One of the most common calls that plumbers get are for drain blockages and backups. Whether it’s a sink that’s not draining, a toilet that is overflowing, or a much deeper problem that is affecting many drains at once, many clogs are beyond the skills of a homeowner to clear, and the knowledge and tools plumbers have available is needed. In this blog we’ll discuss a variety of tools that plumbers use to clear clogs, including some that are readily available to homeowners.
Every clog and every drain is different. We often say that drain cleaning is an art that many plumbers never master, and homeowners should be aware of that when they are looking for service. Our drain specialist Tyler Pittenger was once the seventh plumber called to a home to solve a drainage problem and clear a clog. He did solve it, of course, because that’s what he does, but that’s a lesson in taking the time to research to seek out the best companies and technicians rather than hiring the first plumber that can come out.
Common Causes of Clogged Drains
The first step of clearing a clogged drain is determining where the blockage is in the system, and what the blockage consists of. This will help determine what tools and methods are used to address it. Let’s discuss some common causes of blockages so we know what we might be facing.
One of the main causes of bathroom shower and sink blockages is hair. As hair goes down the drain, it can mix with body oils, soap scum, and other sticky substances, eventually forming a mass that slows or completely stops water from draining. These can sometimes be the easiest clogs to clear because they often occur close to the drain itself and can easily be reached with a short snake or by taking apart the p-trap or other assemblies.
One important thing to know about hair-based clogs is that there are no chemicals on the market that will dissolve hair, at least not without dissolving your pipes, too. Many times, homeowners use Drano or another product to “clear” a slow drain, and it seems to work for a while, but then the problem keeps coming back. One common reason for this is that the chemicals are simply cleaning the sticky substances off of a ball of hair, but the hair remains in place and immediately starts gathering new soap scum, oils, and more hair! So take note that hair-based clogs almost always require mechanical removal.
Grease and Fats.
Grease and fats should never go down the drain, period. Once they reach the cool, dark interior of a drainpipe they can solidify in place, and either cause a backup on their own or start collecting other debris that will eventually cause problems. Clogs caused by grease and fats can also be hard to completely remove without the right expertise. A snaking tool can punch a hole through the grease that is big enough to allow water to flow through, but yet leave a circular ring of grease that will eventually close up again. Or, even worse, a snake can punch out the center of a grease clog but then pull it right back into place when the snake is removed!
We constantly tell customers – in person and in blogs – that a garbage disposal is not for disposing of garbage. In fact, very little should actually be sent down the disposal. Starches like potatoes sure do grind up nicely in the disposal, but then they become a sticky paste that catches other debris and clogs pipes. Coffee grounds, eggshells, fibrous vegetables, the list of food wastes that are convenient to send down the drain but create plumbing nightmares is endless. We’ll talk more about how these clogs are removed but take note that the less you put down the disposal, the better.
We constantly get calls to retrieve items that have fallen into drains or toilets (or things that have been “placed” there by little hands that don’t know better). In the best-case scenarios, the objects haven’t gone far into the system and can be fished out with the right tools, but not always. Sometimes items find their way through openings you wouldn’t expect they could, and we have to go deep to deal with them.
And again, often we don’t know what is causing a backup until we investigate, and foreign objects are often the surprise cause. Q-tips, feminine products, ‘flushable wipes” (nope), Matchbox cars, Legos, action figures, you name it. Our drain specialist Tyler likes to tell the story of a drain that kept backing up despite several “cleanings” by other companies. As he navigated his fiberoptic camera deep into the drain system to find the problem, the lens turned around a blind bend in the pipe and he came face to face with Thomas the Train!
The quality and character of your water supply and any filtration systems you use will determine what kind of minerals build up in your pipes over time. Calcium and magnesium are common culprits. Mineral deposits narrow the diameter of your pipes and can cause slow drains on their own or contribute to a clog. These deposits can’t simply be pushed open and flushed out; they require special tools to grind them away and return pipes to their correct dimensions.
Tree roots typically only affect the biggest drains in your system, usually the mainline sewer. Roots naturally seek out water, and drainpipes are a constant source of water, so any opportunity that roots can find to infiltrate those pipes will be taken. And once they’re in, they are a powerful force. Tree roots can be removed with special tools (“Rooter” companies name their entire brand after one tool), but once they are in they have to be cleared regularly, or (better) the pipe needs to be repaired or replaced.
The Many Tools Plumbers Use to Unclog Drains
As we mentioned before, every clog is different, and drain is different, and clearing drains is as much an art as a skill. A competent drain specialist will not show up with a single tool, try to push whatever is in there out of the way, then pack up and say, “that’s it, you’re good.”
