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How to DIY a clogged drain

Updated: Jan 13

It can be a helpless feeling when the kitchen sink won’t drain. With water backing up and a counter full of dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned, it may be tempting to reach for the phone and dial the plumber. Before you do, read these easy, do-it-yourself ways to unclog that drain.

Follow these chemical-free fixes at the first signs of a partial clog, and you can save your sink from ever going out of order and yourself the effort of an even larger repair.

Q: My bathroom sink isn’t draining very well, and it’s driving me crazy. While the water does eventually drain out, it takes a long time and, in the meantime, it’s hard to use a sink full of dirty water. What can be done about the slow sink drain? A: If by the time you finish brushing your teeth, you’re leaning over a sink full of water dotted with toothpaste foam, you face a very common problem: a partial clog. While frustrating, a slow sink drain is easy enough for most homeowners to remedy on their own. The culprit is generally a slimy mixture of soap scum, hair, sticky styling products, and/or thick shaving foam that has accumulated on the drain walls. While you might be tempted to reach for commercial drain openers right off the bat, know that these harsh and corrosive chemicals can irritate your skin and eyes and even harm old pipes. Since removing the blockage often won’t take any chemicals at all, we suggest playing it safe and following the steps outlined here. Clean the stopper. Because of its position at the mouth of the drain and the metal “tail” that extends a couple of inches into the pipe, the sink stopper tends to catch hair, soap, and other debris. Once this trapped ball of grossness gets too big, wham, you have a slow sink drain. In many modern sinks, you can remove the stopper simply by unscrewing it; in some older sinks, though, a small tether holds the stopper in place. Look underneath the sink, right where the basin connects to the pipe, and you’ll typically see a small rod with a nut and clip attached to the pipe. Turn the nut to detach it squeeze the clip to release the rod, and lift the stopper out of the drain. If the stopper is covered in slimy grunge and hair, use a paper towel or rag to thoroughly clean off all of the residues. But don’t replace the stopper just yet; wait until after you’ve remedied the partial clog with one of the following tips.

Melt the sludge. A slimy coating along the inside of the sink’s drainpipe will narrow the opening and slow drainage. Pour one-half cup baking soda into the drain followed by one-half cup white vinegar; the fizzing and bubbling reaction helps to break up small clogs. Block the drain using a small rag so the chemical reaction doesn’t all bubble up out. After 15 minutes, pour a kettle’s worth of boiling water down the drain and run hot water for several minutes to further flush out the melted slime. Lift out debris. If cleaning the drain walls didn’t fix the problem, fish out any accumulated debris with a small hair clog tool (sometimes called a “drain-cleaning tool”). Generally made of flexible plastic, this tool features a long stem with a handle at one end and small barbs at the other for grabbing onto hair and other debris inside the clogged sink drain. With the stopper removed, insert the plastic line down the drain, wiggle it around, and lift it out frequently to wipe off whatever you hook. Continue to do this until you can no longer pull up any blockage. Use a plunger. Sometimes the clog is further down the drain than even a drain-cleaning tool can reach, but a sink plunger can help. For the best results, block the sink’s overflow hole with a small rag. Place your cup-shaped sink plunger over the sink drain. Fill the basin with enough water to cover the plunger’s cup. Now plunge up and down in short, quick movements to force as much air as possible down into the drain. If the clog dislodges, you should see the water in the sink quickly drain away. Snake it. If you’ve tried all of the above steps but are still stuck with a slow sink drain, it’s time to get a bit more aggressive. Pick up a drain snake, also called a drain auger, from the home improvement store (read our roundup of the best drain snakes available for purposes like this). This metal cable extends anywhere from three to 25 feet long with a spiral catch at the other end so you can dislodge clogs located beyond the reach of a sink-cleaning tool or plunger. With the stopper removed, insert the tip of the snake into the sink drain. Feed the snake further down the pipe, periodically retracting it to clean away any accumulated grunge. (Keep a trashcan nearby, as you’ll need somewhere to toss whatever comes out of the drain.) If you feel a block in the pipe, crank the drain snake’s handle to break through and wiggle the tool gently from side to side to catch the clog. Once the snake has a little give again, remove the snake and its contents and flush the drain with hot water. Check the trap. Look underneath your sink and you’ll see a U-shaped bend in the pipe. This is the P-trap, and while its purpose is to maintain a small standing pool of water to prevent sewer gas from backing up into your home, it’s also a prime spot for loose change, lost rings, debris, even lost toys to accumulate. Before starting, turn off the water supply to the sink and clear out any belongings stored under the slow sink drain except for a bucket directly underneath the P-trap to catch dirty water. In most homes, the P-trap is held in place by slip nuts at each end of the curved pipe. These are usually plastic but can be chrome in older houses. Twist the slip nuts counterclockwise with your fingers or a wrench and, once the slip nuts are loosened, lift away the P-trap section of pipe. Use your gloved fingers, a stiff brush, or an unbent coat hanger to push out any apparent blockages. When the job is done, reattach the plumbing, tighten the slip nuts securely, and don’t forget to turn the water back on!

