Has this ever happened to you? You forget to set your alarm the night before, so you wake up late for work. You only have 10 minutes to shower before you have to run out the door. You let the water run for a minute to warm up; but when you step in, the drain is plugged and you’re standing in 3 inches of cold water. Frustrating, right?
There can be any number of reasons why that drain or any other drain in your house stops flowing properly. Let’s run through the common problems and then we’ll make some recommendations on how to solve them.
Drains, Drains, and More Drains
- Shower and bathtub drains – Hair and soap are usually the culprits for plugging these drains. Long hair generally creates the most trouble as large strands fall down the drain during shampooing or brushing. It clumps in the pipes and eventually stops water from flowing freely. Soap can also build up in the pipes. Although it’s designed to be water soluble, residue left behind from bar soaps can collect on the inside of pipes and restrict water flow.
- Bathroom sink drains – Hair and soap present problems here too, as does toothpaste and dirt. If you’ve ever tried to clean off toothpaste from the sink after its dried, you’ll understand what happens to it inside your drain pipes. Over time, it hardens into an impenetrable mass that needs to be chiseled away. Dirt and grime from hand washing can cause a mess when combined with all the other product buildup.
- Toilets – While most people know that toilet tissue is the only product that should be used here, paper towels, feminine products and the occasional kid’s toy are common culprits. Even thick clumps of toilet paper can cause problems as they will have trouble breaking down.
- Kitchen sink drains – These are probably the most prone to blockage due to the variety of products poured down the drain. Greases, fats, detergent and soap build-up and food particles (big and small) all contribute to clogged kitchen drains. In addition, if there is no garbage disposal installed, heavy liquids such as gravies and heavy oil will congeal and cause a mess.
- Basement, Laundry and Garage Floor Drains – These drains come with a trap that should really be filled with water to prevent sewer gas and other odors from escaping. Dirt and debris typically clog these drains. Regular testing should be done to be sure they’re clear for the large volume of water that may enter through car washing, laundry mishaps, etc.
- Downspout Drains – These take excess roof gutter water away from the foundation and are often connected to an underground pipe. They usually get plugged with leaves and other large debris. This can cause significant problems with overflow at the house, yard or basement.
While many of the problems listed above start inside your home, it’s the buildup of residue and debris that ultimately ends up in the pipes underground. It’s very important to recognize that treating the immediate symptom of the blockage, such as a slow draining shower or plugged toilet, does not necessarily rectify the underlying cause. Here are some common issues that may require more complex action:
Heavy Downpours – Outside drains are not typically designed to manage extremely large volumes of water. When the pipes already have reduced capacity due to leaves and debris, a heavy rainstorm will compound the problem. The drain becomes blocked, cause flooding and possible property damage.
Pipe Breaks – Tree roots, poor installation and age are the main causes of broken pipes. Cracks underground can go undetected for years. As gaps increase, water can’t flow freely and may cause the pipe to collapse. If this happens, the drain will be blocked and water will backup. Tree roots are notorious for causing an enormous amount of damage. A thorough investigation may be required by a professional to locate and repair these types of pipe breaks.
Poor or Incorrect Pipe Installation – In an effort to save money, many homeowners are opting to do repairs and home renovations themselves. Unfortunately, this is leading to inexperienced plumbing installations and drainage problems. Pipes may be misaligned, come apart or the wrong type of materials. Poor workmanship can be dangerous, costly and lead to a very large headache.
Water Flow – Incorrect pipe installation may cause a reduction in water flow. Drainage works best when pipes are installed with adequate falls. This allows gravity to do the majority of the work and waste water can run swiftly away from your home. In situations where there are few or insufficient drops, particles and debris will build up and lead to a blocked drain.
As you can see, there can be any number of reasons for blocked drains. Don’t ignore the warning signs that there may be an obstruction. Watch for a slow-running sink or shower drain, bad odors from drains and sinks, or gurgling sounds after the toilet has been flushed. There are a few things you can try to locate the clog, such as cleaning the trap under the sink:
- You’ll need a few tools: bucket, pliers, wire coat hanger or flexible, plastic barbed strip called a hair snare.
- The bucket should be placed under the sink. When you detach the trap, water and debris will leak out.
- At the base of the trap bend, there should be a clean-out plug. Push the coat hanger or hair snare into the space and pull out any hair or debris.
- If there’s no clean-out plug, you’ll have to unscrew the trap with pliers. Clean out the trap and then replace it.
If that doesn’t fix the problem, other short-term fixes such as plunging or chemical drain cleaners may provide limited relief. It’s likely you’ll need a more extensive clean-out with a plumber’s snake to restore proper flow.
Time to Get Serious
A plumber’s snake or drain auger is a long, flexible metal cable that has a cone-shaped auger on the end. It comes in lengths of 50 to 75 feet and is typically hand powered. There are a few different types of drain snakes for use on toilets, kitchen sinks and other drains. A plastic cover is used on the end of a toilet snake to protect the porcelain from scratching. With each style, you feed the end of the snake into the drain and push it through the pipe by turning a handle. The flexibility of the cable allows it to bend through the pipe without getting stuck. The auger twists and turns, hooking onto obstructions along the way.
Drain snakes are available for rent or purchase and are fairly easy to use:
- Put down some old towels around the drain.
- Wear protective work gloves. This is a messy job so you’ll want to avoid touching the cable or waste that comes out of the drain.
- Make sure you have a bucket available to put the clog in once you locate it.
- Feed the auger end into the drain while constantly turning the cable.
- Move slowly and keep turning the handle to move the snake through the drain pipe. If you’re working in the tub, make sure to use the overflow instead of the floor drain.
- As soon as you reach the clogged area, you’ll feel the cable back up. Continue turning it until it catches the clog.
- Once it becomes difficult to turn, slowly pull the cable out and remove the debris from the auger.
- Flush out the drain with water to make sure the obstruction is clear.
- Spray the snake with bleach or other cleaner and rinse to prevent bacteria growth.
There are a few things you can do to prevent future clogs. Be careful what you put down the drain. Brushing or cutting hair over the sink and rinsing it down will definitely lead to a build-up and eventual clogging. It’s easier to sweep the floor to pick up loose hair or clippings than it is to snake out the drain. Consider installing a hair/crumb catcher. Using liquid soap or hand sanitizer can reduce residue and buildup. Make sure your kitchen sink has a strainer. There are several types available at your local hardware or plumbing store. Refrain from pouring heavy grease, fats, oil or thick liquids down the drain. Throw these in the trash instead. Use common sense when it comes to putting anything down the drain. If there’s any question about whether or not it might plug it up, find another way to dispose of it.
Ongoing drainage problems may be a sign that something more serious is happening underground. Now it’s time to contact a professional plumbing service like Aquamaster Drain, Plumbing & Waterproofing, Inc. to ensure the job is done right.