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How to unclog a drainpipe

Clogged drains are a common home plumbing problem and can occur in your sink, tub or toilet. The culprits are often food scraps, grease, hair, soap scum, and products labeled as “flushable.” Knowing how to prevent clogged drains will help keep your plumbing system in good shape. Learning how to unclog a drain will also help you avoid an expensive service call from the plumber.

Does drain cleaner work?

Your first instinct might be to use a chemical drain cleaner, but chemicals should be used only as a last resort and may do more harm than good. 

When you pour the drain cleaner down your sink or bathtub, the chemicals combine with the clog and cause a reaction that generates heat. This heat helps to dissolve the clog or liquefy it so that it can slide down your drain.  Unfortunately, that heat doesn’t just affect the clog; it also can damage your pipes, especially if they are made of plastic (and it will do the same thing to your skin if you get any on you).

Lye is the active ingredient in most store-bought drain cleaners. Small amounts of lye are reasonably safe. But too much of a good thing could be dangerous. Strong drain cleaners aren’t safe when used in large quantities. Make sure to follow the directions on the label to the letter.

Drain-cleaning alternatives to harsh chemicals

The next time you have a clogged drain, remember that several natural unclogging options are available:

  • Vinegar and baking soda   The vinegar is an acidic chemical, and baking soda is a natural cleansing product. Mix these two ingredients (1 cup each) over the clogged drain. The mixture will fizz. Let the mixture sit overnight. In the morning, flush the drain with hot water.
  • Hot water and dish soap  Boil some water and mix in a few tablespoons of dish soap. Then slowly pour the mixture down the drain. The hot water will help to liquefy the clog, and the soap will help it to slide down the drain.

Tools used to unclog drains

There are other methods for unclogging a drain without chemicals using common tools you can purchase at any DIY or big box store.

1. A shop vac: This heavy-duty wet/dry vacuum is very effective at getting rid of clogs.

  • Remove your drain stopper and insert the end of the vacuum hose into the drain. Try to make the seal airtight if possible.
  • Set the vacuum to exhaust and turn it on. You will hear a high-pitched hum at first, but you will notice a distinct change in sound once the drain unclogs.
  • If there is no change in sound after 15 seconds, switch to suction then back to exhaust to mimic a powerful plunger. The added force will unclog your drain and the suction should catch the debris.
  • Clean up the mess (have a few towels ready) and enjoy your unclogged sink.

2. A cup plunger: This small plunger has a flat rim and creates a seal over the sink’s hole to apply the pressure needed to dislodge the clog. 

  • Close off any overflows (use a wet cloth or rag compressed over the opening).
  • Make sure the sink contains enough water to submerge the head of the plunger and gently depress the cup over the drain opening. 
  • Maintain a seal and plunge up and down rapidly, then forcefully pull the plunger off the hole to dislodge the clog.

3. A drain snake: This tool removes hair trapped in sinks, showers and bathtub drains.

  • Push the end of the snake into the drain opening and turn the handle on the drum that contains the coiled-up snake.
  • Keep pushing more of the snake into the drain until you feel resistance. You may have to apply pressure when cranking the handle to get it to bend around the tight curve in the trap under the sink. After turning the curve, the snake usually slides through easily until you hit the clog.
  • Rotate the snake against the blockage until you feel it feed freely into the pipe. If you don’t feel the auger breaking through and the twisting getting easier, pull the auger out of the drain — you’ll probably pull the clog out with it.
  • Run water full force for a few minutes to be sure that the drain is unclogged. (Sometimes the clog flushes down the drain; at other times, the clog comes out attached to the snake.)

Tips to prevent future drainage problems

While you may not be able to stop every drain clog, there are steps you can take to prevent most clogs and inconvenient backups. 

The best way to keep drains clear is to be careful about what you put in them:

  • Pour NO grease into drains! Save cooking grease in an old coffee can or cardboard milk container and dispose of it in the trash.
  • Don’t treat your kitchen drain like a landfill. For example, throw coffee grounds away in the garbage or add them to your mulch pile.
  • Use a screen or drain grate to cover the drain’s opening and minimize problems with hair and soap scum.
  • Allow no wipes in the pipes or any products claiming to be flushable. Place them in the trash instead.

Time and cost of repair

Most clogs are relatively easy and inexpensive to take care of with minimal cost other than the drain snake. The average DIYer should be able to take care of a clog in under an hour. If the clog won’t budge and chemicals have failed, a pro will get an hour to multiple hours tied up with powered augers normally required, costing anywhere from $300 to $2,000. A pro will typically have video inspection cameras that can be used to inspect the drains. 

Get a remote diagnosis with Anew

A persistent clog could signal a larger problem such as an impacted clog, intruding tree roots, a cracked or broken sewer line, or a sag in the drain line. You might consider a professional option. Anew offers an easy, efficient and affordable repair service with remote diagnosis for only $20.

Get a remote diagnosis

Video chat with an expert to pinpoint your home’s issues, then get them repaired fast.

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Get a remote diagnosis

Video chat with an expert to pinpoint your home’s issues, then get them repaired fast.

Start My Repair

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