How to Prevent Clogged Pipes and Drains in Older Houses
Why Clogs Happen in Old Homes
Having owned three older homes in three different states (California, Florida, and Texas), I've encountered my share of clogged drains. If you have an older home and your drains run fine, you are very lucky. If you suffer repeated clogs and calls for the plumber, this article is for you.
Every old home is different because of the materials used in the pipes, the angle of the pipes to the main line, the structure of the house, the soil and the trees in the yard. All of these elements can work to cause you problems with clogs. Some plumbers will work with you to help you uncover the problems with your home, but lots of them do make a living out of handling your clogged drain problems and may not have the interest or knowledge to help you prevent clogs at your house. Since plumbing calls are often eighty dollars or more just to unclog a drain, it pays to be pro-active in solving your own drain problems.
How often do you have drain problems?
5 Ways to Fix Sink Clog
I usually try these in this order:
- Snake out the sink with a tool.
- Use a plunger to try to force the clog down.
- Clean out the drain trap underneath the sink (if it has one).
- Pour in enzymes and let stand recommended amount of time, then pour in boiling hot water. I only use this method if I don't need the sink drained right away.
- Use a chemical cleaner like Draino.
Two Kinds of Blockages
I am not a plumber, but in my experience in owning 5 older houses over the last 35 years, there are generally two types of clogs at my house: sink clogs and main line clogs.
A sink clog is one which affects just one sink or shower. It is due to having lint, hair, soap, and other debris in the drain. Generally, a sink clog can be seen developing. The sink will start to drain more slowly and finally, will just stop draining altogether.
The main line clog is more serious and can happen more suddenly. Sometimes it shows up when just one sink or shower won't drain. Often, however, there are multiple sinks involved, usually on the same side of the house. Basically, what has happened in this situation is that a clog has happened not just in one sink, but somewhere down the pipes under the house or between the house and the street.
Enzyme Product I Use Monthly
The best way I know of to prevent clogs from happening is to use and enzyme treatment in all my sinks and showers once a month. I've tried several different types of enzymes and they seem to work about the same, but I generally use Earth Enzymes because it is easy to get on Amazon. You can also get a good main line enzyme from Roebic which is good to use about 4 times a year to make sure you have clear main lines as well.
Monthly Drain Treatment
- Warm Drain: Run water until it is hot. The enzymes work better in a warm environment.
- Prepare Enzymes: Mix up the enzyme treatment with water (if you've purchased the dry enzymes).
- Pour Enzymes in Drain: Pour the enzyme mix in the sink right before bed. Let it sit overnight so the enzymes can work. One benefit of using enzymes is that they can go into the toilet too. Just put the enzymes in and flush.
- Run Hot Water: If your drains are running slowly, you might want to do a flush the following morning with hot boiling water, or, at least, run the shower until it is as hot as possible. The hot water flush takes the gunk down the drain better. If you have a lot of build-ups, especially the first time you use the enzymes or if you have a clog, you may need to do 2-4 days of treatments to start.
- Use Once a Month: The important part is to use enzymes regularly, once a week at first and then every month at least. Every time I forget to use these or run out and don't get more, I end up with clogged drains.
4 Times a Year Main Line Enzyme Treatment
Other than remembering to do this, it is easy to do a main line enzyme treatment. You just measure out 1 cup and flush down the toilet for 4 days in a row (right before bed). The best one I've found (supported by the reviews at Amazon) is Roebic Main Line Cleaner. Use this once each season (4 times a year) to keep the enzymes active in your main drain. This has really worked great on our house. I've done it for two years now and not had a single time of having to call a plumber.
Main Line Enzyme I Use
Why Enzymes Work
Enzyme treatments are a powdered form of bacteria that likes to eat soap, scum and other gunk that gets in your drain. When you pour the enzyme down the drain, you allow those bacteria to grow down there and feed off all the stuff you don't want to be clogging your drain. The treatment works continuously because the bacteria feed and grow. However, some things we put down the drain can kill them, which is why it is important to add new enzyme each month.
Bleach kills all bacteria and so do many harsh chemicals, including any sort of chemical you put down to unclog the drain. So if you use any antibacterial chemicals down your drain, you do need to replace the enzyme treatment. Generally, I've found that if I do remember to do this once a month, I never have drain problems.
Cause of Main Line Clogs
Build Up of Sludge: Just like your sinks get grunge in them, the main line can be filled with not only the soap and hair and other gunk, but also everything that comes down your toilet, including wads of toilet paper. Use the main line enzymes to help keep your pipes as clean as possible.
Tree Roots: Another cause of Main line clogs are tree roots getting into your pipes. However, they can also be caused by debris from remodeling projects, especially if you are re-doing your sinks and showers. One of our worst problems came after our tile was redone in our bathrooms. Too much of the grout/bits of tile and other things got washed down the drain and created a big mess and a lot of expense to clean out. In the end, the biggest culprit was a piece of black felt backing which got caught and started backing everything else up.