Any significant blockage should be investigated before choosing a tool and a course of action. Where is the clog likely located in the system? What is the best way to access it? What damage could we cause? Can we use a camera to view the blockage while we work on it, or do we have to work by feel?
And once we have cleared the blockage, do we know what caused it? Are there physical issues in the pipe that need to be addressed? Does the customer need information about how to care for their plumbing system and how to prevent recurrence?
With those questions in mind, let’s look at the kinds of tools a plumber might turn to depending on the individual situation.
The humble plunger is the first tool to grab for almost any drain issue. Any homeowner can turn to their plunger right from the beginning to see if they can clear a simple backup on their own, and a plumber might give the plunger a try as well when they arrive, just to see if a little “technique” can make the difference.
The proper way to use a plunger is with a rapid up-and-down motion. A plunger works by increasing pressure in one direction and then decreasing it in the other. When you do this quickly you create a strong back-and-forth pressure wave that can effectively dislodge many simple clogs. If you try to “plunge” by simply pushing and waiting, you probably won’t get very far. Vigorous action is the key to using a plunger successfully.
FYI: Professional plumbers don’t use chemicals like Drano or Liquid-Plumbr. These products are extremely caustic and rarely work except for the lightest clogs. If proper technique with a plunger doesn’t work, chemicals probably won’t work either. We don’t use them, and we don’t recommend that homeowners use them. If you do decide to use them, we urge you to take every precaution to protect your (and your family’s) eyes and skin, and the surfaces around the clogged drain.
Hair Snake/”Drain Weasel”.
These are lightweight tools that a plumber is unlikely to turn to, but as we mentioned earlier, some bathroom clogs that are hair-based can be pretty close to the drain itself, and these inexpensive flexible plastic tools could be enough for a homeowner to DIY their issue. Just be careful not to break them off inside a drain!
These augers come in various styles and sizes, but the basic idea is that they provide a reasonably long steel cable with an expanded end that can be rotated by hand to help clear a stubborn clog. A professional plumber may have this tool available and an occasional use for it, but most skilled drain technicians will own motorized augers and not need to break out a much-lower-torque tool unless they have a very specific reason. If you are a homeowner and decided to invest in one, you’ll want to be sure that the expanded end isn’t too big for the pipes you’re trying to clear, and that you don’t try to navigate a pipeline that curves to much and can trap the cable.
On blueprints, toilets are still labeled “W.C.” for “water closet”, and many plumbing items still use the word “closet” for the toilet as well. “Closet auger” is one of them. This tool is simply a short auger, usually manual, that has a rubber sleeve to protect the porcelain bowl of the toilet, and preferably allows the user to stand back a bit. Plumbers certainly will use this tool (usually powered) if a blockage is still within the toilet itself rather than deeper in the plumbing system, and manual augers are available for homeowner or professional use as well.
Powered Drain Cable.
Many people will call this a powered snake or auger, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this tool is a big step up and is what makes most deep clog clearing possible. This tool has a thick cable with an expanded head that can apply significantly more torque to a clog and reach much farther; our guys keep up to 150’ on our trucks.
Different heads can be attached to a motorized cable to cut through certain types of clogs – like tree roots, for example – or to grind away mineral buildup or other solid obstructions.
A hydrojet uses highly pressurized water to break up clogs and clean pipes. For most clogs it is overkill, but for a particularly stubborn clog it might be an option. Typically, though a hydrojet is used for cleaning the inside of pipes that have crud throughout rather than simply trying to clear a backup.
Fiberoptic “Sewer” Camera.
This is one of the real secrets of the pros. If you can see what the clog is, you can choose the best tool from the outset. If you can see what is happening to the clog while you are working to remove it with an auger, you can do the job much more quickly and effectively. And once the clog is cleared, you can inspect the pipe for further issues to ensure that clogs won’t be a recurring problem.
Clogged pipes and backups can be an inconvenience, and they can be a disaster. In this blog we’ve covered common types of clogs, the typical tools to address them, and in which instances homeowners can try to solve problems themselves and when it’s time to call a professional.
We’ve also explained that drain cleaning is something of an art that a lot of plumbers never really master. It’s more than just pushing a snake down the drain and hoping it can break through whatever mystery is down there. Skilled drain technicians consider every aspect of the individual plumbing system and likely causes of the clog before they even attempt to clear a line. And once the line is clear, they use a sewer camera or other method to ensure the problem is completely resolved before declaring the job a success.