Since leaving college, Paul has worked in a variety of roles, including: painter and decorator, general handyman, and freelance writer.
Unclogging a kitchen sink drain is often much easier than most people think, and avoiding the cost of calling out a plumber to deal with this common problem is always a good thing in my experience, even if that means investing some time and effort fixing the problem yourself.
Most clogs can be resolved by employing some relatively simple and straightforward techniques and tools. Once you have unclogged the sink, it is then time to work on minimizing the chances of the problem reoccurring - see the section at the end of the article for advice on prevention.
8 Ways to Unclog a Sink
- Remove all standing water.
- Check the garbage disposal (if you have one).
- Use a plunger to dislodge the clog.
- Clean the P-trap.
- Use a plumbers’ snake (also sometimes called a "toilet jack" or an "electric eel").
- Use baking soda and vinegar (the natural alternative to chemicals)
- Use cleaning chemicals.
- Call a plumber.
In my experience, unclogging a kitchen sink drain can require a combination of more than one of these methods. The whole process could take you anywhere from ten minutes to more than an hour to clear a clogged drain, depending on the nature of the blockage. The job can be messy and care must be used if chemicals are involved, as splashes can burn skin or worse.
Apart from calling a plumber, most of my suggestions are relatively inexpensive or cost nothing—they use tools and materials you should already have in your house. Below, I will go into more detail about each method.
1. Remove All Standing Water From the Clogged Sink
Standing water happens when water is continued to be run into the sink after the clog has occurred. You should put on your rubber gloves and bail out the excess water and waste with a jug, cup, or other container, so that you have clear access to the drain. Then you should should clear what waste you can in and around the drain by hand. If there is a garbage disposal do not put your hand or fingers near the blades (see #2 below). Sometimes clearing the waste by hand can be all it takes to fix the problem, but more often it will take further action.
2. Check the Garbage Disposal
If your kitchen sink has a garbage disposal, then you will need to check it for clogs. They can easily get blocked up with bits of food. To determine the source of the clog, switch off the disposer first. If you stick anything down the drain, then you will also want to switch off the power. You can use a flashlight to look down the drain and try to determine the nature of the blockage: where it is and what is causing it. This will determine your tools and approach.
The likeliest cause of the clog is pieces of food that are stuck between the blades—if it is something more substantial or valuable, such as jewelry, then you may wish to call a plumber. If it is food, try breaking up the debris by manually turning the disposer blades. The manual operator is normally at the bottom of the disposer and is operated with an Allen key. Refer to disposer manual for full instructions.
Use pliers to remove any loose food debris. If the disposer is still clogged, then you will need to use a plunger. It may be possible to remove the disposer entirely for inspection. Be sure to pinch any connections to dishwasher first, however.
Don't use chemical cleaners with a disposer as these can cause it damage. If the problem turns out not to be the disposer or you don't have one fitted, you will need to explore other methods.
Never stick your hand inside the garbage disposer, as the blades are sharp and can cause serious injury.
3. Use a Plunger
There are three types of plungers: the classic flat-bottom sink plunger, the accordion plunger, and the toilet plunger, which has an additional bell-end at the bottom. You are better off using a flat-bottomed plunger for this job.
How to Unclog Your Kitchen Sink Drain Using a Plunger
- Run a few inches of water into the sink to aid suction and begin plunging.
- If you have a garbage disposer, try running it again afterward. Be careful not to overheat the disposer, however, as that can cause damage.
- Run some water into the sink. If it drains okay, then you're all set.
- If it doesn't run, then you will have to plunge some more or move onto another method.
4. Clean the P-trap
The P-trap is the elbow-shaped pipe under the sink. If this gets clogged with food and/or grease, then you may want to take it apart and clean out the gunk that is causing the blockage.
How to Clean the Kitchen Sink P-trap
- Before you start, make sure that you have a bucket placed under the P-trap to catch the water that is backed up in your sink.
- You will then need to unscrew the connections to the pipe and wall.
- Remove the P-trap and inspect it for debris.
- If the blockage is not in the P-trap, then you will need to try unblocking the drain with a plumbing snake.
5. Use a Plumbers’ Snake
If neither plunging nor cleaning the P-trap works, you may need to use a plumber's snake to get rid of the clog.
This tool consists of a coiled spiral snake, typically around 1/4-inch thick, with a handle at one end. The coil is used to reach down into the drain, and then the handle is cranked, dislodging and pulling up the clog. Some snakes are manually cranked, while others are electrically powered for extra strength.
You Can Use a Wire Coat Hanger If You Don't Have a Snake
If you don't have a plumbing snake on hand, you can also use a wire coat hanger to fish out the clog. This is a cheap, easy method that almost anyone can do—all you need is a wire coat hanger and a pair of pliers.
- Unwind the wire looped around the neck of the hook and straighten out the hanger as much as possible. You might have to use pliers to do this.
- Use the pliers to create a small, one-inch-long hook at one end of the wire. Make sure it is narrow enough to fit through the drain.
- Insert the hooked end of the wire down the drain and gently wiggle it around a bit, trying to find the clog. Do not push down too roughly, as this might push the blockage further down the pipe.
