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Sink Drain Clogged? How to Use a Plumber's Snake

Liz grew up as a "grease monkey" to her father, who taught her to fix and work with many things. She also enjoys watching auto races.

The Kitchen Sink Won't Drain! Now What?

For most 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 probably be in for a 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.

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.

An encased-style plumber's snake

An encased-style plumber's snake

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.

What You'll Need

  • Plumber's snake
  • rags
  • adjustable wrench
  • garden hose
  • your dirtiest, oldest, torn, stained, grubbiest clothes and shoes (you know; the ones you wouldn't want to be caught dead wearing)
  • Goggles or face shield

A Note About Garbage Disposals and Dishwashers

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.

However, if you have a double-sink, the garbage disposal is always only on one side; you may be able to get the snake through on the other side of the sink.

Look under the sink, and see where the drain pipe from the non-disposal side meets the pipe leading through the wall. If it connects below the disposal, you're golden. If it comes into the side of the disposal itself, you're out of luck.

Notice that with a dishwasher connected, that drain does connect directly into the side of the disposal unit: that's how the dishwasher gets rid of any food scraps stuck to the dishes, without sending them into the pipe as potential clogs.

Now, Back to Work!

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 galvanized 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 that exact moment, anyway. You luck will depend upon the degree of rust, and the remaining thickness of solid pipe.

Sometimes, there is a small hole already in the pipe, and whatever was clogging the pipe (and hence, the drain), was sealing the hole. Once that plug is dislodged, you will have a leaky pipe. If this 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!

Cleanout Port Through Wall

This is the setup we have; luckily, just on the other side of the wall from the sink.  Other houses may have the cleanout port at the far end of the house, or even on the other side

This is the setup we have; luckily, just on the other side of the wall from the sink. Other houses may have the cleanout port at the far end of the house, or even on the other side

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 photo and illustration.)

Once this cap is removed, you have direct access 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 in the instructions above.

Try running more water down the sink. If it runs right out the cleanout port, your clog is farther 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 procedure where you are working blind, totally by remote feel, as the snake is between you and the clog.

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 still farther down the line, or harder to dislodge.

Opening the Cleanout

Cleanout access through house wall.  These are always low to the ground, and may be hidden behind bushes or other obstructions.  Sometimes, they are even in the ground, right above the sewer line.

Cleanout access through house wall. These are always low to the ground, and may be hidden behind bushes or other obstructions. Sometimes, they are even in the ground, right above the sewer line.

Adjustable wrench applied to cleanout cap. All photos, Liz Elias,  8-25-11

Adjustable wrench applied to cleanout cap. All photos, Liz Elias, 8-25-11

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.

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. That's why you want the grubby clothes. Also, as you pull the snake and/or hose out, splatters will happen. Yes, you might get it in the face, (eeeyeewww!) hence the face shield or goggles. Use the rag in the same way on the hose as you pull it out, before you put it away.

Don't let "FOG" go down the drains!

An Ounce of Prevention... 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 FOG:

  • Fats
  • Oils
  • Grease

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 galvanized pipes, even the pipes themselves start to rust and shed material, adding further to the problem. The result is a clog--just like a clogged artery.

This pile is sure to contain all the enemies of free-flowing drains: fats, oils, and grease.

This pile is sure to contain all the enemies of free-flowing drains: fats, oils, and grease.

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.

A Brief Note on Bathroom Sinks and Shower Drains

The majority of clogs in these places are commonly caused by hair. Whether hubby shaves over the sink and rinses it all down, or if you or your children wash their hair in the sink or shower, it all contributes.

I have found a tool that is perfect for those drains; it is a thin, flat piece of flexible plastic with barbs on each side. It is thin enough to even sneak past those pesky push-pull built in stoppers in bathroom sinks.

For the shower drain, it also works extremely well, and saves having to haul out the bigger tools. As an added plus, it stores in virtually no space at all, and can be kept handy in an under-sink vanity cabinet.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Liz Elias


roob on March 21, 2016:

I know you didn't miss daisy! I just read another commenter said that & I just didn't want them to start a project only to open up a can of worms! Not trying to mess with ya!(: Great info you got and you are really a go getter. Have a great one!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 21, 2016:

roob--you are correct; the kitchen sink, and any other closed-system drains in the house, such as tub/shower/bathroom sinks cannot/should not be hooked up for outdoor dispersal. I do not believe I ever said they should or could.

I was only speaking of the laundry, which can be hooked up directly from the machine's own hose, instead of putting the hose into a drain pipe to the sewer system, or over the edge of a washtub. The thing you need to watch out for in that case, is to be sure the hose goes up before going down to the floor and out, so you don't drain the machine by gravity before the spin cycle, as that could damage your machine, and your clothes would not get washed very well, either.

