How to Unclog a Drain

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Introduction

If the plunger and the snake fail, you probably have a big clog somewhere in the drainpipe. Here's how to locate the clog and grind your way through it.

Tools Required

  1. Allen wrench
  2. Bucket
  3. Cold chisel
  4. Hammer
  5. Pipe wrench
  6. Rags
  7. Safety glasses
  8. Shop vacuum
  9. Slip joint pliers

Materials Required

  1. Expansion plug
  2. Hand cleaner
  3. Plastic cleanout plug
  4. Teflon tape

Tough clogs

Clogged drains are always a hassle, but some, like a plugged P-trap under the sink or a stopped-up toilet, requires only a wrench, a plunger and a little elbow grease to unclog.

But sometimes the clog is deep in the drainpipe and requires more work and extra-powerful tools to root out. We’ll show you how to find and clear out these clogs, which are often hidden in the drain system under your floor.

Video: How to Unclog a Drain

Save money by doing simple plumbing repairs yourself. These fixes are completely DIY with basic tools and skills.

Project step-by-step (14)

Step 1

Figure A: Under-Floor Drain System

Figure A: Under-Floor Drain SystemFamily Handyman

The job of clearing clogs in the larger drain lines found under the floor isn't for everyone.
In the first place, you'll spend about $50 a day or more to rent the large drain-cleaning auger required, and you have to be strong enough to heft the machine and to wrench loose those old, corroded cleanout plugs. Then there's the mess, and the half-day you'll spend running for rental equipment and miscellaneous plumbing parts.
So why would anyone in their right mind attempt to clear out under-floor drains?

Well, some of us thrive on challenge and love the satisfaction of solving a problem on our own. If this isn't motivation enough, consider that professional drain cleaners will charge quite a bit more, depending on the problem, and you may have to miss work or waste time waiting around for them to show up. Keep in mind, however, that some clogs require the services of a pro. Don't hesitate to call a pro if you suspect that the main drain to the street is clogged by tree roots or caved-in pipes.

For a large, printable version of Figure A, see Additional Information, below.

Step 2

How to Clean Drain Pipes: Find the Clog

The first step in clearing a clog is locating it. This often takes some trial and error, but here are a few pointers to get you started. If only one fixture is clogged, the problem is either in the trap or drain line leading from that fixture. If a group of fixtures is affected, look for the clog in a location downstream from where their drains join.

Fig. A shows the drain system under the floor of a typical house. Notice that a clog in the location shown would affect the kitchen and laundry drains, but not the upstairs bath that drains into the main stack. A clog in the larger main drain would cause all the drains to stop working.

As many of us have discovered the hard way, a clog in the under-floor drain system often results in wastewater backing up onto the floor through the floor drain. To prevent this backup, many floor drains are fitted with an insertable backflow preventer that allows water down but not up.

The photos below show one method of removing the ball-type backflow preventer to gain access to the floor drain trap for cleaning.

Never attempt to remove a cleanout plug from, or run a cable into, a drain that contains chemical drain cleaner. Call a pro.

Step 3

Clear a floor drain trap

Clear a floor drain trapFamily Handyman

Remove the backflow preventer to gain access to the floor drain trap for cleaning. Drive a chisel against one of the notches in the retaining ring, turning it counterclockwise to unscrew it.

Step 4

Clean out the trap

Clean out the trapFamily Handyman

Vacuum out sand and dirt with a wet/dry vacuum. Loosen stubborn dirt or snag and retrieve other yucky stuff with a coat hanger or small, hand-powered drain snake.

Step 5

Remove the cleanout plug

remove cleanout plugFamily Handyman

Unscrew the cleanout plug in the side of the floor drain with a pipe wrench, slip-joint pliers, or as a last resort, by chiseling it out with a cold chisel.

Step 6

Clear the drainpipe

clear the drain pipeFamily Handyman

If cleaning the fixture trap doesn't solve the problem, and you've determined that the clog is in one of the under-floor drains, then you'll have to rent a drain-cleaning machine. With it, you can punch through the clog, snag and retrieve an obstruction, or cut through roots or stubborn clogs.

Unplug the drainpipe leading from the floor drain by using a 1/2-in. cable inserted through the cleanout opening. Start with a general-purpose drilling or retrieving tool attached to the cable, and complete the job with a finishing tool.

Step 7

Opening stubborn plugs

Opening stubborn plugsFamily Handyman

The first thing you have to do to work on an under-floor drain is to remove the cleanout plug. Removing a plug from corroded steel or cast iron fitting is a real chore. Try using a pipe wrench with a steel pipe slipped over the handle to increase leverage. If this doesn't work, you'll have to resort to chiseling.

