How Do I Fix That? Part 1: A Clogged Drain

How Do I Fix That? Part 1: A Clogged Drain

While we might enjoy watching the various home improvement shows filling up cable programming, many of us can’t complete the most basic of home improvement projects. The How Do I Fix That? series will show you how to tackle a range of problems that have plagued homeowners for time immemorial. Each installment will provide a walkthrough for the problem at hand so you’ll know what to expect before you get started. Now, get into your old work jeans and roll up your sleeves – we’re going to get messy.

One of the more terrifying things you’ll ever hear as a homeowner is: “The water’s not going down the drain!”

That usually means lots of inconvenience and lots of stinky gunk stuck in your plumbing. It can also mean lots of waiting for a plumber and lots of numbers on the bill.

How Do I Fix That? Part 1: A Clogged Drain
THAT is a repulsive sink and clogged drain.

Take heart! A clogged drain can become an ugly problem, but you can troubleshoot it without resorting to dangerous and damaging chemicals and then prevent the clog from happening again. It’s really just a matter of understanding how drains work and how problems happen. To do this, we’ll start at the mouth of the problem: the drain opening.

The Basics

In the Bathroom

Most bathroom sinks have similar drain assemblies. The drain stopper has a tailpiece that extends about two inches into the drain tube and hooks onto a rod linked to the drain-stopper-popper behind the faucet. This is called a pivot and clevis assembly.

The linkage from the stopper to the pivot is a common place for clogs to form. Dirt, skin flakes, saliva, and especially hair binds with soap scum and builds up all around this linkage. If your drain clogs (or even before it does), the first thing you should do is pull out the drain stopper and clean off the tail piece.

In the Kitchen

Kitchen sink drains clog when cooking grease or oil cakes on drain pipe walls. Over time, the build up will restrict water flow. Also, soap scum and sticky food bits like rice (which expands in water) can collect in pipe bends and form nasty clogs.

How Do I Fix That? Part 1: A Clogged Drain
Don’t be afraid of your plunger!

Your first step is to use the humble plunger.

  • Run very hot water down the drain to soften the clog followed by a dollop of dish detergent and then more hot water.
  • Wait a few minutes and then use the plunger.
  • Repeat the hot water and plunge again.

Keep in mind that, for bathroom sinks and tubs, you must block off the overflow drain before you start plunging. Otherwise, you’ll just circulate clogged water through that drain.

Getting Dirtier

If either fix doesn’t work, you still have plenty of options. Clogs commonly form in the trap, a J-shaped bend in the drain pipe that prevents sewer gases from entering your home. You can disassemble the drain’s J-tube joint and clean it out.

How Do I Fix That? Part 1: A Clogged Drain
You really need that bucket there when unclogging your drain. That dirty water and gunk needs somewhere to go!
  • Put a bucket beneath the pipes to catch water before you disassemble the joint.
  • This joint should come apart easily by carefully using a pair of water pump pliers to loosen the compression collars.

If that fails, the clog is further down the pipe. You still have two more options.

Baking Soda and Vinegar:

  • Run hot water into the drain for about 2 minutes.
  • Next, pour ½ cup of baking soda and hot water into the drain.
  • Pour ½ cup of vinegar into the drain with some more water.
  • Close and seal both the drain and over flow drains for a minute or two while the CO2 gas pressure unblocks the drain line.

Use caution since older drain pipes can burst from the gas pressure.

Hand-Powered Drain Auger: These can reach between 2 to 5 feet down the drain pipe to break apart or retrieve things (such as somebody’s action figure) blocking the pipe.

What If It’s WORSE?

One tool to consider purchasing for you home plumbing arsenal is a 25-foot drum auger. This is a coiled wire auger powered by a home power drill. You feed the business end into a drain clean-out (usually near the soil stack) and run the drill  to make the auger spin and thrash around inside the drain pipe until the obstruction is broken apart. These augers cost about $15 to $25, but can take out almost any household sewer clog.

And if it’s truly worse, you really should contact a professional plumber to help you. I mean – your family DOES need clean water, right?

To Prevent a Clogged Drain

How Do I Fix That? Part 1: A Clogged Drain
You think that’s dirty? Imagine what happens when you DON’T clean your drain regularly.

Frequently cleaning drains and stoppers as well as using hair strainers will great reduce the chance for clogs to form. Remember to put hair clippings in the trash (or in your garden to scare off rabbits) and NOT down your drain.

Dispose of large kitchen grease and oil by letting the stuff solidify in a dish or cooking vessel. After it’s hardened, scrape the mess into a plastic bag, seal it, and throw it out with the garbage.

Clogged toilets are a nasty business (we’ll cover toilets later). Toilets back up mainly when people flush away things items that do not dissolve or break part in water.

Never flush:

  • Feminine Hygiene Products
  • Cotton-Tipped Swabs
  • Dental Floss
  • Pre-moistened Diaper Wipes

Next Month in How Do I Fix That?, we’ll help you hang a heavy frame or painting.

Related Posts


Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.