About the only place a sink or shower does not drain into the sewer system is aboard a boat, where those drain either directly overboard, or into the bilge. The toilet empties into a holding tank which must be pumped out at a specialized facility, as with an RV.

roob on March 20, 2016:

In the comments greywater was brought up... also if you read I said you can use the laundry... however if you run some system from your kitchen sink I bet you won't be able to past inspection and sell that house unless it was permitted in the first place. I commented because people think greywater is great but have they read studies and literature on it? If you encourage it, people may not be able to sell their houses later, also if they ever do a remodel an inspector will make it be removed. If you don't believe look it up. It wouldn't be on a flyer sent out to you... greywater from a kitchen sink is extremely rare setup. Most plumbing companies could not do it to code, that is how rare it is. Don't want someone to end up with a big bill after putting in a wrong system. Peace.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 19, 2016:

Hello again, roob...

Actually I live in CA, and it was also here that my friend's juniper bushes thrived on the wastewater from the washing machine.

Amongst all of the water-saving tips that were given, in flyers mailed out or in the water bill, not a word was said about any penalties for such usage.

And anyway, I didn't even mention such use in this article, so I'm not sure where all this came from...

And actually, I did not even mention this use in this article...

I guess it came down to the fact that it was being discharged onto your own private property, and not into the storm drains...and, I suppose, in large part, lack of sufficient staff to monitor every home around the state. It probably came down to "what they don't know..." ;)

roob on March 17, 2016:

Here in California there are a lot of codes around greywater. Systems are needed to be approved by code unless they are for the laundry. Also filter systems are sometimes needed and the water has to go underground it cannot be dispersed above. Maybe your state is different. But here it would be a hefty penny and is very rare, even with a drought!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 16, 2016:

Thank you for your comment, roob.

It actually won't hurt flowers. I would not suggest using it on food crops, however. It's fine for ornamental plantings and lawns, in a drought crisis situation. I had a friend during California's last drought, back in 1984 or so, who ran such water and water from her washing machine, out to her juniper bushes, and they thrived!

Some people, yes, put "everything" down the garbage disposal. I don't; we scrape the plates into the trash or compost pile, as approriate, and wipe of excess grease with a paper towel first, to avoid plumbing issues. Besides, we are on a septic system, so nothing just "goes away" into the nether regions of the city se

roob on March 16, 2016:

grey water from kitchen sink would have lots of food particles and soap if you use that, not what I would want in a garden of flowers. Unless you have a system with a filter or something which I imagine would get costly.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 17, 2013:

Hello, Glass-Jewelry,

Thanks for your comment. I was mainly writing for a U.S. audience, as that is the construction with which I am familiar. And no, it would NOT occur to me to suggest that a clean-out could be placed on an interior wall--that would be a very bad idea indeed; most unsantiary! Such access ports must only be on the exterior side of any wall.

Apartment houses are a different story altogether; this article deals with what is found in a single-family home. In an apartment building, such access points are likely to be found outside, near the sidewalk or at least in a basement that is built with a drain in the floor.

Some plumbers do carry the compressed air systems you describe, but they generally work best on small, localized clogs, and not on problems that are a matter of feet (meters) or more away from the drain that is backed up. Once a clog is beyond the point where the drain pipe enters the wall, it is usually beyond the reach of the air systems, and other measures must be used.

Marco Piazzalunga from Presezzo, Italy on January 17, 2013:

Hello DzyMsLizzy,

In Italy manufacturing building systems normally do not provide what you call "cleanout port", probably in the U.S. and Europe, there are different regulations.

It does not exist because it would be difficult to access in those cases in which the rear part of the basin does not coincide with the outside of the house but with the boundary of another apartment.

You'll tell me that this "cleanout port" could be placed in the inner wall of our own apartment, but for health and hygiene issues in Italy this is not possible because the risk of contaminating the interior with substances and material that is harmful sewer is too high.

In Italy rather we use small compressed air systems connected to the drain hole of the sink, and you're done.

In the market there are small cans that contain compressed air, which can be found anywhere in supermarkets for few Euros, with a series of plugs supplied, adaptable to every type of discharge hole.

Thank you for your kind attention to my notes!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 15, 2013:

Hello, MikeInkster,

It sounds like you have plenty of experience with such things. What is "put down" a drain can be bad, but so are things that go down by accident. Socks, for example, can accidentally get sucked through the washing machine and into a drain--especially small kid's socks. Other things can go down the toilet quite by accident.