- If you feel anything at the end of the wire, pull it up and out of the drain. You might not be able to remove the whole clog all at once, so try again to see if anything else comes up. Turn on the hot water from your faucet to make sure you got everything.
If you try this trick and fail to find the blockage, it could be that the clog is further down the drain than the wire is able to reach. In this case, try one of the other methods listed in this article.
6. Use Baking Soda and Vinegar
This method avoids the use of chemical cleaners. All you need is one cup of baking soda and one cup of vinegar.
How to Unclog Your Kitchen Sink Drain Using Baking Soda and Vinegar
- First, pour boiling water down the drain. Then push the baking soda down the sink drain, using a spatula if necessary. Allow it to sit for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Next, pour vinegar into the drain. Put the stopper into the sink, pushing the vinegar toward the clog and blocking off the mixture from coming back up.
- Finally, flush the drain with boiling water again.
This method doesn't always work, but it is worth trying.
7. Use Chemicals
Note: If your sink has a garbage disposer, I would seriously recommend that you do NOT use a chemical cleaner, as they can ruin the blades and spray back into your sink.
I would also not recommend using a liquid chemical cleaner if you have a complete clog rather than a slow draining blockage. If using chemicals with a complete blockage, there is a chance that the chemicals will become backed up in the sink, along with stagnant water.
The type of cleaner you get depends on the type of matter you suspect may be causing the clog. Generally speaking, clogs caused by biological matter require a more acidic cleaner, whereas greasy clogs are better dealt with by using alkaline cleaners.
Always read the label carefully and use the cleaner exactly as instructed. Chemical cleaners can be harmful if misused.
8. Call a Plumber
If the above methods fail to work, or you believe that the problem is simply out of your league, then you should call a professional plumber. This is the least affordable option, but it can save time and trouble when nothing seems to work and you don't want to start messing around with the plumbing.
The cost of a plumber can range from $175 to $450 depending on how long the job takes to fix, so be sure to try the other options first if you're price sensitive. If you're not worried about the cost, however, it may be the least troublesome to just get someone else to fix the problem.
The Main Symptoms of a Clogged Sink Drain
The first problem that you are likely to notice is slow drainage: When you turn on the faucet, the water will be slow to go down the drain. After a time, if this is not resolved, the water will begin to back up and drainage may eventually stop altogether. Therefore, the sooner that you can unclog your sink, the better. Standing water is unhygienic, makes things messy, and can make it more difficult to ascertain the nature of the blockage.
What Causes a Kitchen Sink Drain to Become Clogged?
If your kitchen sink has a garbage disposer, it's very probable that the food residue from washing dishes caused your clog. Although most food types are in theory capable of causing clogs, there are some foods that are much worse offenders than others. Rather than putting them down the garbage disposer, it's a much better idea to compost them, throw them away, or otherwise dispose of them responsibly.
Foods that can cause clogs include:
- Meat or grease (such as bacon fat) which can coagulate and then catch other foods.
- Coffee grounds, which can form into hard, compressed lumps if not properly drained.
- Starchy foods, such as rice, potatoes, pasta.
- High fiber foods, such as certain greens, corn husks, and celery.
- Bones from meat and poultry.
- Banana peels and pits from fruits such as mangos, plums, peaches, and apricots.
Besides food, there are plenty of other things that might inadvertently cause your kitchen sink to become clogged, such as napkins, paper towels, medications, food wrappers, bottle tops, hair, or jewelry.
How to Prevent a Kitchen Sink Drain From Clogging
Prevention is almost always better than cure, of course, so it's important that you don't abuse your drain. Be sure not to allow the foods listed above down your drain. However, issue can and do happen, so you may also wish to invest in a good sink strainer to stop the sink drain from getting clogged up with food pieces (see below for my recommendation).
It's also wise to have some basic tools on hand, such as:
- An adjustable wrench
- A pipe wrench
- An Allen wrench
- A Plunger (A bell-less, flat cup-style generally works best for most kitchen drains.)
- White vinegar and baking soda
As mentioned above, a plumbing snake or drain auger can be a very useful tool to have around too. It can be used not just for sinks but also for unclogging shower drains. And, in case none of these methods work, it wouldn't hurt to have the name and number of your local plumber on hand.
What's the Best Sink Strainer For Preventing Clogs?
There are many great products out there that can reduce the amount of clog-forming debris that goes down your drain, but if you want me to highlight just one it would be the Oxo Good Grips Silicone Sink Strainer.
The things I like about this strainer include:
- It does its job effectively, catches the sink debris before it can enter the drain and clog things up.
- It's very easy to clean. The nature of its job means that it collects lots of waste, but the design means that you can invert it to remove debris when cleaning it by hand. You can also put it in the dishwasher.
- It's designed to fit well and it strains without interrupting the flow down the drain.
- It has an attractive appearance and doesn't have a tendency to get stained like can happen with some strainers.
- It's reasonably priced. I ordered mine online and paid less than nine dollars.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 Paul Goodman
EILEEN on March 19, 2019:
I'm no longer scared of tackling this. . .Thanks from Mississippi !
Tung Tran from Ho Chi Minh City on September 29, 2018:
Very good advice after we figure out the tools. Thankyou!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 28, 2017:
Very good advice after we figure out the tools. Thanks for your list of essentials.