How to Clean a Clogged Drain: A Complete Guide
Clogged drains are inevitable in your sink and toilet. They happen to everyone, but how you treat them is what matters. Knowing how to clean a clogged drain and when to leave it to professionals is the key to preventing more severe problems.
Reasons Drains Clog
If you notice your sink draining slowly or the shower accumulates water, you’re likely dealing with a clogged drain. The faster you clear the drain, the less work it will need, and you may even avoid a call to the plumber.
But why do drains clog? Here are the most common reasons.
Your kitchen sink isn’t the garbage. If your family doesn’t scrape their plates before putting them in the sink, you could be creating a clogged drain. Large food scraps can instantly clog a kitchen sink, but even small things like coffee grounds and eggshells can clog it as they accumulate.
Instead of putting food down the drain, even with a garbage disposal, scrape plates into the garbage and then rinse them. If crumbs or remnants of sauces get down the drain, they won’t clog, but other large food items will.
Grease and Oil
If you cook with oil, even a small amount going down the drain can be harmful. You won’t see the effects today, though. Instead, the fat or grease builds up on the pipes and eventually clogs the drain. If you accidentally send food down the pipe and they are already caked with grease, it could be a recipe for disaster.
Instead, capture grease and oil in a container before washing your dishes or pans to avoid clogging your drains and pipes.
Everyone loses around 100 strands of hair a day, sometimes more, and the shower is the number one place they get loose. If the accumulation of hair becomes too much, it could clog your drain. This is especially true if it combines with other things like soap, grease, or other debris.
To avoid hair clogging your drain, add a strainer that catches hair in the shower and tub, especially if you bathe your pets in the tub. This will catch hair, preventing it from going down the drain and causing clogged drains.
Soap is probably the last thing you’d think would clog your drain, but many soaps are made with animal fats, which, you guessed it, can clog your drain. Just like grease, the fat can line your pipes, giving less room for anything else to get down them.
If you see a lot of soap scum on your sink or shower walls or your drain seems slower than normal, check your soap ingredients and consider switching to a soap that doesn’t contain animal fat.
Items Besides Toilet Paper in the Toilet
The toilet isn’t a catch-all for anything you want to get rid of; it should only be used for its intended purpose. Paper towels, most feminine products, wipes, and even cat litter do not belong in your toilet; they will cause a clogged drain.
These items cannot dissolve enough to get down the drain and pipes, causing a clogged toilet, which usually requires the assistance of a professional plumber.
If your home has hard water, it can easily clog the drains. You should know if your home has hard water, but if you aren’t sure, here are some signs:
- Filmy residue on plates, shower walls, and even your skin
- Dry, itchy scalp and skin
- Stiff clothing after washing
- Frequently clogged drains
Hard water leaves behind mineral deposits, which, like grease, begin to line the pipes. Over time, the pipes become so corroded that they get clogged and require cleaning.
To avoid this, consider adding a water softener to your home to reduce the water’s hardness level.
Reasons to Clean a Clogged Drain
If your drain isn’t 100% clogged, meaning you can still use the sink, shower, or tub, you might wonder why you should clean a clogged drain.
It might be tempting to put the job off, but here are some good reasons to clean it immediately.
- Bad odors – Clogged drains mean whatever you put down the drain isn’t going down, and it sits in the pipes. You can imagine what happens with old food, grease, and even remnants of skin and hair. They begin to stink! The odor can make you feel less than clean after showering, leave a stench on your clothes, and could cause the entire room to stink.
- Water overflow – If water cannot get down the drain properly, it will eventually overflow. You can’t predict when that will happen and if you will be there to see it. Even if you are, you may not be able to stop it, which could mean water damage to your floors, cabinets, and walls. If the water damage is extensive, mold can grow within 24 – 48 hours!
- Plumbing problems – A clogged drain means more than the water cannot get down. If there is too much pressure on the pipes, it could easily cause leaks or burst pipes, which then leaves you with much larger problems that only a plumber can handle.
6 Ways to Clean a Clogged Drain
So now that you know how important it is to clean a clogged drain. Here are the top ways to do it.
1. Boiling Water
First, assess the clog. Is the water draining slowly or not at all? If you notice the water drains slowly but gets down, you don’t have a complete clog yet. This is the best-case scenario and the perfect time to clean a clogged drain.
Start with boiling water. Boil a half gallon to a gallon of water and carefully pour it down the clogged drain, avoiding splashing it on your body or face. After pouring all the water down the drain, run the tap for approximately five minutes on hot water.
This may be enough to clear the clog if it was grease, soap, or mineral buildup.
2. Pull the Stopper
If you’re trying to clear a tub or bathroom sink, try pulling out the stopper and cleaning it. Sometimes the clog is right at the stopper; it never went down the drain to clog it completely. This is common with hair clogging the drain. You may have to unscrew the pivot rod at the sink’s base to loosen the stopper and lift it to inspect it.
3. Try Dish Soap or Baking Soda
If you think the clog is due to grease, fat, or soap buildup, dish soap, baking soda, and vinegar may do the trick. These substances loosen the grease or soap buildup, allowing it to flow down the pipes and clear the clog.
Be sure to use a dish soap that doesn’t contain animal fats so you don’t worsen the problem. If using dish soap down a drain, start small. The last thing you need is a sudsy overflow causing more damage to your kitchen or bathroom.
To use dish soap, squeeze ½ ounce to an ounce down the drain and follow with boiling water, using the method above, running the tap around five minutes after to clear the drain.
