How To Unclog Your Drains Safely

It’s probably one of the most common plumbing issues that homeowners encounter. Our technicians help customers fix clogged drains of all types nearly every day. Sometimes a clog can be simple, and sometimes it requires some heavy-duty equipment. The simple blockages, you can often clear yourself if you use the right tools and methods. But as you’ll see, you can also do some damage if you’re not careful.

What Clogs Drains?

The truth is that drain clogs are usually our fault. We wash a lot of stuff down our sinks and toilets that is destined to build up and eventually cause water to drain slowly, not at all, or—every party guest’s nightmare—overflow. Here are just a few of the things that may be building up, unseen, in your drains right now:

  • Hair
  • Soap residue
  • Hard water buildup
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Fat, oil, or grease
  • Small objects, like toys, hairpins
  • Rags
  • Cat litter

Usually, a clog in a sink, tub, or toilet drain occurs in the trap, a curved section of pipe about six inches below the drain that keeps sewer gasses from bubbling up into your home. It’s in those curves where stuff gets lodged.

A Warning about Liquid Drain Cleaners

Chemical drain cleaners usually aren’t enough to take care of large, physical blockages; they’ll help dissolve hair and gunk at best. And harsh chemicals can damage the finish or appearance of your sink, not to mention the environmental damage they can do. And if they don’t work, then you’re stuck with a chemical soup you need to deal with while you attempt to clear the drain some other way.

Method 1: Baking Soda and Vinegar

This method works for tub, shower, and sink drains, using the same household kitchen ingredients you might have used for that volcano model you build for your middle school science fair. Here’s what you need:

  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • Pot of boiled water

Remove the drain stopper in your sink or bath if you can. If there’s a strainer over the drain, see if you can’t remove that, too. Then sprinkle the baking soda into the drain and pour the vinegar over the top.

The reaction between these household chemicals produces a bubbling effect that could help loosen the clog, and it doesn’t produce any harsh gases, just carbon dioxide. Once the fizzing stops, pour your piping hot water down the drain. You might see some debris float up, but after a while it should start to drain.

Method 2: Plunger

This method can work for toilets, tubs, showers, and sinks that have more stubborn clogs. A good old plunger can help loosen up a clog or pull up any debris that’s blocking the drain. For a sink drain, you may want to try a smooth-bottomed sink plunger to work it out.

Make sure the plunger has a good seal around the edges of the drain and work it up and down. If you’re doing it correctly, you should feel some resistance from the vacuum created by the plunger, which helps push the blockage back and forth. If it works, you’ll start to see any standing water start to drain down, or the blockage could come up out of the drain.

 Method 3: Dismantle the Drain Trap

This method really only works with traps that you can get to easily, like those under the sink cabinet. Be careful to use the right tools and clear out anything under the sink before you start working.

Grab the largest bucket you can find and place it under the curved drain pipe under the sink. Using your pipe-joint wrench to loosen the threaded collars that hold the trap to the sink drain and drainpipe; often you can do this by hand if it isn’t too stuck. Any water in the drain will spill out into the bucket.

Once you have the trap out, you can probably see whether the blockage is in there and remove it. After that, just replace the trap and hand tighten the collars.

Method 4: Snake the Drain

I caution to recommend this, but since people are often intent on trying it anyway and often damage their plumbing doing it wrong, I’ll mention it. You should only snake a drain as a last resort, and even then only with the right tools. Honestly, I recommend calling us if you’re in the Tampa area or another professional if you’re not in our service area. If you’re determined to do it yourself, here are some tips:

Most people don’t have a drain auger or “snake” to push down into their sink or toilet. The good news is that most sink blockages aren’t that far down, so you can use a plastic drain stick to reach them. They’re flexible, cheap, plastic sticks with little barbs all over them that can flex around pipe bends and snag whatever is blocking your drain.

DO NOT use a coat hanger or other metal object to clear a drain. If your drainpipe is corroded or old, you could poke a hole in it, causing water damage below the sink or in your wall and floor.

Hopefully one of these methods works for you. If not, give us a call, and we’ll rush to come over and diagnose the problem to get it fixed and get your sink, tub, toilet, or shower back in service right away.

Amanda Peters frequently washes things down her drains that she shouldn’t, and therefore has plenty of experience cleaning drains. When she isn’t writing, she’s working on projects around her house and giving plumbing advice to her less handy friends and family.