How to Clear a Clogged Drain
This is all fine, but Spritz prefers to go in with the heavy artillery. I take a quart of fiery hot battery acid (heated with a blow torch to 500 degrees) and hope for the best.
How to Clear a Clogged Drain
By James Austin, NY Times
Published June 2, 2022
Indoor plumbing is one of those modern conveniences that you never really appreciate until it stops working—you know, like that day you realize the dirty dish water in your kitchen sink isn’t going down the drain like it’s supposed to. Luckily, there are a few effective ways to move that clog along.
What you need
Boiling water: Sometimes the heat is enough to break up a new clog or melt some of the grease that’s built up in your pipes.
Plunger: A good old plunger can clear clogs from your toilet as well as your kitchen sink (though make sure you have the right one for each).
Dish soap: A number of things could be slowing the flow of your drains. But if it’s grease or something similar (a common kitchen-sink clog), dish soap works to break up those compounds and makes it easier to move the clog along.
Baking soda and vinegar: When you mix these two, the fizzing of the rapid creation of carbon dioxide gas can work to loosen some of the simpler clogs.
A plastic drain cleaner: Sometimes called a hair snake or drain cleaning tool, these flat plastic lengths are designed to flex into small drains, hook drain detritus, and allow you to pull them out. These are best for clogs that are a short way down the drain. But you can’t be too vigorous when using one, or you’ll snap it and have even more material obstructing your drain.
Drain snake or auger: A drain snake or drain auger is an amateur drain cleaner’s last step. These long, flexible metal spools wind into a drain to seek out the clog. Depending on the design, this tool will either break up the clog so it can flow through your pipe or hook onto the bulk so you can pull the clog back out. They usually cost about $20 to $25 at most hardware stores.
How long will this take to clean?
The time it takes will depend on how complex your drain is (sometimes you need basic tools to unscrew the drain plug mechanism in a sink or tub) and how stubborn the clog is. But if you end up going through all of the strategies to clear a clog, it can take about an hour.
Start by dialing up the heat
An electric kettle with a clear glass body that is filled with boiling water.
Photo: James Austin
If you’ve noticed your drain beginning to slow, but not fully stop up, boiling water can occasionally break up a clog before it really has a chance to form. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Then carefully pour it down the drain a batch at a time, letting the heat ease into the pipe and hopefully melt or break up the obstruction.
Add some cleaner and give it a push
If the super-hot H₂O doesn’t drive out the clog by itself, add some household cleaners to make the clog less sticky. Then push the clog through with a plunger.
For the kitchen sink, which is often blocked by grease and food, normal dish soap can do some of the work of breaking down the clog and make it easier to plunge.
First, pour a few tablespoons of dish soap into the drain, and let it sit for a few minutes, to give the soap time to reach the clog. Then flush it out with boiling water. For bathroom sinks, it’s more likely that hair or other fibrous material is causing the clog. Dish soap won’t do the job here; try using baking soda and vinegar in a similar process. If the clog still doesn’t move, it may be time to break out the plunger.
Before plunging a sink, be sure to cover the overflow opening (in bathroom sinks these tend to be small holes near the top of the basin) with a wet rag to avoid pushing water back up through that. Then put a bit of water into the basin, cover the drain with the plunger, and—gently—begin to push the water through.
Send in the snakes
A person inserting a white plastic drain snake into the drain of a bathroom sink.
Photo: James Austin
If none of that works, it may be time to go fishing for the clog directly. There are a few things you can use to get this done, but the most common are referred to as drain snakes. These flexible, narrow devices reach down the pipe and either fish out or break up the clog manually.
The thin, flat plastic snakes, also found at hardware stores, are useful if the clog is fairly high up in the pipe and is something clumpy and fibrous, like hair. The small spines on the snake make it easy to slide past the blockage, hook it, and bring the gunk up when you pull it back.
When you have a larger clog or one that’s a bit farther down, you can use an auger-type snake (sometimes called a drain auger, but that tends to refer to larger or more complex devices used by professional plumbers). This finds the clog and, through a spiraling drill-like action, breaks it apart manually so it flows away. These can reach farther into pipes than plastic snakes and take on tougher clogs.
If after all of these methods you still have sluggish drains, it’s probably time to call a professional.
What about chemical drain openers like Liquid-Plumr?
Chemical cleaners like Liquid-Plumr or Drano are designed to eat through whatever they come across, but that can also include your pipes themselves. In addition to being difficult to work with and potentially damaging, if it doesn’t clear the clog, you now have to deal with a backup of caustic, dangerous sludge whenever you try to actually clear the drain. Better to avoid whenever possible.
This article was edited by Amy Koplin and Ben Frumin.