If you find yourself with a backed-up sink, toilet or bathtub drain that a plunger can’t handle, you might need to use a plumbing snake to tackle the clog. The thin metal rods are usually able to take out any blockage that drain-cleaning chemicals or plungers can’t.
While it’s a useful tool, you’ll need to know when and how to properly use one, when not to employ a drain snake and when to call a professional plumbing.
With that in mind, here is a how-to on plumbing snakes to help you get started cleaning out your house’s drains.
Most do-it-yourself snakes used for the home come in lengths between 15 feet and 50 feet and cost about $25 and upwards. Commercial snake models may be longer – about 100 feet – and can include an electric motor to fix sewer drains and other heavy-duty clogs. Smaller ones are typically used for P-traps found under sinks. P-traps are P or U-shaped pipes that keep sewer gases from coming into the house. However, the 90-degree angled pipes also have a tendency to clog.
What Is a Plumbing Snake?
A plumbing snake, also known as a drain snake or drain auger, is a rigid rod featuring tightly-coiled springs wound around it and a pointed metal auger on one end. The springs allow you to hand-crank the snake and rotate the auger end that will grab hair or built-up waste causing drain blockage.
If the trap is backed up, you can clean it out easily. Place a bucket underneath the pipes to catch leakage and, depending on what type of material the P-trap is made of, unscrew the couplings with either a pair of pliers or a pipe wrench. You’ll be able to clean out any of the built-up gunk and debris caught in the trap.
If you plan on using a cable auger, you’ll want to prepare your work space before you start to unclog the drain. Lay down a few bath or beach towels to keep yourself from accidentally slipping and also keep a bucket or pail near you or the drain so you can dispose of any clogs the snake grabs.
You’ll also need a good pair of tough, worker gloves to protect your hands while you crank or twist the auger. Rubber kitchen and bathroom gloves you normally use to clean with will tear on the auger’s coils so make sure you purchase a sturdy pair with reinforced padding in the palms.
The length of the snake you need will depend on the drain that’s blocked. While shorter augers work well for bathroom and kitchen sinks, use closet augers for your toilet and long ones for your bathtub or shower.
How to Use a Snake
Once everything is in place, slowly wind the pointed auger end of the snake into the clogged drain, cranking it as you go until you feel resistance. If you’re unclogging a sink or bathtub, remember to remove any screen or pop-up mechanism from the drain before feeding the auger down the pipe.
After feeling some pushback, pull the snake out of the pipe, dispose of any of the clog culprits and run hot water through the sink or tub to flush the drain. If you used the snake on a toilet, flush it afterward to ensure the auger did its job.
In case the flow of water is still slow, give the snake one more try.
If you’re snaking a bathtub, remove the covering from the overflow drain and feed the snake through that pipe instead of the one on the tub’s floor. According to Do It Yourself, if you pass the auger through the drain in the floor, the snake would go through the pipe’s vents instead of to the clog.
The auger will either be able to cut through the blockage if the clog is big enough or will pull it out of the drain altogether.
You can clear most clogs with a plunger.
It’s inevitable that drains will back up from time to time. Luckily, though, most clogs won’t call for a plumbing snake.
You can get rid of most blockage by simply using a plunger on your pipes. For cleanliness’ sake, purchase separate ones for your kitchen sink, bathtub or shower unit and for your toilet. Make sure to use a plunger with a flanged end instead of the basic bell-shaped type. The rubber flanged end fits into toilets better and gives the plunger more suction power against the bowl and pipes.
If you have a backed up toilet that won’t flush, lay down some towels or cloths to soak up any spillage. Use a pail to pour any of the toilet’s liquid into if the water level is nearly to the top of the bowl.
One tip to keep your plunger from cracking and to improve its suction is to smear petroleum jelly around the ring before taking on any especially tough clogs. To add to the tool’s power, make sure you let the air out of the rubber cup before using it. This can be done by putting the plunger just at the surface of the water until you see bubbles coming out of it. You’ll have stronger suction power after it’s filled with more water than air.
Once you have everything in order, stick the tool in the bowl, apply pressure to the plunger and move it up and down to free up any blockage in the pipes. Check the water level of the toilet to see if it’s resumed normal drainage. If not, continue plunging and flush the toilet afterward to see if the clog is gone.
Meanwhile, a cup-shaped plunger should be used on sinks and shower drains. If you decide to use a flanged one, wrap the sides back up into the rubber cup. To unclog a sink or bathtub properly, turn on the faucet, place a towel or washcloth on the overflow drain and vigorously move the plunger up and down over the main drain once you have some suction force.
Flush the pipes with hot water to rid them of any blockage the plunger loosened.