I recall a story my mom told about me, when I was very young. I had a "most favorite" washcloth, was in the tub, had to get out to use the potty, and then could not find my washcloth. I was in tears. My mother asked me about it, and I sobbed, "Well, I was in the tub, I had to go, and, and, and...well.... (waaaaahhhhh)...well, I just don't know..!!!"

Hair is bad, and yucky to deal with, as is grease, the most common kitchen sink drain culprit. Coffee grounds are another no-no.

Thanks very much for stopping by and contributing.

Mike Inkster from Calgary, Alberta on January 15, 2013:

It is amazing as to what you will find in a drain. Not just the kitchen drain, all the drains.

We operate an apartment building and what the tenants put down the drains is amazing. Things like socks, personal hygiene products, hair, and a few other non-mentionable items, and more.

@Rebecca Furtado- not sure as to what the rules are in your area as to doing it yourself. As long as you do not damage it many landlords do not mind.

I know in our area if you damage it you could be paying for the damages that are caused.

The worst plugged up drains I hate and most plumbers dislike are the one clogged up with hair.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 15, 2013:

@ rumanasaiyed--Thank you very much for your nice compliment; I'm pleased you enjoyed the article. Thanks as well for the vote!

@ Rebecca--Ah, that's a good thing, then. Best wishes to you.

Rebecca Furtado from Anderson, Indiana on January 15, 2013:

No it is a single family house . The landlord is a friend who won't mind not being summoned to undo the drain.

Rumana from Sharjah, UAE on January 15, 2013:

I have never thought such a great hub on this topic.. It is really awesome.. It deserves to be " hub of the day".Voted Up!!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 14, 2013:

Hello, Rebecca Furtado,

Perhaps you won't have to call the landlord, if you're renting a single-family home. In a multi-unit building, however, these access points may not be accessible to the tenants.

I'm glad you found the article useful, and may you have years of clog-free sinks! ;-) Thanks for stopping by.

Rebecca Furtado from Anderson, Indiana on January 14, 2013:

Great Hub .. Now I won't have to call the landlord everytime the kitchen sink clogs.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 18, 2012:

Hi again, ktrapp,

Yes re-routing the drain line was quite a project, and I don't imagine a cheap one!

My mom also used to dump grease into tin cans until hardened...but greasy water, such as from boiling a corned beef, she'd dump into the toilet, as that was on the "straight-down" side of the house's plumbing system.

Garbage disposal or no, I'm still very careful. I scrape and wipe as much grease as possible from pans, and food scraps into the trash. (Although, with my husband as the only meat-eater in the house, and mostly vegetarian cooking going on, as hubby has cut way back on meat...I don't have much grease to deal with anymore.)

About all that goes down the disposal now is accidental residue missed by the plate-scraping, or the odd bit of macaroni (or some such) that might fall into the sink when draining the water.

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on December 18, 2012:

Wow. I've always noticed that builders don't always locate things like light switches or thermostats in ideal locations, but that "fall" setup in the 1938 San Francisco takes the cake. Sounds like that was quite a job to improve on it. I grew up in CT where we also did not have a garbage disposal (probably a luxury item in those days) and also had a septic system. Scraping plates in the trash was a habit that never died, in addition we always poured grease in an old jar and then threw that away when it hardened back up. I can't imagine pouring that down a drain. Again, good to know about using a plumber's snake, in the event I need to clean a sink drain.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 18, 2012:

Hello, ktrapp,

You are lucky. I learned this at a very young age: the house I was raised in had a sink drain with a very poorly-designed fall, meaning, not enough slope between the sink and the sewer line. The house was a typical San Francisco place, with the living quarters above the garage. The stupid builders rigged the sink line running just under the joists in the garage, all the way across the house to the sewer line on the other side. We had no garbage disposal--that house was built in 1938. But the clean out was over 12 feet up the wall! At least once a year, my dad had to be up there on a ladder with the snake. Finally, as he got older and that job got harder for him, he called in contractors, and had them dig a trench in the garage floor and re-route the drain line all the way down to the floor before running across the garage--as the builders should have done to start with.

You're right--it is easier (and better) to scrape the plates into the trash first. Stuff that goes down the disposal can eventually clog the line despite being ground up. We have a disposal, but we got a super-fine-grind type, as we also are on a septic system instead of city sewer, so we have to be really careful about what goes down the drains.

I'm glad you found the article useful--thanks so much for your comment.

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on December 18, 2012:

This was really useful information. I have never had to deal with a clogged sink drain before, but will certainly try to use a snake if I do. I happen to have a garbage disposal, but barely use it for the reasons you stated. On top of that, I think it's a whole lot easier to scrape off food scraps into the trashcan, now I've also learned that my drain my clog easier.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 14, 2012:

@ zodaic--Thank you so very much!

@ viveresperando--Recycling gray water for a flower garden in a dry climate is a great idea!