Drive corroded cleanout plugs counterclockwise using a cold chisel and heavy hammer after squirting them with penetrating oil. If this doesn’t work, break out the plug with the hammer and chisel, being careful not to let any pieces fall into the drain. Wear gloves and safety glasses, and be prepared for a possible flood of wastewater (yikes!).

Note: Removing the cleanout may release a flood of backed-up wastewater, so be prepared with buckets and rags, and stay clear.

Step 8

Rent a drain-cleaning machine

Before you head to the rental store, try to determine the location of the clog, or be able to describe the symptoms. Smaller drain lines, from 1-1/2 in. to 3 in. in diameter, require a 1/2-in. cable. Larger main drains require a 3/4-in. cable.

Ask the rental agent to recommend the correct machine and show you exactly how to use it. Also, ask for safety instructions. Inspect the machine to make sure the motor and pulley are covered with a guard. Ask the rental agent to test the built-in ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), check the cord for fraying or wear, and make sure the cable is not bent, kinked or tangled. Ask for an assortment of cleaning tools and a description of their use.

These machines are very heavy; a large machine with 100 ft. of 3/4-in. the cable can weigh 215 lbs. You'll need help getting it in and out of your car and into the house.

Some rental machines use a cable that's dual-wound and has a self-feeding feature. Since we aren't demonstrating the use of this particular machine, ask your rental dealer for safety and operating instructions.

Step 9

Drain-cleaning tools

drain cleaning toolsFamily Handyman

Connect a cleaning tool to the cable. Use the starting drill to bore through a clog, the retriever to snag rags or other items, the grease tool to cut through grease and soap and clean up the sides of the pipe, and the root saw to cut through roots.

Step 10

Operating a drain-cleaning machine

These machines are powerful, and dangerous if safety precautions aren't followed. Read and follow the instructions provided with the equipment.

Position the machine 2 to 3 ft. from the cleanout opening, plug it into a grounded outlet or 12- or 14-gauge grounded extension cord, and make sure the switch on the motor is in the “Forward” position. Put on heavy leather gloves and safety glasses and make sure you aren't wearing any loose clothes, belts or jewelry that could become entangled in the cable.

Position the foot-operated switch where you can step on it while you're feeding cable into the drain. Practice starting and stopping the machine with the foot switch to get the hang of it.

Step 11

Feed-in the cable

feed in the drain cleaning cableFamily Handyman

Keep both hands firmly on the cable and slowly feed it into the pipe as you stop and start the motor with the foot switch until you can't push it any further. Feel for an increase in cable tension and listen for the motor to slow or the built-in safety clutch to slip. All of these indicate you've reached a clog. Stop immediately when you sense a change.

Step 12

Reverse to relieve tension

Reverse drain cleanerFamily Handyman

Flip the switch on the motor to “Reverse.” Then use the foot switch to run the motor in reverse for a few revolutions of the cable cage. This will relieve tension that may have built up in the cable when it hit the clog. Switch the motor back to “Forward.”

NOTE: The only other time you should reverse the motor is when the cable gets stuck and will not turn in the forward position.

Step 13

Take your time

Operating a drain-cleaning machineFamily Handyman

Chew slowly through a clog by following these steps:

  1. Tighten the lock bolt that secures the cable.
  2. Depress the foot switch, running the machine in “Forward” while you hold the cable.
  3. Loosen the lock bolt, feed a little more cable into the drain and retighten the bolt.
  4. Repeat this process until you cut through the clog.
Do not allow tension to build up in the cable. This will happen if the cutting head hits a snag and stops turning, but the motor and its cage continue to rotate. Torque builds until the cable suddenly twists, potentially wrapping around your hand or arm like a steel boa constrictor! This can happen quickly and without warning, so proceed slowly and carefully as you feed the cable into the drain.

Step 14

Replace the cleanout plug

Replace the cleanout plugFamily Handyman

After you've conquered the clog and it's time to replace the cleanout plug, use a plastic rather than a metal plug, and don't forget to use Teflon plumbing tape to seal the threads.

If the cleanout fitting is too damaged or corroded to use a threaded expansion plug as shown. Install the expansion plug. Push the plug into the cleanout fitting, and tighten the thumbscrew or Allen bolt in the middle of the cover to complete the seal.  Plumbing suppliers also carry a variety of plugs and couplings that will solve the problem.

If you have the time and energy after boring through the clog, clean the sides of the pipe by attaching a finishing tool to the cable and running the full length of the cable down the drain. Then use a hose to run water down the drain as you retrieve the cable. The water will flush the debris down the drain and rinse gunk off the cable as you
reel it in.

Check out these 28 tips for becoming a master plumber. 

Additional Information