Toilet Auger vs. Snake: What’s the Difference?

An auger and a snake are both drain-cleaning tools, and the difference between them is subtle. Plumbers use them for toilets and much more.

A lot of amateur plumbers and even some pros tend to think a toilet auger is the same as a snake. Technically, they’re different, and you can actually damage your toilet by using the wrong one.

An auger is fatter and less bendable than a snake. If you try to force one through the twists and turns of your toilet bowl, you risk cracking the porcelain. Don’t ask how I know.

Roy Barnes operates Service Force Plumbing, a multi-employee plumbing and drain service in Maryland. His team includes Tyler Pittenger, a snake specialist who earned a good share of the company’s nearly 400 five-star reviews on Google. As Barnes says, “Drain cleaning is something of an art, and many plumbers aren’t that good at it.” Pittenger is good at it.

However, even an experienced pro like Barnes doesn’t clearly distinguish an auger from a snake. He settled on “snake” as his go-to term, even when he’s clearly talking about an auger. His point: It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as it works.

Barnes and Pittenger have some interesting and cautionary tales to tell about clearing drains.

What Is a Toilet Auger?

Plumbers seldom use an auger exclusively to clear toilets, because it’s burly enough to clear sewer and waste lines up to three inches in diameter. It’s basically a cable that can be six to 100 feet long, with a spiral head on the front and a crank on the back.

The crank may turned manually, have a connection that attaches to your drill, or come with a motor. Cranking spins the spiral head, which digs into the blockage to break it up.

Plumbers use long, motorized sewer augers to clear large-diameter pipes. “The pro snakes can be surprisingly powerful,” says Barnes. “They can catch and wind up your pants or your shirt in an instant and nearly flip you over, and I’m a big guy!”

You obviously don’t need anything that powerful to clear a toilet. So toilet augers are much shorter, operated by hand or with a drill.

When To Use a Toilet Auger

Compared to a toilet snake, an auger is stiffer, with enough flexibility to make it past the first bend in a toilet’s waste inlet and reach the second bend at the top of the trap.

Because it’s so burly, it’s an excellent tool for clearing obstructions near the waste inlet. You might be surprised what you find there. Pittenger once cleared an entire Lego set. Whether it went down all at once or piece-by-piece over time is unknown, he says.

You use an auger by feeding the head into the toilet opening and cranking and pushing until you encounter resistance. Then you keep cranking. The head either pushes the obstruction out the other end of the toilet trap, or hooks onto it so you can pull it out.

If you push an auger in too far, the cable can put enough pressure on the porcelain to crack it. So if you have to feed in deeper than a foot or two, don’t push your luck. Get an actual toilet snake.

What Is a Toilet Snake?

A toilet snake is also a type of auger, with a much thinner and more flexible cable. It’s usually only about six to 10 feet long.

If the cable is flexible enough to reach into a sink or shower drain, it’s called a drain snake, which is something you can also use to clear a toilet. Instead of a spiral, the head often comes with blades that spin when you turn the crank. That makes it more effective at trapping hair, paper and other organic obstructions so you can pull them out.

Service techs like Pittenger often attach cameras to the ends of snakes and augers to see what’s going on inside blocked pipes. Pittenger likes to tell the story of the time he reconnoitering a mysteriously blocked drain. As the camera went around a corner, he found himself face-to-face with Thomas the Tank Engine, happily obstructing traffic.

When To Use a Toilet Snake

Toilet augers feature manual cranks or attachments that let you crank with a drill. Because the cable is thin, a toilet snake can reach farther into a toilet trap, so it’s a better tool to clear obstructions close to the waste outlet.

A thin cable is more likely to break, however. “Over the course of time, the techs go to jobs where homeowners have used Drano,” Barnes says. “The chemicals weaken the snake cables so that eventually they are working on a job and the cable just snaps.” That’s a good reason to avoid caustic drain cleaners.

If You Buy Only One, Get the Ryobi P4001 Drain Snake

I’m a big fan of Ryobi power tools. Because I’m already committed to the brand and own the batteries, this would my choice for a good all-around drain snake.

The flexible cable is 25 feet long, enough to reach deep into waste pipes, and it feeds and retracts automatically when you pull the trigger. This is a good tool for clearing clogs from toilets, sink drains and even some sewer pipes.

About the Experts

  • Roy Barnes operates Service Force Plumbing in Rockville, Maryland with his partner Hendrik Vandepoll. His highly rated team of plumbers includes snake specialist Tyler Pittenger.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.