Sink Drain Clogged? How to Use a Plumber's Snake
Parts of a Plumber's Snake
Health and Safety Note:
For the sink, I would suggest purchasing a dedicated plunger. You don't really want to use the same one used in the toilet around areas meant for food preparation! Besides, plungers are available with shorter handles which are more convenient for the height of the sink.
The Kitchen Sink Won't Drain! Now What?
For most simple clogs in the kitchen sink, opening the drain is a simple matter. However, if the drain has been progressively draining slower and slower, you will be in for a much bigger and messier job.
To be sure, there are hundreds of chemical products on the market for clearing drains. However, this is not always an option. It is especially not an option if you live in an area as we do where you have a septic tank system, instead of city sewer service. No matter what it says on the label, chemicals of all kinds are best kept out of a septic tank.
If something has gotten down the drain, and it suddenly backs up, first try the good old "plumber's friend," also known as a plunger. If this fails, it's time for the snake.
What You'll Need
- Plumber's snake
- crescent (adjustable) wrench
- garden hose
- wear your dirtiest, grubbiest clothes and shoes!
- Goggles or face shield
If there is a garbage disposal installed, it will not be possible to feed the snake through the sink drain. You will have to use the cleanout access on the outside of the house.
How to Use the Plumber's Snake
A plumber's snake is just a long, flexible piece of cable that can be shoved into the drain, and pushed, pulled, rotated around and so forth to loosen the clog. There are 2 types: one is simply a 'naked' cable, with a grab handle on one end, and a set-screw to hold it in place; the other comes in an enclosed casing with an opening on one end to feed out the snake, and a stationary handle on one side, and a rotating one on the other. The business end features a spiral-shaped cone of wire for drilling through clogs.
To use the snake, you can try inserting it right down the drain between the cross-grids in the drain opening, (some snakes are thicker than others--not all will fit), feeding it through carefully. It gets tricky going around bends such as the P-trap under the sink, but with patience, it is doable.
Plumber's Snake or Auger
Small auger snake as shown above in this article, good for clogs in fairly straight pipes or those with gradual turns.
Shove the snake as far as you can, and using the handle, rotate it about, and use some push-pull action as well. You may have to keep at it for several minutes. Be careful not to be too violent with these motions, as it is possible to damage the drain pipes. Plastic pipes can be cracked, and the old cast-iron pipes have the potential for being rusty.
If the snake action hits a rusty spot in an old pipe, you might get lucky and nothing happens...at that exact moment, anyway. However, it is also possible that the end of the snake pokes through the rust, making a hole in the pipe. It is also possible that a hole was already there, and whatever was clogging the drain was sealing the hole. If either of these things happens, you are in the market for a professional plumber and repairs well beyond the scope of this article. So--be careful how you manipulate the snake!
Hair Clog Tool
This is a different type of tool for removing local clogs of hair in bathroom sinks, tub or shower drains. Its thin, flexible shape with a barbed end allows it to slide past those plunger-type drain stoppers.
Opening the cleanout
Using the Cleanout Port
All plumbing systems have exterior cleanout ports. This is simply a piece of pipe that connects to the drain line and protrudes through the wall of the house using a "T" fitting. A cap covers the outlet, and is removed by means of a wrench. (See photos.)
Once this cap is removed, you have direct acess to the drain/sewer line, only the one turn just inside the house wall into the main drain line. Push the snake through as far as you can, and wiggle it about, as per the instructions above.
Try running more water down the sink. It should run right out the cleanout port. If so, your clog is further down the line. When you get there, you will feel more resistance, but you may have also simply arrived at a bend in the pipe, so proceed carefully, maneuvering the snake slowly, feeling your way. Unfortunately, this is a proceedure where you are working blind, totally by feel.
After snaking out the pipe, replace the access cap, and try again running water down the drain. Let it run for a few moments--you will soon see whether you were successful or not. If the water is still backing up, your clog is either further down the line, or harder to dislodge.
If the Clog is Still There...
The next step is to again remove the access cap, and instead of the snake, use a garden hose. Do not put any kind of nozzle on the hose--it will not fit or go around any bends. Feed the hose in as far as you can, and turn on the water full force.
This is like a "jet-snake" used by professional plumbers. Instead of wiggling the snake, you are using a thicker diameter substitute snake, and the power of water to help flush the clog out of the line. Run the water for several minutes, especially if at first, it is backing up and running out the access port. Try to shove the hose in farther in that case.
If this is an ordinary type of clog, you should succeed in clearing it with this method.
If the hose treatment still does not work, you may have a much more serious problem, such as invading tree roots. Unfortunately, that is a job for the pros.
Adjustable wrenches are often referred to as 'crescent wrenches,' although this is not entirely accurate; a true crescent wrench actually has a curved handle, and they are no longer common.
Finishing the Job
When pulling the snake back out of the drain line, that is when you want the rag. Wrap the rag around the cable as you retract the snake, so that it gets wiped down as you pull it out. You don't want to store the snake with all that gunk all over it. Not only will it stink, it will shorten the life of the tool.
If you have had to use water, you will most likely be working in a very large puddle. It is impossible to stay dry and clean, hence the grubby clothes are needed. Also, as you pull the snake and/or hose out, splatters will happen. Yes, you might get it in the face, hence the face shield or goggles. Use the rag in the same way on the hose as you pull it out, or before you put it away.
An Ounce of Prevention...
...as the old saying goes, is worth a pound of cure.
To save yourself such headaches, try to pay attention to what you are putting down the drains in your home. The most common clogs in the kitchen are grease and oil-based.
Here's what happens: as the dishes are piled in the sink, rinsed and washed, the greasy residues go down the drain along with the soapy water. Pots and pans are the worst culprits. In any case, while the grease and oils seem to disappear, they do not magically evaporate.
The combination of detergent and hot water suspends them in a liquid state. Once they have gone down the drain, however, it does not take long for the hot water to cool down. As it cools, the grease starts to solidify, and settle out, lining the walls of the pipes much like the all-too-familiar illustrations we see of clogged arteries in the body.
As this buildup continues, other things, such as hair, bits of food, and sometimes things that went down the drain by accident become trapped in this greasy lining. There can also be buildup resulting from minerals in the water. In the case of old-fashioned cast-iron and galvanized pipes, even the pipes themselves start to rust and shed material, adding further to the problem. The result is a clog.
And yes, even if you have a garbage disposal, you are subject to such clogs, and possibly even more at risk, because the gizmo misleads you into thinking that you can put anything you want down the drain. Well, it does grind things up finely, but ground up is not gone. It's still there, in suspension, just waiting for a little bit of greasy residue, to start some trouble.
Your best defense against this "pain-in-the-drain" kind of repair is to be very aware of what goes down the sink. Use paper towels to wipe the worst of the food residue and oils from plates and pots and pans. Don't use the garbage disposal as a substitute for the trash can. Rely on it only to chew up what small bits still cling to plates or pots after they have been wiped.
If you have small pets that get bathed in the sink, use a hair snare over the drain. They are very inexpensive, and will save a ton of headaches later.
It all comes down to paying attention to what you are doing every day. Awareness is prevention.
© 2011 Liz Elias