Plumbing Repairs

How to Safely Unclog Drains without Harming Pipes

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"How to Safely Unclog Drains without Harming Pipes"
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Clogged drains are a pain where one sits (sometimes quite literally). There are basically two types of drains in a home, large diameter and small diameter.

The large diameter drains are primarily the toilet and the primary drain system from the toilet out to the sewer line or septic tank. Most are 3" or 4" in diameter, although in some commercial or apartment buildings you could find larger lines.

The small diameter drains are the sinks, tubs and showers, and laundry drains. They are primarily 1 " and 2" lines. They will be the subject of this article.

Much has been written on Helium and elsewhere about how to clear a clog, and there are some thoughts on using plungers. I have yet to see anyone address the fact that if you use a plunger as directed you are applying only a small percent of the available force available from the tool.

Let's look at the small diameter drain, and a bathroom sink in particular, since this is the most common problem. There is a drain at the lowest point of the sink bowl. If there is a drain plug operated by a rod up by the water faucet, the FIRST thing to do is to clear that plug, since probably 75% of all bathroom sink problems are centered around the drain plug.

If the stoppage is not so bad that the sink is full of standing water, skip this paragraph. If there is standing water, either wait a while to see if it goes down on its own, or use a towel or large sponge to remove the water and flush it down the toilet. Squeamish folk might want to use rubber gloves. Get as much water out as possible. The more you get out now the less you will get in your face in the next step.

In my experience, the closer you look to the drain plug, the more likely you are to find the stoppage. For this reason, you should start with the drain plug and work your way down the drain line.

Clear out all the stuff hidden under the sink in the cabinet that has not been reorganized in years. You are going under there, so make room. I think that is one telling argument in favor of pedestal sinks.

Tools needed: Large pliers or medium size channel lock type pliers, a couple clean hand towels or rags, and a bucket or low dish pan that will fit under the drain pipes without tilting too much. A flashlight or small light of some sort may be needed, but do not to use a 120 volt plug-in lamp, as the light bulb may explode if water splashes on it, creating a serious risk of shock.

Ready? First, raise the drain plug and insert something under the lip. An ice cream stick is perfect, or anything similar will work. I have even used the handle of a spoon in a pinch. The idea is to keep the plug partially open to allow easy removal.

Now get down and get under. Locate the bottom of the sink and the tube that comes down from the drain. A few inches down from the bottom of the sink there will be a rod from the tube out towards the control rod that comes down from the faucet. There will be one of a variety of links connecting the two. You will see some sort of ring around the rod holding it to the drain tube. It may be plastic with tabs on the sides for grip. If so, use your hand to unscrew the ring and free the rod. If the ring is metal, you may need to use the pliers or channel locks to loosen the ring. In either case, free the rod and remove it, but do so slowly and carefully. If there is any water standing in the tube you want to release it slowly so it runs down the tube and falls into the bucket or dish pan and not your face.

There usually is hair and soap scum on the end of the rod and the ball on the rod. Clean the rod and ball, either with a rag or a paper towel.

You are now ready to remove the drain plug from the sink. Lift up on the ice cream stick (or whatever you used to prop it open), and pull it straight up. Be sure to note how the plug was installed. There will be a hole or rectangle opening at the bottom of the plug. It could be centered, but if it is offset, note how it was positioned so you can replace it the way it came out. Usually the bottom of the plug will be wrapped in hair, which you can remove with a rag or paper towels. You have probably just cleared your blockage, but you better test to be sure. Get back under the sink and insert the rod back in the down tube. Tighten the ring. Hand tight is usually sufficient. Run the water and see how it drains.

If the water drains without backing up into the sink you have solved your problem. Remove the rod again and replace the plug. Be sure to get it orientated correctly. Now install the rod so that it goes through the hole in the plug. To test this, open the plug with the rod, then pull up on the plug with your fingers. If the rod is installed correctly, the plug will lift a fraction of an inch, but remain captured in the drain. If the plug comes out in your hand, you missed the hole. Try it again. If all is well, tighten the ring until it is snug but still allows the rod to move up and down without forcing.

I hope that did it for you. Your drain is now open.

What you say? Better, but still partly plugged, or completely plugged if you let the water run a short while. OK, on to step two.