When using the snake, just take your time, and be patient. It takes some finesse when navigating bends in the pipe--not the time to get mad and start trying to force things. But, it sure beats the price the plumber quoted! They are outrageous. Best wishes!

viveresperando from A Place Where Nothing Is Real on December 14, 2012:

Waiting for a little more sunlight, I actually have my kitchen drain, lol draining through the outside - going to try the snake thing through there like you said. It is a little chilli. Going to eventually use that drainage to water a flower garden (gray water from my kitchen sink). I live in the Arizona desert so recycling the water makes me feel less guilty if I have a flower garden, but would love to clear the clog, plumbers estimates around here have been over $300 to clear it.. pffft.

Pisces from Pakistan on December 13, 2012:

Congratulation for being selected author of "hub of the day"

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 13, 2012:

Hello, curevaricoseveins,

Glad I was able to provide helpful information. Thanks much for the feedback.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 13, 2012:

Hi, leslieofthewest,

Plumbing clogs are never fun, and they always seem to happen at the worst possible time, so it is good to know how to deal with them. If you are able to do it yourself, you save some serious bucks over calling a plumber; if not, at least understanding the process lets you keep an eye on the plumber, so you know you're not being taken advantage of.

I'm most pleased you got something to take away from this article, and I hope your issue has been fully resolved by now. Thanks so much for the praise.

Leslie Weinstein from Los Angeles on December 13, 2012:

Wow! I just had this problem! This is great information and incredibly useful. Even if you never need the info it's interesting to know how this all works. Takes some of the mystery out of my kitchen! Thank so much! Great article!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 13, 2012:

Hello, viveresperando,

Thank you very much. I'm pleased you enjoyed the article.

viveresperando from A Place Where Nothing Is Real on December 13, 2012:

GReat read! :)

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 25, 2012:

Thank you, suwannee septic tank cleaning, I'm pleased you found the article useful, and thank you for the share.

suwanee septic tank cleaning on April 24, 2012:

Thank you, thats very interesting information. I need to share with my friends.

louromano on March 19, 2012:

Great information ! Thanks for sharing.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 16, 2011:

Hello, carcro--

Thank you vry much for your kind comment. I'm glad you found it useful.

Paul Cronin from Winnipeg on October 15, 2011:

Wow, great advise here, we've all had clogged drains so its good to have all the info on how to properly clear them. Thanks for sharing!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 04, 2011:

Hello, Penny Circle..

Thank you very much for the vote! I know what you mean about sore backs! Crawling under the sink, or worse, in the dirt crawl space under the house is not fun. I'm gratified that you found the article useful.

Penny Circle on September 04, 2011:

Very good hub, voted up. I feel like I am a plumber now with all the great information now available on Hubpages. The plumber's snake can save us a lot of money in call-out charges but as you rightly point out an ounce of prevention is the best way forward, plus my back gets sore from crawling around under the sink. Think smarter huh!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 03, 2011:

Thank you very much, Kitty-I'm pleased you found the article useful. Thanks for the votes as well! ;-)

Kitty Fields from Summerland on September 03, 2011:

Voted up and useful. I'll bookmark this in case my sink needs it in the future. Very well-written and thought out.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on August 26, 2011:

Thank you very much, Karanda! Glad you liked the article.

;-) Thanks for stopping by.

Karen Wilton from Australia on August 26, 2011:

There's some great information here, thanks for sharing your tips for clearing the pipes. Congratulations on your win.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on August 26, 2011:

Thank you very much, K9--I was surprised, myself; in fact, I hadn't checked, and only learned this via your comment! :-D

India Arnold from Northern, California on August 26, 2011:

Hey MsLizzy, so glad you won today's staff pick! Congrats my friend! :)

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on August 26, 2011:

Hi, Simone! Thanks for stopping by and checking out my hub. Glad I was able to provide some useful information. ;-)

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on August 26, 2011:

Ah-HAH! So THAT'S what those knobs are for! I had not realized they were cleanout ports before... honestly, I had never even heard of a cleanout port before. How interesting! What a splendidly helpful Hub. Thanks for sharing it!!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on August 26, 2011:

@K9--Thank you so much! I'm glad you found this helpful, although, I hope you never need to use this advice. ;-)

@triciajean--Many thanks! Happy you enjoyed the article. Thanks for stopping by.

Patricia Lapidus from Bantam, CT on August 26, 2011:

Great hub, DissyMiz. And I love the ending, Awareness is prevention. So true.

India Arnold from Northern, California on August 25, 2011:

AWESOME! Loved the images and the drawings for this plumbing lesson. The intricate advice for mastering the use of a plumbers snake is spot on and so easy to understand.