How to Clear Clogged Sink Drains

With two simple tools—a plunger and a snake—you can clear 95 percent of your stopped-up drain problems

Step 1: Get the right tools to start

A clogged kitchen sink can wreck a perfectly good evening in front of the tube. Instead of settling in to watch the Series, you'll find yourself staring at a sink full of dirty, backed-up water and wondering whether to call in a plumber ($$$$$). However, with two inexpensive tools and a little practice, you can fix this mess in less than an hour.

In this article, we'll show you how to use a plunger and snake to clear up all but the most stubborn drain clogs. Plungers are sold at any hardware store or home center (lead photo). Those with larger rubber bells deliver more thrust, but most will work for kitchen drains. Be sure it has a stout handle so you can apply plenty of force.

A snake (sometimes called a hand auger) ranges from cheap to inexpensive, depending on the size, length and turning mechanism. For all-around use, we recommend a 3/8-in.model that's about 20 ft. long, like the one in Photo 6 (sold at hardware stores and home centers). It's easy to turn down into the drain. But shorter, 1/4-in. types will work for most clogs too. In addition, keep several other items handy—a bucket or a plastic bin that fits under your drain, rubber gloves and a good flashlight.

You can avoid most clogs by not abusing your kitchen drain line. Don't overload your disposer with meat; foods high in starch, like pasta, potatoes and rice; or foods high in fiber, like celery and corn husks. Also, run plenty of cold water down the drain and let the disposer catch up after every cup of food you push into it. Never dump bacon grease or coffee grounds into the drain. If allowed to settle and cool, they solidify in the drain.

If you follow the steps of this article and still can't clear the blockage, don't hesitate to call in a plumber. You may have a clog far down the drain line beyond your reach, or stuck objects in the pipes.

Check the Disposer Before you Plunge

One of the most common causes of a clogged drain is a clogged garbage disposer. If the side of the sink that has the disposer doesn't drain, plunge it first to remove the clog or force it down the drain.

And if you flip the switch to turn on your garbage disposer and all you hear is a low humming sound, your disposer is probably jammed. Switch it off and unplug the unit. You can usually free it by turning the blades manually by inserting an Allen wrench into the hole on the bottom of the disposer. If the disposer doesn't make any sound when you turn it on, an internal breaker on the motor probably has tripped. Give the disposer a minute to cool off. Then press the reset button located on the bottom of the unit, and turn it on again.

If you have a dishwasher, tighten a clamp over the flexible part of the drain line before plunging the drain. This prevents dirty water from flowing back into the dishwasher cabinet.

Disposer restart If the disposer hums but doesn't spin, try rotating the
disposer blades manually.
Clamp dishwasher drain If you have a dishwasher, tighten a clamp over the
flexible part of the drain line before plunging.
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Step 2: Clear the blockage with a plunger

If the problem isn't in the disposer, plunge the drain. If you have a dishwasher, remember to first clamp the drain hose. Then fill the sink with 3 to 4 in. of water to ensure that the plunger seals around the drain. Hold a wet rag tightly over the other drain opening in double sinks or use the basket strainer to seal it (Photo 1).

Then plunge away. Roll the head of the plunger into the water so you force water, not air, into the drain. Pump vigorously. On your last upstroke, pop the plunger off the mouth of the drain for extra pressure (Photo 2). If the water doesn't swirl straight down the drain, continue plunging for several minutes. Plunging can be quick and easy or it could be a wet mess. Keep towels handy to soak up spills.

CAUTION

Don't plunge or snake a drain if you've poured drain cleaners into the sink. The chemicals can cause serious burns if they splash on your skin. Use drain cleaners only if the sink is draining slowly and not completely clogged.

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Step 3: Clean the P-trap

Clogs that occur in the P-trap and trap arm of the drain (Photo 3) most often occur when grease or coffee grounds stick. If intensive plunging doesn't remove it, disassemble and clean out the P-trap (10 to 15 minutes; Photos 3 – 5).

Begin by sponging the water from the sink to reduce the flow under the sink when you pull off the trap (Photo 3). Keep your pan or bucket underneath; dirty water will flow out. We show plastic drain lines, but many older kitchen sinks have metal traps and pipes. Metal slip nuts are usually more difficult to loosen than plastic, but either will probably require the use of slip-joint pliers to break them free. Loosen them gently to avoid cracking or bending the trap assembly.

Unscrew the slip nut between the P-trap and the trap arm first, then the nut at the bottom of the waste tee. If the trap is clogged, clean it (Photo 4), reinstall it and test the line with warm water. Don't over-tighten the slip nuts. Hand tight plus a quarter turn with pliers should be enough.

If the P-trap isn't clogged, move on and remove the trap arm and clean it (Photo 5). Run a screwdriver around the inside of the pipe stub-out and pull out any debris that may have collected in the opening. If you still haven't found the clog, reach for the snake!

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Step 4: Snake the line

Begin by loosening the setscrew at the tip of the snake and pulling out 6 to 10 in. of cable. Then tighten the setscrew and spin the snake down into the drain line (Photos 6 and 7). Initially you may feel an obstruction, but it's likely that the tip of the snake is just turning a corner. Loosen the setscrew, pull out another 6 to 10 in. of cable and continue to feed the snake into the line.

If you feel the cable hit an obstruction, continue cranking and pushing the cable through the clog until you feel the tip bite through. This should be obvious because the tension in the cable will drop. When you are through the clog, turn the crank counterclockwise and pull out the cable. Clean the cable as you pull; it'll probably be covered with incredibly dirty gunk (Photo 8). You may get a large plug of material at the end of the snake, so keep that bucket handy. Repeat the process until you no longer feel blockage, then reassemble the trap and run plenty of warm water to flush the line.

After the drain is open, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda and 1/2 cup of white vinegar into the drain. Cover both openings and let it sit for a few minutes. Then run another gallon or so of warm water behind it to flush out the mixture. The combination of baking soda and vinegar can break down any leftover fat deposits and will leave your drain smelling fresh.

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