Do you have a tape snake? If not, get one. It is a flat plastic tape about inch wide, with some form of teeth along the edges. They are 2 to 3 feet long. They are available at most home improvement centers, hardware stores, and plumbing supply stores. In my neighborhood, the chain grocery store carries them. They are cheap, from $2 to $5.

The instructions with the tape are usually good. Simply slide it down into the drain system as far as you can, then pull it out. It will come out with a bunch of scummy stuff which you need to wipe off. Do this several times until the tape comes out clean. Or at least reasonably clean. After all, you are working with a drain line. Just be careful as you wipe the tape. A few brands have teeth that are sharper than a shark's tooth. If you cut yourself, wipe the wound with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide for now. Clean and apply an antibiotic when the job is finished.

Some combinations of drains and snake tapes are hard to work around the drain plug. It is often easier to get under and pull the drain plug out again. Remember to reinstall the rod before you run the water or you will have a watery mess under the sink.

Everything back together now? OK, you know you are clean out as far as the tape will reach, which is usually well into the pipes in the wall. If you are still experiencing slow draining, it may be time to bring out the big guns. If you are working with a sink on a first floor and on an outside wall, look on the wall outside for a cleanout plug. They are usually easily identified by having a plug about 2 inches in diameter, often with a large square head. They are normally on an outside wall about level with or slightly below floor level. I have seen them at ground level, and once found one coming straight up out of the ground, although that that one was probably one of a kind (everything else about that house was "one of a kind").

Occasionally you may find a sink on a wall that backs up to a garage or closet. Once in a while there is a cleanout in the garage or closet, so look. Many older houses do not have cleanouts. The codes have changed over the years and cleanouts were not always required in the past.

At this point, you can do one of three things, either rent or buy a snake, use a "blaster' type drain cleaner, or call a plumber. If you know enough about using a power snake to tackle a drain, you are probably not reading this article. Hand powered snakes are available, usually inch cable with some sort of adjustable handle used to crank it. They are available up to 25 feet long.

The hand snake is easy to use outside where it can be uncoiled and laid out behind you. It goes in by cranking and pushing it down the line, adjusting the crank as necessary. Remove it by cranking and pulling. You will end up with a long line that is a mess and needs to be hosed off before you coil it up again. There are a couple of designs available that incorporate a housing, crank and feed device all in one. They are easier to use, especially in the house under a sink. Remember to hose it off before storing it.

A blaster type drain opener is a device that you screw on the end of a garden hose and insert in the line. When you turn on the hose, the device swells to form a seal against the pipe, then starts to pulsate to break up the clog and flush it down the line.

These devices come in 3 sizes, one for 3 to 4 inch main lines and two smaller ones for sink size drains. I own all three, but I have never used the smallest one. For most sink type cleanouts, the middle size works. They are not too expensive, in the $10 to $20 range. Drain King is one brand and works well, but there are several other brands available. Around hear, drain king has become a generic name for these devices.

Just be sure when you use the unit that you screw it on your hose securely, and that the hose is in good condition. Nothing will spoil your day worse than going to pull the hose out and have the fitting tear off the end of the hose, leaving the cleanout device several feet down your drain line.. Also, relieve the pressure in the hose by waiting a few minutes after shutting off the water for the device to clear itself, or by loosening the hose at the faucet.

To properly use this device, it must be inserted into the line far enough to pass the point at which the drain from the sink joins with the line.

It is prudent when using one of these devices to have an assistant inside watching the sinks, tubs, and showers for water backing up. If the water is backing up, in indicates that you do not have the device far enough down the line. Since there is a limit as to how far you can push a hose down a line and still be able to pull it back out with the device attached, I suggest a conservative approach. The do-it-yourself approach can suddenly get very expensive if you have to call out a plumber to open a line to get your blaster out.

For sinks without a cleanout, you can get under again and remove the trap under the sink. Normally this entails loosening the large ring nut where the tube enters the drain pipe coming out of the wall. In addition you will have to loosen the similar ring nut where the trap hooks up with the sink drain tube. Most traps have a union type joint where the tube from the drain pipe turns down. Loosen the union joint and remove the trap by carefully wiggling it down. Keep your dish pan under the trap because it is full of water and you want to carefully dump it in the pan and not on the floor. Once the trap is out of the way, remove the tube that is in the wall drain pipe. Check the condition of the various washers and replace any that are cracked or broken.

From this point, you can use a small blaster or even a hand snake.

