Unclogging Stopped Drains
By Gil Johnson
Sometimes, sink, shower, tub, and toilets will become stopped up and will only drain slowly or, worse yet, not at all. This may cause a messy overflow. In sink, shower, and tub drains, the blockage may be caused by accumulation of food particles, grease, soap, and hair. In toilets, it may be due to large wads of tissue, wash cloths, or other materials which have fallen into the toilet bowl. Although it is not the most pleasant household maintenance project to tackle, it can bring good results, sometimes more quickly than spending the money to hire someone like a plumber to take care of the problem. It can also be very satisfying to accomplish this. Persons with limited vision or no vision at all can open plugged drains just as successfully as someone with good vision by using the “right” tools and following the steps outlined below.
Tools you may need to unplug sink, lavatory, tub, or shower drains:
- Drum augur (sometimes called a “snake”)
- Channel lock pliers or 12-inch pipe wrench
- Straight or philips screwdrivers
Tools you may need to unplug toilets:
- Toilet plunger
- Closet augur also known as a toilet augur
Any of the tools listed above are available at hardware or building supply stores.
For those who may not be familiar with the drum augur or toilet augur the following description may be helpful.
Drum augur: The drum augur consists of a flat bottomed cone shaped canister with a 1/2-inch tube coming out of the middle of the top of the dome. A plastic handle slips over the tube allowing the canister and tube to rotate while the handle is being held still. At the end of the tube is a thumb screw. Inside the canister is a coiled 20-25 foot cable 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch in diameter. The cable is like a stiff but flexible spring that can go around fairly sharp corners.
To operate the drum augur, insert the end of the augur into the drain line. Slide it forward until the end of the augur encounters a turn in the pipe or the debris. Leave about 6-8 inches of the cable between the end of the tube and the opening into the drain line, lock the cable in place with the thumb screw, turn the canister clockwise with the round knob on the bottom while holding the handle on the tube at the top of the canister. The augur will turn around and around as you rotate the canister and by applying forward pressure, you can work the cable further into the drain line. When the top end of the tube is close to the opening of the drain line, loosen the thumb screw, pull out more cable, tighten the thumb screw, and work more cable into the drain line.
Toilet augur: The toilet augur consists of a tube (usually plastic) about 3/8-inch in diameter and about 30 inches long. One end makes a sweeping 90-degree turn and extends about three (3)inches. A steel rod protrudes out of the other end of the tube which is attached to a crank handle. The other end of the steel rod is attached to an augur which is about 24 inches long. The augur is like a stiff but flexible spring which can go around turns in the toilet bowl or sewer drain line.
To operate the toilet augur, insert the end of the tube into the bottom of the toilet bowl and begin turning the augur handle clockwise while holding the tube and pressing forward to work the end of the augur around the turns in the bottom of the toilet bowl. When the end of the augur encounters the blockage, it may push through or the debris may get hooked by the augur. In that case, you can attempt to withdraw the augur with the debris attached to the augur by continuing to turn the crank handle clockwise while you withdraw it.
Steps to Unplug Sink or Lavatory Drains
You may first try to unstop the drain line by using a measured amount of chemical or herbal drain line cleaner which you can select from a variety of types and strengths from most hardware stores or building supply centers. Before choosing the drain cleaner, review the directions and cautions carefully as some of the chemical drain cleaners are quite caustic and can damage the drain line pipes and may also emit hazardous fumes. The drain line cleaner can sometimes loosen the stoppage which then can be flushed away with warm water.
Tip: Manufacturers recommend not putting chemical drain line cleaners into a garbage disposal unit as this may cause damage to the disposal.
Safety tip: If you use a chemical drain line cleaner and the blockage is not cleared, run water into the drain line and let it drain away before using the drum augur. If a chemical solution remaining in the line splashes out on you, particularly your face or eyes, it can cause a chemical burn. If it does, rinse it off immediately.
If the chemical or herbal drain line cleaner doesn’t open the stoppage or only allows slow drainage, you can follow the next steps to eliminate the blockage.
You should first put on a pair of thin surgical gloves to protect your hands from infection. The thin gloves allow you to detect your work by feel. You may be able to insert the end of the drum augur into the drain opening at the bottom of the sink or lavatory. Many bathroom sinks have a stopper which is activated by a knob or handle. In these cases, you will need to remove the stopper by reaching under the sink, detaching the trip leaver that raises and lowers the stopper, and then removing the leaver and stopper. Sometimes, the blockage occurs where the trip leaver connects with the stopper. Clearing this debris may solve the problem.
