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How to Clear Blocked Drains

There are few home repairs inside or outside the house that demand your immediate attention like a clogged drain. Plumbing problems can be alarming, but there are a wide variety of DIY tools and methods that can help you clear the blockage yourself and restore normal order back to your home without needing to resort to plumbers. But remember, if none of these methods work, it is best to call the professionals in sooner rather than later.

Boiling water

The simplest home remedy to a blocked drain is to pour boiling water down the drain. Boil some water in a kettle or in a saucepan on the stove. A kettle is a little easier to manoeuvre when pouring the water, but if you do not own one, a large saucepan will do. You will need at least 3 litres of water just to make sure. Once the water is boiling, pour it slowly down the drain, a litre or so at a time, pausing for 20-30 seconds in between to let it settle. Once the kettle or saucepan is empty, try turning on the tap to ensure the clog has been cleared. If not, it is time to move on to the next step in the list.

Bicarb (baking soda) and Vinegar

This method works best if you do not have standing water in the sink. Get some baking soda or bi-carb soda (note: not baking powder! It does contain bi-carb soda, but it has extra things added that will not help your clogged sink like cornstarch). Pour a cup of baking soda down the sink, trying to get it all down into the pipe. Immediately follow up with a cup of vinegar. It should fizz up and the reaction should clear any gunk that is blocking your sink. Let the mixture sit for at least an hour before following up with a cup or two of hot water (or just turning the hot tap on) to clear out the remaining baking soda and vinegar and ensure your drain is clear.

Plunge It

A plunger can be used on its own or as a second step to the baking soda and vinegar solution. Plungers are a great method when there is standing water in the sink which makes it harder to use home remedies or chemicals to clear. To use alone, first cover any overflow drains if there are any with a wet towel. Also use the same method to cover any nearby drains, for example if you have a double sink in the kitchen cover the other, unblocked drain with a wet towel. This will help improve the plungers suction power. Next, place the rubber end of the plunger over the drain and push down on the handle gently to force the air out. Start plunging quickly and firmly, directing the pressure down the drain without lifting the plunger enough to break the seal. Continue this action for approximately 20 seconds then remove the plunger and the clog should be cleared.

To use a plunger along with baking soda and vinegar, first follow the original steps for the baking soda and vinegar and wait for an hour. Then, if the clog is particularly stubborn, you can use the plunger as per above.

Drain Snake

Similar to a plunger, a drain snake or drain auger is something useful to have around the house. You should be able to buy one at any hardware store. It consists of a long, flexible cable with a coil on the end. You feed it down the drain and the coil on the end can hook the clog and then you gently pull it back up and out of the drain. A drain snake is particularly effective on shower drains that have been clogged with hair as they can be very solid and stubborn clogs that you cannot easily melt with chemicals or push down the drain with force.

Chemical Drain Cleaners

There are some disadvantages to chemical drain cleaners. They are extremely toxic if swallowed, and they can burn eyes and skin as well as eat through clothing if spilled. They can also release noxious fumes, so make sure whatever product you choose, you use it in a well-ventilated area, wear rubber gloves, and keep children and pets away while you work.

Read the directions carefully and follow all the warnings carefully. Never mix different drain cleaners, and never use a plunger as well as a chemical drain cleaner.

Despite all the warnings, they can be extremely effective in unblocking drains. There are many types that can be bought from any hardware store or even grocery chain.

There are three main types of chemical drain cleaner:

Caustic drain cleaners

Caustic drain cleaners are good for grease blockages as they contain materials such as lye and caustic potash, which forms a chemical reaction that releases heat and turns grease into something that is more easily dissolved. Caustic drain cleaners are usually heavier than water, and thus can be used on a sink with standing water in it.

Oxidizing drain cleaners

Oxidizing drain cleaners are good for food, hair, and other organic material blockages. Consisting of substances such as bleach, peroxides, and nitrates, they cause any organic material to become oxidized and dissolve. Like caustic drain cleaners, oxidising drain cleaners can be used on sinks with standing water as they are heavier than water and thus will move down to clear the blockage

Acid drain cleaners

Acid drain cleaners are quite rare, and often are only sold to plumbers. If you do manage to obtain one, they are similar to caustic drain cleaners as they specialise in grease clogs. The high concentrations of sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid react with the grease and release heat, melting it and clearing the drain.

Cleaning the Pipe

This can sound intimidating, but if you are careful it is an easy plumbing job you can do yourself. First, place an empty bucket underneath the U-shaped pipe (the trap) beneath the sink. This will ensure any water that comes out of the pipe will not make a mess. Using a wrench, carefully loosen the slip nuts at both ends of the pipe. When the trap is free, gently remove it and tip anything in it into the bucket. A wire coat hanger can be useful here to get around the bend and fish out any debris that may be inside. You can also use a flashlight to check the drain downwards to see if you can see any blockages there which you can manually push through. Rinse the trap and then carefully put it all back together. Leave the bucket under the trap while you test it in case you did not tighten the nuts enough, but you should now have both a new skill and a free-flowing drain.