You will note that up until now I have not turned to a plunger. The reason is simple. In most parts of the country, code requires that there be a vent in the drain system within a few feet of a sink, and most sinks actually have a vent in them. No matter how hard you work with a plunger, most of your effort is simply pushing air and a small amount of water up and down in the vent. If your blockage is before the vent, the plunger will work. The type of sinks that can sometimes benefit from a plunger are a kitchen sink and a laundry tub. Shower and bath tubs can also benefit, but not always.

If you have a plunger and just have to pump it, there is one thing you can do that will put much more power in your stroke. Locate the overflow hole in your sink. It will be a hole in the basin either behind the faucet outlet or somewhere under the front lip of the sink. Clean and dry the area well, then put several pieces of duct tape over the hole. Now try the plunger, carefully. Since there is no vent now for the air to escape, it may try to get out around the rim of the plunger. If this happens, expect to receive a shower of dirty water.

You can place a towel around the plunger to control that shower. Another problem may be that there will be enough pressure to blow off the duct tape. If so, have an assistant hold a rag over the tape and press on it while you plunge.

Best practice with a plunger is to use it to create a vacuum. Push it down slowly as far as you can, then pull up sharply. This applies the force in an opposite direction to the stoppage. That means that the stuff causing the blockage was going down the pipes, so creating a vacuum is pulling the stuff out the way it came in, instead of trying to force it on down the line. Once the stoppage is broken up, it usually will pass on down the line with little or no further problems.

Showers almost always clog with hair in the trap. The first step is to pour a cup of household bleach down the drain. Let it sit for about 15 minutes, then flush it with hot water. Sometimes this all that is needed to clear the line. If the clog is still there, use your plunger. Remember to pull up for best results. Since a shower drain does not have a removable plug, your next step usually involves the tape snake. It can be a challenge to get down the line with some drain designs. Some have a round drain screen held in place with a couple of screws. Remove this screen before you start on the shower. Occasionally you will see the clog just under the screen, and can pull it out with a long nosed pliers or a piece of coat hanger wire.

Tubs are like shower drains, except they have a plug built in under the tub, and a vent where the drain handle is attached. To plunge, clean and tape the vent around the lever. Some older tubs use a removable rubber stopper. Just set it aside and proceed as if it were a shower. It is sometimes difficult to work the tape past a built-in stopper.

Laundry tubs frequently plug up from lint from the washing machine, Easiest way to deal with that is to pour a couple cups of bleach down the line and let it sit for half an hour before flushing with hot water. You may have to do this more than once. Or use the plunger after the first flushing. If the sink is a double or divided sink, you must block the opening to the second drain. An easy way to do this is to place a rag over the drain and place a can of something over the rag. Cat food cans usually work well. Press down and it will block the drain enough for the plunger to work. If necessary, the tape snake is usually easy to work into this type of drain. Before using the washer again, tie an old nylon stocking over the end of the drain hose to catch the lint and prevent future problems.

Kitchen sinks are similar to laundry tubs except that you must work on the side that does not have the disposal unit. The disposal usually has a drain stopper provided and you can slip it in place and hold it with one hand. Kitchen sinks that do not respond to bleach and plunger methods described above may have to be dissembled under the sink to get a tape snake to work. Look to see if the drain tube from the side you are clearing goes straight down with the disposal line coming in at a 90 degree angle. If so, attack it with the tape. If the two sink tubs run into a common drain running from one side to the other with a drain line in the middle heading for the trap, you will need to remove the trap to be able to use the tape. See the section on bathroom sinks for general instructions. Kitchen sinks can be plumbed in so many ways that it is impossible to give more than general instructions.

On rare occasions the outlet line of a disposal may clog, while the other side of the sink works fine. Assuming you have run water into the disposal with it running and not cleared the clog, then use a plunger. A couple of good upstrokes should clear the problem. If not, you will want to remove the drain tube coming out of the unit to be able to clear it. Never try to run a tape or any other type of snake through a disposal. You will get stuck and it could lead to burning out the disposal.

By now you either have a clear line or a serious problem. If the drain is clear, put everything back together and go on with your life. If the line is still plugged you most likely will need to call in a professional. Take heart. The pro would likely start by doing most of the steps you just did, so you have saved an hour or so of billable time off your bill. At the price plumbers are getting in most urban areas, you just saved enough to take your better half to dinner and a show.


More about this author: Bob Powelson