cable and replace the trap arm and trap.
  12. Turn on the hot-water faucet to see if the sink drains properly.
  13. Dislodge loose blockage by partially filling the sink with hot water, and then use the plunger to clear the debris.
  14. Follow up with more hot water.

Minor tub clogs: Use a plunger.

  1. Unscrew the screen from the tub drain. For pop-up drains, raise the lever to the open position, grab the stopper, and then pull it from the drain hole.
  2. Use a bent wire to scoop out any soap scum and hair.
  3. Clean the screen or stopper of all hair and soap.
  4. Cover the underside of the overflow plate with a wet rag, and then plunge the drain.

Major tub clogs: Use a cable auger.

  1. Remove the overflow plate from the end of the tub, including the stopper linkage.
  2. Feed about 30 inches of cable down the overflow tube.
  3. Push forward while turning the hand crank. Don't stop if you feel resistance! Keep cranking on the auger until the cable passes all the way through the P-trap that lies underneath the tub.
  4. Retrieve the cable, and then run several gallons of hot water down the drain.
  5. Replace the overflow plate and screen or pop-up drain.

Minor toilet clogs: Use a plunger.

  1. Put the plunger down into the toilet bowl, creating a seal over the drain opening.
  2. Work the plunger up and down several times before pulling it off the drain opening.
  3. Flush the toilet to clear out the drainpipe.

Major toilet clogs: Use a closet auger.

  1. Place the closet auger end into the toilet bowl with the bent tip aiming up.
  2. Crank and push down on the handle. Be sure to hold the tool shaft steady!
  3. Continue cranking until you've dispensed about 3 feet of cable.
  4. Retrieve the cable by simultaneously cranking and pulling up.
  5. Flush the toilet to attempt to clear out the drainpipe.
  6. If the clog still seems a little sluggish, run the auger through the P-trap two more times (once up the left side of the trap, and then again up the right side) to clear any remaining matter clinging to the sides.
  7. Flush the toilet once more to completely clear out the drainpipe.

Remember, if you aren't able to clear the clog using the tips provided here, contact one of the many licensed plumbers on our list who can help solve your major drain problems.

Preventative Maintenance

You can do your part to prevent drain blockage before it actually happens. If you decide to pour grease down a sink drain, use scalding hot water right behind it to keep drains clear. Consider putting a strainer in the kitchen and bathroom sinks to stop hair, soap, and other objects from going down the drains. Also, the only things you should ever flush down a toilet are the toilet water, human waste, and toilet paper. Bag up items like disposable diapers, tampons, cleaning wipes, facial tissue, and bandages, and then put them into the garbage instead of flushing them to avoid costly drain blockage issues down the road.

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