If that is not the case and you can not insert the end of the augur into the drain opening, you will need to remove part of the drain line called the “trap” from below the sink or lavatory. The trap looks like the print letter U. It helps keep fumes from the sewer from coming into your home because it holds a small amount of water that blocks the sewer gas. You can remove the trap by using a channel lock pliers or pipe wrench to loosen the chrome or plastic hexagonal nuts that hold the drain line together and also compresses the gaskets that prevent leakage. Sometimes the blockage occurs because debris gets lodged in the trap but more often it is further down in the drain line.
Tip: if the drain has been in place for a long time, the locking nuts (particularly metal ones) may be rusted and break into pieces. If so, you will need to replace them with nuts of the correct diameter. The gaskets may also have deteriorated and need to be replaced so there will be no leakage. You can get an assortment of gaskets and locking nuts from any hardware or building supply center. Occasionally the drain line itself will have deteriorated and need to be replaced.
Tip: You should place a pan or other container under the trap to catch contents from the trap and the drain line to keep spillage from the floor or bottom of the cabinet.
Once the trap is removed, insert the end of the drum augur into the drain line and follow the operating directions in the above description. When you think you have loosened the debris, pull the augur cable in and out a few times while continuing to turn it clockwise and then withdraw the augur from the drain line. You can either reconnect the trap and drain line or insert a garden hose into the drain line to test whether you have penetrated the blockage. Once you get water to flow through the drain line, you may want to run the augur in again to further dislodge the blockage.
Reassemble the trap or reinstall the sink stopper. Be sure the brass or plastic nuts holding the drain line together are snugly tightened with a good gasket in place, but do not over tighten.
Tip: Before replacing things you may have stored underneath the sink or lavatory, run water threw the line and check to see if there are any leaks. If there are leaks, slightly tighten the nut where the leak is found. This usually will stop any drips. If dripping persists, it may mean that the gasket needs to be replaced.
Tip: before storing the drum augur, rinse the augur cable off with warm clear water as contents from the drain line will sometimes adhere to the cable. Allow the augur to dry before returning it into the canister to prevent it from rusting.
Steps to Unstop Tub or Shower Drains
You can try to clear the stoppage by using the chemical or herbal drain line cleaner as described above. If this is not successful, follow the next steps.
Before you begin, put on the protective thin surgical gloves to protect your hands. The procedure is much the same as for unstopping sink or lavatory drains except that the trap underneath the tub or shower is usually not easily accessible. For the tub, you will need to remove the stopper and run the augur into the drain line where the stopper was. For showers, you will need to remove a slotted covering over the drain at the bottom of the shower. These are usually held in place with a couple of screws around the outer edge of the drain cover. Insert the drum augur as described above, and if the blockage is not too severe or too far down the drain line, you should be successful in unstopping the drain line.
Tip: Before putting the tub stopper or drain cover back in place, run some warm water through the line to wash away as much of the debris as possible and to make sure the water is draining away at a sufficient rate.
Tip: As above, rinse the drum cable and allow it to dry before putting it away for storage to be certain that any debris has been washed off and the cable does not rust.
Unclogging Stopped-up Toilets
Begin by putting on thin surgical gloves to protect your hands. Often times, using a toilet plunger will open the blockage by dislodging the contents if they are stuck in the trap at the bottom of the toilet. Depress the plunger, place the plunger over the drain at the bottom of the toilet, then, pull up on the plunger handle. If the debris is not too compacted, this may loosen the blockage by pulling the clog back toward the plunger rather than compacting the clogged debris into a solid mass. If this technique does not loosen the blockage after you have tried several times, place the plunger against the bottom of the toilet bowl keeping the handle as near to vertical as you can. Work the plunger up and down. The plunger will tend to form a seal with the toilet bowl which helps increase the downward pressure on the blockage. If after a number of vigorous attempts this doesn’t work, follow the next step.
Use the closet augur as described above. This will most often, but not always dislodge the blockage. If it does not succeed, it may mean that the blockage is further down the drain line than the augur can reach. You may have to try to find a “clean out” opening to the sewer line which should be located somewhere below the pipe coming down from the toilet. You would need to remove a cover with a wrench and would most likely need to use a stiffer cable.
Tip: Be sure to rinse off the plunger and augur and let the cable dry before storing it.
If the line was installed a number of years ago and there are trees in the surrounding area, tree roots may have grown into the sewer line. This usually requires a powered cutter blade inserted into the line. It may be more practical in that case to hire a company like Roto-Rooter to do the work. Also, in older installations, the sewer pipe under ground may have been broken which would mean that the sewage might be leaking into the ground which could contaminate the soil surrounding the pipe. In this case, the line might have to be repaired or replaced.
If you have been successful in unclogging the drain line, you can feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing that you have solved a significant problem. And, you will also have saved some money. Best yet, you will come away with a sense of satisfaction in knowing that you have accomplished something that many have been fearful of attempting.
If you have any home repair questions, comments, or advice, feel free to post them on our Home Repairs Message Board.