Plumbing Design: Another cause of mainline clogs is just the fact that the original piping gets old or wasn't designed well. There may be angles that catch stuff in them and periodically clog your drains. Moreover, you may end up having some unusual problems in the construction of your older house drainage system. We did and it took some detective work to figure it out. When our house was being constructed, there were septic tanks in our area; however, in the middle of the construction, the city finished sewer lines. Somehow, in the midst of this, our house ended up having two different main pipes which drain out to the main sewer line. This unusual situation caused a problem when the plumbers cleaned out our pipes all the way to the main line but that didn't help the drains in our house. We needed to install another clean out for the other drain
If you suspect some unusual piping, you can call your city and they may have someone who can research records and find out the original plans for your house. The other best resource is an older master plumber, who may not know exactly what is wrong with your house but may have encountered enough unusual situations in his career to be able to help you with your problem.
What You Should Do
While enzymes can help maintain and clear out slow main lines, they can't clear up a clog. In general, main line clogs are not something a homeowner can fix. If you have water backing up in more than one drain, you probably have a main line clog and you'd better call a plumber. In general, we have found that the smaller local plumbers are much better at helping us with our older houses than the big name companies. They tend to employ more experienced plumbers and quite frequently they are much lower in price. If you can't get recommendations from neighbors or friends, you might call and find out which plumbing company has experience with older homes.
Preventing Main Line Clogs
- Remove Trees: If your problem is roots from trees, you may need to remove some of the trees near your home that are causing the problem. After reading about tree roots and pipes, we found out that one of the worst trees for pipes is Palm Trees. We realized that we had three palm trees planted right outside one of our bathrooms, the same bathroom which had experienced repeated problems with main line clogs. Although we regretted losing the trees, we decided that we couldn't afford these continual problems, nor the damage these trees were doing to our pipes. We removed them and have had no more problems with that shower.
- Root Treatment: If you do not want to remove the trees, you can also try putting a root killer down your toilets twice a year, in the fall and spring when roots are forming. These products kill the roots that are in the pipes but do not affect the tree.
- Limit What you Put Down Your Kitchen Drain: Even though your garbage disposal says it can eat anything, that doesn't mean you really should be putting anything and everything down your sink. The last clog I had was actually caused by rice! I knew that putting fibrous things down my drain was bad and so I always put onions, potato peels and thinks like celery in the trash. I also never put any grease down my sink, but I'd never realized that even grains like rice can swell and then clog things up if they stick on something else in the pipes. So now I am trying to put very little down my drain other than the few leftovers in my sink. It just isn't worth it! Have a small trash can near your sink and you can quickly put leftovers inside.
- Don't Put Hair Down the Bathroom Sink: Hair doesn't disintegrate quickly, even with enzymes, and it can quickly make a terrible tangled mess of your drain. Don't take the hair off your brush and put it down your sink or toilet. Put it in the trash, along with dental floss any and another clog catcher. For even extra protection, use a plastic hair catcher on your shower drain and install a drain trap in your bathroom sink. I've designed some DIY mesh drain shower catchers that work great.
- Use Enzymes Regularly: Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is to use and enzyme treatment on a regular basis. By putting these enzymes down your pipes regularly, you allow them to eat away at all the gunk that accumulates. That will keep your pipes freezer all the time. If you have trouble remembering those sorts of regular maintenance jobs like I do, then pick a particular time of the month, like the first Saturday, and put that on your calendar. Because the enzymes need time to grow in the pipes, you need to put them in at night and then not use those sinks and showers until the next morning. Do all the drains in the house at once for best effect.
- Install a lint catcher on the drain from your washing machine: See my hub on how to install a sink and mesh lint catcher in your laundry room.
Older homes have lots of character, but sometimes they also require more work. Just like any other possession, our pipes work better when we take care of them. Which reminds me, I'm out of enzymes and I need to order some more now!
Questions & Answers
The drain hose of my washer runs directly into the wall, so I can't put a lint catcher on it. How do I catch lint from the washer drain hose before it clogs up my pipes?
I had that same problem, and that is why I finally installed a sink for the water to run into so that I could catch the lint better. I'd had that sort of system in a different house, and I knew it worked. I never tried putting a lint catcher on a hose that went into a wall, and I think that it probably would not be a good idea because the lint would catch at the bottom and actually cause the pipe to clog faster. Two ideas I have are:
1. Use enzymes in the pipe regularly.
2. Get a front loading washer that emits less water (this is expensive, but might solve a serious problem).
From what I learned, the plumbing in older homes is not really built to handle the volume of water from extra-large top loaders. Front loading machines are built to be more water efficient and might help.
We have had some sewer backups. The plumber put a camera down the line and said that the problem was there is a damaged tile under a fence line. However, it will be costly to dig up and fix. He suggested flushing the toilet twice. Now my husband thinks he has to flush the toilet twice all the time. Wouldn't it be a better cure to use the mainline cleaner four times a year and maybe get a toilet that flushes with more pressure? We already use toilet paper that is better for the pipes.
Sorry to hear that you have this problem. We have not had a camera down our drains, but we are pretty sure that we had some construction debris put down the drain that tends to snag other things. No amount of "snaking" ever got anything up though. I think your plan is at least worth a try. It is not expensive to use the mainline cleaner, and if it solves the problem, that would be great. A new toilet would be more expensive, but I think you are right that one bigger flush might be enough. However, the point of flushing twice might be just to make sure everything has moved down the drain. I think you probably only need to do that when someone has a bowel movement, which would only be a few times each day. Another possibility is to put your toilet paper into a covered trash can, at least most of the time. They do that in China to prevent drain problems. It isn't common here, and you probably wouldn't want to ask visitors to do that, but you could try to see if that helps.