When drains in the kitchen, bathroom or laundry room become clogged, it’s often with a combination of soap, hair, lint and grease. In the kitchen, food particles may combine with hardened grease to form a nearly impenetrable barrier. Kitchen stop ups are often among the worst to solve because grease from meats cools before it gets all the way into the sewer line, trapping little bits of food, coffee grounds and eggshells along with it. The deposits can over time form a sort of concrete that can’t be removed with hot water.
When you’ve tried every possible home maneuver (running hot water in the drain, removing the trap and cleaning it, plunging, pouring in vinegar and baking soda, using Drainbo), it’s time to pull out the big guns of plumbing know how. Take a break from your exertions, secure in the knowledge that you’ve done all you can do. Then, call the drain cleaning specialists and have them snake the line.
A plumbing snake or auger is a long, flexible metal tube that’s pushed through the drain until it reaches the clog, and then pushes through whatever is jamming the pipe. You can buy or rent plumbing augurs for do-it-yourself unclogging when the pipe close to the fixture is plugged. Some snakes can be attached to electric drills to give them more power; others are manual, with the snake on one end and a handle and crank on the other. The snake is pushed into the drain from the sink, tub, toilet or other fixture, until it reaches the clog. At that point, you can use the crank to dislodge whatever is jammed into the pipe. The end of the augur will either push through the obstruction, tear it up with its twisting action, or become attached to it so it can be pulled up through the drain.
If the snake gets stuck in a sink drain before reaching the blockage, you may need to remove the trap under the sink. When you remove the trap, put a bucket of water underneath to catch the liquid in the sink and the length of pipe that makes up the trap. If you’ve been using any sort of chemical drain opener, you shouldn’t use a snake, and you shouldn’t remove the trap either, because the acids in the drain openers can give you serious burns or blind you if they splash onto you. If you have resorted to the usual course of pouring a drain cleaner into the sink, tub or toilet, call a professional and let that person know what you’ve used to try to clear the clog so they can wear protective apparel. (If you have used enzymatic or microbial drain cleaners like Drainbo, you won’t face the same dangers. Just wash your hands when you’re through. Drainbo will remove most clogs, but there are some things that even microbes can’t handle: rubber duckies, leather shoes and plastic toys are some of the things that parents find in the drain when even Drainbo can’t eat the clog!)
Once you have removed the trap, you may discover that the clog is in the bend of that pipe, in which case you can easily remove it with the snake. If the trap is clear, you are that much closer to the clog—just insert the augur into the pipe that runs after the trap and try again. In bathtubs, you may find that the augur doesn’t want to go through the drain: in that case, you can remove the overflow cover (be careful not to drop the screws down the drain!) and push the snake in there instead.
Large plumbing snakes aren’t usually part of the homeowner’s tool kit, since they are expensive and specialized pieces of equipment. Snakes can be used inside the house for more localized blocks, or they can be used outside the home when sewer or drain pipes are choked with debris. Snakes are often the only way to clear a drain when the clog has passed far enough down the line that nothing else can reach it, and they can even clear serious clogs that occur when your two year old decides to flush a teddy bear, mom’s pantyhose and a pair of fuzzy slippers down the toilet.
When you’re looking for a professional to snake a line, start with your local phone book. There are companies that specialize in unclogging stopped up drains, and that’s where you want to start. Plumbers are much more expensive than companies like Roto-Rooter because they are trained to do everything from installing new plumbing to replacing pipes, to doing technical repair work on leaks. The drain snaking specialists are often not plumbers—they’re people who have been trained to use the snake—so you will end up paying a lot less for their services. Hiring a plumber to snake a line is like hiring a heart specialist to check your pulse—overkill.
On the other hand, you don’t want to hire just anyone who claims to be a drain specialist: you do need someone who understands the basics of plumbing, drains and pipes. Plumbing can be tricky, and old pipes can be punched through with a toothpick; you need someone who understands what can go wrong with them. Also, running a snake requires a certain amount of finesse, as drains invariably contain turns and angles, weak spots, rises and falls that determine which way the pipe goes as it makes its way from your home to the sewer or septic tank. Get a company that’s licensed and has bonded employees. Go with those who are well-known in the community. Look up any company you’re thinking of hiring at the Better Business Bureau website to make sure they don’t have any consumer complaints outstanding, and that any complaints from the past were rectified to the customers’ satisfaction.