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When Your Drain Is a Pain

The natural reaction for many homeowners when they realize they have a clogged drain is to stand frozen at the spot where nothing is sinking but their spirits as they consider the likelihood of paying for a plumber. But it doesn't have to be that way. Many drain-line problems can be pinpointed and corrected by anyone with a basic understanding of their home's wastewater system. Knowing how your plumbing system works won't make unclogging jobs any less messy, but it will save you some real dollars over the years.


Easy First Fixes

Many common household items, such as grease and soap, can coat the inside of your drainpipes. Bits of food and other particles then cling to that coating. Over time, they will narrow the pipe diameter enough to cause a clog. This narrowing effect is exacerbated in pipes with rougher interiors, such as cast-iron pipes, where particles cling more easily. Buildup also tends to accrue faster on longer sections of horizontal pipe with insufficient pitch, where the pipe changes direction, and around fittings with rough interior edges.

This means that very few clogs originate in the trap under the fixture (contrary to what almost every drain cleaner commercial has shown you), but rather in one of the aforementioned areas, and usually behind a wall or under a finished floor. Toilets are the exception, as those clogs occur in the trap almost every time.

If only one fixture is backing up, chances are the clog is confined to either the strainer/stopper or the pipe just beyond the trap. This is the time to try the simplest fixes first. Take the following steps:

n Remove any screws holding your drainer in place and pry it up carefully. Stoppers may need to be cleaned regularly, and often must be unscrewed from the drain or removed from a pivot rod under the sink. Wash away anything that has collected around it, and wash the area around the top of the drain. If water flows freely, replace and go about your business.

n A time-tested home remedy for small clogs is to dump half a cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by half a cup of white vinegar. Cover the mixture and let it sit for several minutes, then pour boiling water down the drain. This mixture will dissolve fatty acids, and the boiling water will wash all the loose debris away. It might take a while or a few tries to work, but it's a toxin-free method.

n The plunger ain't glamorous, but it sure is effective when used properly. To create enough suction to move a clog, block any overflow holes or drains in adjacent sinks. A wet rag will do. You may even want to apply a thick bead of petroleum jelly around the rim of the plunger for a tighter seal and even greater suction. Make sure there is at least a couple inches of water in the basin to help force the obstruction free and start forcing the handle up and down. When clear, run plenty of hot water down the drain. Again, don't give up on it too quickly; even 10 minutes of plunging beats a plumber™s flat rate for a house call.


Getting at the Clog

A home's plumbing system is not only designed to supply fresh water and to drain wastewater, but also to be serviceable in the event of a blockage. Plumbing codes require cleanouts to be installed in areas where blockages can be accessed easily, for example, the base of the main stack and where the drain leaves the home. Traps under sinks are also considered cleanouts by code, as they are designed to be dismantled easily. Some traps even have cleanout plugs (threaded plugs with square or hexagonal heads) on the base of the bend in the trap. These various cleanouts provide easy access to the pipe beyond nearby fixtures.

n Wear leather or similar heavy gloves light gloves (and your fingers) can be caught in the snake. Also remember to wear safety goggles.

n Make sure the snake is going the right direction in the pipe, i.e. not up the vent pipe as opposed to down to the clog. You may need to peek inside the pipe with a flashlight to make sure the snake is headed in the right direction.

n Once you've fished the snake in, push and rotate the auger head into the clog. Then, either push the clog free and continue reaming out the pipe, or pull the clog back to you and out of the pipe.

n If you're using a power auger, keep a minimal amount of the snake exposed between the tool and the cleanout opening, as too much slack can suddenly coil up and around your arms, potentially causing injury. And as always, when using power tools near water, make sure they are plugged into a proper GFCI extension cord or outlet.

n When the clog is cleared, flush the pipe with cold water.

Know When to Say When

If all these measures fail, you might want to think about calling a pro. You can rent a small electric auger that will snake into sewer lines, but if you're uncomfortable with this idea, don't try to talk yourself into it. Fishing around down there could cause bigger, messier and more expensive problems.

So sometime after you've given it your best shot, and hopefully well before your family has lost all patience, give your plumber a call. At the very least, you'll know you won't have to pay a full hour™s labor for a five-minute fix. And at best, you can watch the plumber work and learn what to do next time.