If you have a drainage problem, but don’t want to get your hands dirty, you could use a gel or liquid clog remover. However, before you buy one, check the back of the bottle to make sure the ingredients won’t harm your system. Some products may contain powerful chemicals that can damage certain types of pipes, including PVC and metal ones.
Always read the cleaner’s label for instructions before using the product. Also, use hand and face protection to keep the chemicals from splashing on you or in your eyes.
Don’t have liquid cleaner under the sink cabinet? Don’t worry. There are some home remedies you can concoct using everyday household items that will work well for drain cleaning. To clean any sink or bathtub drain, simply use vinegar, baking soda and boiling water. These supplies can help your clean out your drains naturally.
Make sure your sink, shower or bathtub is dry and then put about a cup of baking soda into the drain. After that, pour a pot of boiling water down the drain and wait a few minutes for the soda and water to interact. Pour another cup of baking soda down the drain and follow it with a cup of white vinegar before plugging the drain.
You’ll want to plug it as soon as possible to keep the chemical reaction occurring within your clogged pipes instead of foaming up to the surface of the sink or bathtub. Cover the drains for up to 10 minutes and then pour another pot of boiling water down the pipes.
Continue the steps until you notice the sink and bathtub draining properly. The chemical reaction between the baking soda and vinegar creates a flush of bubbles that break up clogs while the boiling water washes the built-up residue down the pipes.
If you don’t have white vinegar around the house, salt and baking soda will work as well. Just substitute table salt for the vinegar by using 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of baking soda and pouring it down a clogged drain. Let it sit for up to 20 minutes in the pipes and then flush the solution down with at least six cups of boiling hot water. Repeat each of the steps until you see the drain working properly.
Save your kitchen drain from clogs by not pouring fat, grease or oils down it.
For a stopped-up toilet, use dish soap and hot water. You’ll need a bucket to remove any excess water if the bowl is full or overflowing. Before starting, make sure the water is very hot, but not boiling. Liquids at a boiling point could crack or damage a toilet bowl.
Squirt a generous portion of dishwashing soap – about a 1/2 cup – into the toilet bowl and then pour approximately a gallon of hot water in it before plugging the hole with your plunger. After that pull the plunger up and the toilet should be unclogged. If not, repeat the process to loosen the blockage.
How to Avoid Clogs
There are things you can do to save yourself from backed-up drains if you find your pipes frequently clogging. First of all, do not use your kitchen or bathroom sink as a disposal. Throw coffee grounds, egg shells, pasta, bread and bones in the garbage. Even if you have a garbage disposal, it’s safer to throw food waste in the trash instead of risking it gumming up your kitchen pipes. Don’t treat your garbage disposal like a trash compactor.
Do not pour fat, grease or oils down your kitchen drain since all these may harden and cause drainage issues for you in the future. Also, do not dispose of construction or home improvement materials like paint or caulk.
You can put your used coffee grounds to work by including them in a compost pile and if you need to get rid of your grease, store it in a coffee can or jar to dispose of later in the trash.
To keep your bathroom drains in good shape, install a mesh screen or hair catcher in your sink and shower to keep loose hairs from balling up in your pipes. Bathing your dog outside instead of in your bathtub or sink will also reduce the amount of hair going down your drains.
When it comes to your commode, only flush toilet paper and natural waste down the drain. Hygienic items that are thicker than normal toilet paper might not dissolve fast enough or at all and end up clogging your lavatory. While toilet paper is designed to break up in water, sanitary napkins and paper towels are formulated to soak up liquids.
Feminine hygiene products, bandages, condoms, cotton balls and swabs should all be thrown away instead of flushed down the drain. Additionally, some items you might think can be flushed are too tough for most toilets to handle. For instance, paper towels and some baby wipes do not dissolve fast enough and might cause your toilet to back up.
To keep you, others and the environment safe, never put medications or razor blades and syringes down your drains. Dispose of those products safely in the garbage.
When to Call a Professional
Sometimes a drain blockage can be too tough even for the average homeowner with a snake auger, plunger, home remedy or other supplies at the ready. If none of the above trouble-shooting measures solved your problem, it might be time to enlist a plumber.
A professional will most likely carry a longer, commercial-grade plumbing auger or even an electric snake and use it to tackle any especially tough clogs. He or she will also be able to tell if you have a more serious block in your sewer line that could be causing your water flow problems.
If multiple drains are blocked and your house has a sewer-like smell, it’s best to call a plumber, according to The New York Times.
This Old House states it’s best to build a relationship with a plumber whose work you find reputable and to keep his or her contact information handy before you have a more serious plumbing problem i.e. no hot water or leaking or frozen pipes.
Having a trusted plumber plugged into your phone can save you the hassle and worries of possibly hiring a poor plumber who may charge too much.