Coat hanger

If you don’t have a plumber’s snake, you can use a wire coat hanger by straightening it. Of course, it won’t reach as far as a plumber’s snake would, but it may be long enough to reach some clogs. Insert it into the kitchen drain or stub pipe to push through or pull out the clog if you can reach it. Be careful not to scratch your sink with the wire.

To keep your sink smelling fresh and running clear, pour in equal parts of vinegar and baking soda on a regular basis. For routine cleaning, you’ll just need about one-half cup of each. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes before running some warm water down the drain. You can also use lemon juice for the same purpose.

Of course, it’s always easier to avoid clogs in the first place. If you have a kitchen garbage disposal, don’t overload it. Feed items in a little at a time, and wait until they grind and run through completely before adding more. Never put bacon grease, coffee grounds, or oils down your kitchen drain, and always make sure you run plenty of water down the drain after each use. It’s important to know how to maintain and care for all your home's plumbing components and systems to keep things running smoothly.

Boiling water

This is the easiest and least expensive solution of all, which makes it the best one to try first. Place a kettle or pot of water on the stove and bring to a rolling boil. While you’re waiting for the water to heat, remove as much standing water from the sink as you can, using a mug or small pot to bail out the water. Then, pour the entire kettle of water into the sink and wait. If the water stands in the sink and the clog doesn’t move, give the water time to cool and remove it to try again. You may need to repeat the process several times to move the clog, but this often works on many types of stoppage.

Salt and boiling water

After removing standing water from the sink, pour about ½ cup of table salt down the drain before you pour in the boiling water. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then flush with hot water to clear the mixture.

Vinegar and baking soda

Again, remove standing water first. Pour about a cup or so of baking soda into the drain, followed by an equal amount of white or apple cider vinegar. The solution will bubble, but when they subside, put the stopper in and wait about 15 minutes. Next, run hot water to see if the clog clears. Repeat if needed.

Baking soda and salt

This is another combination that can work on sink clogs. Mix about a cup of baking soda with a half-cup of salt, and pour down the drain. Let the mixture sit for several hours, then flush with boiling water. You can repeat this process if it doesn’t work the first time.

Keep things flowing with a little preventative maintenance. Since a slow-draining sink is a problem that gradually escalates over time, you can minimize the chance of making a day of this by following a few basic precautions.

  • When you see loose strands of hair in the sink, toss them into the trash rather than washing them down the drain. The same goes for gobs of toothpaste and soap: Better to wipe up than rinse away.

  • If long hair often ends up in the sink, cover the stopper with a plastic or wire mesh hair catcher to collect hair before it goes down the drain during your grooming routine.

  • Knock dirt and any other thick, heavy, or sticky materials into the trash before washing up.

  • Make cleaning the sink stopper a part of your regular bathroom cleaning routine. Lift it out to wipe away hair, scum, and residue weekly.

  • Regularly flush out the drain with very hot water to help melt away soap scum and sludge.

  • Once each month or two, remove the stopper and pour a tablespoon of table salt and a quarter-cup of white vinegar into the drain, flushing the mixture away with hot water. This combination should loosen stubborn grunge before it builds into a clog.

If all fails you could also try these: WHAT ARE SOME SIMPLE WAYS TO FIX A CLOGGED DRAIN? MANUAL EFFORTS One of the first steps to take with a clogged drain is to attempt to remove the blockage with your hands, if feasible. Shower drains, for example, can gather hair and other materials near the top of the drain, but under the screen. To check for a clog in such a position, use a flashlight to illuminate the area under the screen. If you see a potential blockage, safely remove the screen - set aside any screws so they don't fall down the drain or get intermixed with the clog - and, avoiding any sharp edges, manually extract the clog. This form of drain cleaning can also be accomplished with a pair of tongs or other tools to extend your reach. An alternative manual method is using a plunger to try to remove the clog, a mostly self-explanatory effort - just remember plungers work better when they can be submerged in water. There are also plumbing snakes and augers, which can physically reach farther into drains.

A SAFE CHEMICAL MIXTURE For clogs that are farther down the pipes, a different drain cleaning approach can be used. There are many who advocate the mixture of baking soda, vinegar, and hot water. To clear the drain, slowly pour a pot of boiling water down the drain, saving about one cup for later. Right after, follow the water with 1/2 cup of baking soda and leave for 5 minutes. Then, pour a cup of vinegar into the drain and let sit for 20 minutes. You hear a fizzing sound because mixing the two ingredients creates a noticeable chemical reaction. This method works best on bathroom sink drains but is also effective on tub and shower drains. However, it is less effective on kitchen drains. If you don’t have baking soda, salt is a useful substitute. After pouring both ingredients, let stand for a few minutes and slowly add one gallon of boiling water. This approach is best used on partial clogs and may not work when a drain is completely clogged with standing water. If your drain stays clogged despite your best efforts, a visit from the experts at Roto-Rooter can help.

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