There are many things that can clog a drain, but fortunately there are many ways to open the clog too. Here’s an overview of some common causes and cures.
Clogged Drain Prevention
To avoid clogging drains, use a drain strainer to trap food particles and hair. You should also collect grease in empty tin cans rather than pouring it down the drain because the hot grease will simply cool further down the drain and create problems. Pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain weekly to melt any fat or grease that may be building up in the pipe. Or, weekly put some vinegar and baking soda down your drain to break down fat and keep your drain smelling fresh.
A time-honored drain opener is the plunger. This inexpensive tool will usually break up the clog and allow it to float away. However, it may take more than a few plunges to loosen the debris in the pipe. It is important to note that you should not use this method after any commercial drain opener has been used or is still present in the standing water.
If you are plunging a bathroom sink, the overflow hole on the sink needs to be covered. This hole is usually at the top front of the sink, but sometimes it’s at the back. Take a small rag or a portion of a small rag and push it into this overflow so it’s tight in the hole. This allows the air being forced by the plunger to go into the drain rather than out this opening.
If you are plunging a kitchen sink and it’s a double bowl, the same process needs to be done to the basket strainer opposite the one you're plunging. Of course, this will require a larger rag. Just ball it up to the size of the basket strainer and hold it over the basket strainer while you plunge.
If you are plunging a bathtub, the overflow plate needs to be removed. Unscrew the two screws and lift out the linkage attached to the overflow, pulling it up gently. There may be hair attached to the barrel at the bottom of this part that you should clean off. When the overflow is removed, stuff a rag into the hole. Push it in tight and plunge away.
Grease Buildup Removal
Dissolve one pound of baking soda in three gallons of boiling water and pour down drain. To avoid burns from boiling water, hold the water container close to the drain and pour slowly and directly into opening. For heavy grease buildup, use a commercial drain opener. Exercise extreme caution when using these chemicals and follow label instructions exactly. Commercial drain openers can also be used to clear hair buildup from bathroom drains.
Before using any commercial drain opener, check the drain pipes, including the P-trap under the sink. Commercial drain openers can eat through old metal and some plastic pipes and they are very dangerous to clean up if a pipe or trap gets eaten through. This plumber recommends not using a commercial drain opener at all on your own.
Baking Soda and Vinegar Treatment
Pour 1/2 cup of baking soda down the drain. Add 1/2 cup of white vinegar and cover the drain if possible. Let it set for a few minutes, then pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to flush it. The combination of baking soda and vinegar can break down fatty acids into soap and glycerin, allowing the clog to wash down the drain. Again, do not use this method after any commercial drain opener has been used or is still present in the standing water.
Salt and Baking Soda Treatment
Pour 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of baking soda down the drain. Follow with six cups of boiling water and let it sit overnight before you flush it with water. The hot water should help dissolve the clog and the baking soda and salt serve as an abrasive to break through.
Mechanical Snake Use
A flexible metal snake can be purchased or rented to break up any obstructions in the pipe. It is threaded down the clogged drain pipe and manually hooks into the clog to pull it out, or pushes it away. Withdraw the auger when it’s done its work and flush the pipe with the water turned on full. With some luck, it may save you the expense of a plumber.
If you are using a flexible metal snake on a lavatory, and you are putting it down the top of the sink drain, the pop-up must be removed. The pop-up is usually attached under the sink.
The nut that holds the metal rod to the drain assembly needs to be removed as well. Lift the rod, hold on to the pop-up from the top of the sink, and then remove the rod and the pop-up. Leave the rod out until you are ready to fill the sink and check to see if the drain is open.
You can also snake a drain further down. Remove the P-trap under the sink and the tail piece attached to the drain pipe; then, you can insert the snake into the pipe from there. It can be very difficult to push a snake through a P-trap depending on the length of the snake and depending on how many elbows are on the drain line.
Make sure to wear a pair of gloves, bring a couple of rags, and have a small garbage bag or shopping bag with you to put the hair or grease in when you remove the snake.
If your P-trap nuts are old and hard to remove, consider calling a local plumber. We know the tricks of removing them, and if they break in the process, we usually have replacement parts on our service vehicles. It will save you a potential headache. However, if you want to remove the nuts yourself, use channel lock pliers instead of a pipe wrench.
Old metal P-traps are usually rotting, so it is recommended that you replace them with plastic ones if you can. Most bathroom sinks use 1 1/4-inch P-traps, but some are 1 1/2-inch.
Mark Vander Sande, professional plumber, contributed to this article.