If you don’t want to use dish soap, try baking soda and vinegar, just like you did in middle school to create a volcanic eruption.
Start with ½ cup of baking soda, pour down the drain, and follow it with ½ cup of white vinegar. You’ll see it immediately bubble — that’s good! Next, follow it with boiling water, and let it sit. After an hour, check the results of your attempt to clean a clogged drain.
4. Use a Plunger
Plungers aren’t just for toilets; be sure to have a second plunger handy for the sink.
To plunge a toilet, use a toilet plunger (it should have a toilet flange, an extra piece that fits down the hole). Fit the flange into the hole and hold the plunger at an angle to let water into the plunger. Next, start plunging, pumping approximately ten times, and taking a break. Fill the plunger with water and try again. Repeat until the toilet fills with water again because you’ve cleared the clog.
To plunge a sink, use a sink plunger. They are often much smaller and don’t have the flange. Start with a small amount of water in the sink; if it’s a bathroom sink, cover the overflow hole at the top. Push the plunger down to push water through the drain, uncover the overflow hole, and then release the plunger. Repeat until you unclog the drain.
Please note if you have a double sink, you must cover up one of the drains with a cloth or other item to push the water through the clogged drain.
5. Use a Snake
If the above steps don’t work, you may need to invest in a drain snake or hair removal tool, which is very inexpensive. If you’re dealing with a clogged shower or bathroom sink and think it’s hair, purchase a hair removal tool, which is just a long strip of plastic with barbs meant to catch the hair.
Fish the tool down the drain and slowly pull it out, trying to catch every bit of hair you can on the way out. Clean the tool, and try again until you can pull it out with no hair on it.
Consider investing in a drain snake if you’re dealing with something more than hair. Using this tool takes some patience and time. It’s made of thin, flexible wire that can snake as long as 20 feet into the pipes.
To use the snake, first, remove the P-trap and then slowly insert the snake into the drain. Go slow because you’ll likely get stuck on corners and angles. If this happens, twist the snake until you feel it push through. If you feel something stuck, turn the snake clockwise to help grab the obstruction; once you think you’ve grabbed it, slowly back the snake toward you.
If you don’t feel obstructions, let the snake go in as far as possible. It may be breaking up debris and things clogging the drain that doesn’t need to be backed out, but that slowed down the drains.
When completed, pull the snake out and clean it (it will be gross), and run the water. If it runs smoothly, you can go on with your day. If it isn’t quite draining right, try again.
6. Call a Plumber
If your DIY tricks fail, it’s time to call a plumber. Anything else you might do to the drain and pipes could cause further damage. Plumbers have stronger snakes and know how to handle pipes to remove clogs. While it might not be your first choice, it can prevent even more serious problems from occurring.
What Not to do With a Clogged Drain
Dealing with a clogged drain can be frightening, but it’s not a time to panic. Doing any of the following could cause more expensive issues.
- Pushing the clog through the pipes – If you know there is an obstruction, don’t try to force it through the pipes. This could put too much pressure on them, causing the pipes to burst and creating water damage.
- Using homemade tools – Store-bought snakes or augers are the only tool that should go down the drain. Don’t try wire hangers or any other homemade tools you think will ‘fix the problem.‘ It will make them worse.
- Use drain cleaners – Chemical drain cleaners advertised to ‘clean clogs’ usually make them worse, or they can damage your pipes. If you have a simple clog, clean it yourself, or wait until you can get a plumber to the house.
Ways to Prevent a Clogged Drain
The good news is there are ways to prevent clogged drains. While nothing is 100% certain, these steps can help avoid a serious problem.
- Have a grease container handy – Always have an empty container handy to pour grease into before washing pots and pans. Even a minimal amount of oil or grease can cause a clogged drain.
- Scrape plates – Don’t take chances with any food going down the drain. Take a few seconds to scrape plates, pots, and pans before washing them.
- Drain strainer – Consider a drain strainer on all sinks and showers to catch large particles, including hair, skin, and other debris.
- Mind what you flush – Don’t let anyone in the house flush anything except human waste and toilet paper. Have a garbage can next to the toilet for anything else.
It’s also a good idea to consider annual drain cleaning by a professional plumber. Consider it an investment in your home’s health and avoid any major issues with your drains that could cause more serious problems.
How do you unclog a severely clogged drain?
Call a plumber immediately if the clog is something you don’t think you can handle. Trying methods you aren’t sure will work could worsen the problem. However, if you want to try a method yourself, stick to pouring boiling water down the drain, following it up with hot tap water for five minutes. If this doesn’t seem to loosen the clog, call for help.
Is it okay to pour boiling water down the drain?
Generally, it is safe to pour boiling water down the drain. However, you should never do this if you have PVC pipes, as it could melt them. You should also consider the type of sink you’re pouring the water down. For example, porcelain sinks may crack under the heat, so this method should be avoided.
Is it safe to use baking soda and vinegar to unclog a drain?
Using the baking soda and vinegar trick is effective occasionally, but it shouldn’t be your primary way to clean a clogged drain. Over time, baking soda can cause the pipes to break down because of its abrasive nature. Try other methods first, or call a plumber if you can’t fix the issue.
Knowing how to clean a clogged drain is an important skill for a homeowner. However, remember that some clogs are too much and dangerous to handle. A professional plumber is always only a phone call away and could prevent more serious (and expensive) issues from occurring.