Updated on 06.24.11

Handling Clogged Drains Frugally

Trent Hamm

I’m going to be kind and spare you with pictures in this post. Yes, I took them. No, I don’t really think they’re all that appealing.

This past week, I had to clear out two different clogged drains around our home. This surprised me a bit, as I usually try to keep them clear using a few simple techniques (which I’ll mention at the bottom of the post). Unfortunately, if there’s a way to obstruct a drain, children will figure it out. I’m not entirely sure what they did, but both clogged drains came from a toilet and a sink used just by our children.

Hopefully, these techniques will keep you from having to call a plumber for such things.

Tools You’ll Need
The three big things you’ll need for drain clearing are baking soda, vinegar, and washing soda. Baking soda is so useful that I’ll buy it in large quantities at discount stores.

If you have difficulty finding washing soda, spread some baking soda out on a cookie sheet and bake it at 200 F for an hour. The heat will turn the baking soda into washing soda. Do not do large quantities of this at once and turn on the vents and open the windows when you do this.

You’ll also need a flexible plastic drain-clearing rod, which you can get at a hardware store for a dollar or less.

If you’re really interested in keeping your drains clear on your own, you should pick up a toilet auger (designed for toilet use) and a crank auger (for other drains in your home). These are tools of last resort when the other things don’t work, but I’ve not had to use an auger in years. They’re easy to use, though, as you just feed a flexible tube down your drain to force a hole in whatever’s clogging your drain. If an auger doesn’t work, it really is time to call the plumber.

Six Tactics
I strongly encourage you to try these tactics in order.

Tactic #1 The first tactic to try is to simply use the drain-cleaning stick, alternating it with hot water. Press the stick into the drain (while obviously holding onto the other end of it) and pull it out repeatedly. Wiggle it around in the drain. Then run hot water into the drain. If the clog is small and straightforward, this will do the trick.

Tactic #2 If you’ve already tried a commercial drain cleaner – which I don’t recommend except as a last resort – don’t use this tactic as you’ll get some horrible reactions. Pour 1/2 cup baking soda into the drain, followed by 1 cup heated white vinegar (just put a cup of vinegar into a bowl in the microwave for 20 seconds or so). You’ll hear a sizzling sound in a moment – and possibly some foam will come up from the drain. All of this is fine. Wait until you hear no more sizzling and no more foam is emerging, then add a quart or so of boiling water to the drain. Let this sit for a bit, then try using tactic #1 again.

Tactic #3 Again, if you’ve already tried a commercial drain cleaner – which I don’t recommend except as a last resort – don’t use this tactic as you’ll get some horrible reactions. Pour 1 cup washing soda straight into the drain and let it sit for 15 minutes. You may hear some sizzling and popping just from the washing soda – that’s good. Follow that with two quarts or so of boiling water. Let this sit for a bit, then try using tactic #2 again if the drain isn’t completely clear.

Tactic #4 This is the time to break out the augering tool. Flush the drain repeatedly with hot water. Do this at least five times. Then, use the augering tool to clear the drain. Once you have a breakthrough, use tactic #2 again.

Tactic #5 If you’re at this point and still haven’t called a plumber, you can try using a commercial drain cleaning product, such as Liquid Plumr or Drano. Go to a local hardware store and ask for a recommendation, as different cleaners tend to work well in different water conditions. Follow this up with a few quarts of boiling water, then tactic #4 or #2.

Tactic #6 If all of this has failed, you’re going to be moving into removing pipes. Unless you’re confident with that or have a desire to learn how to remove pipes and reconnect them, I would contact a plumber.

Over the past decade of living in apartments and in my home, I have never had to use tactic #6 and I’ve only resorted to tactic #5 once. The other tactics have always taken care of the problem.

Cleaning Up
This is important enough to merit a separate section.

Once you believe the drain is clear or mostly clear, run hot water down that drain for a while. Turn the water on full hot and let it run. You might also want to boil some additional water and pour it down the drain. Hot water will flush away remaining pieces of the clog and any chemical residue left on the insides of your drain. You do not want sodas or drain cleaners sitting in your pipes over an extended period of time.

And there you have it. You can clean your drains for pennies without having to call a plumber

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  1. Michelle says:

    You forgot to mention your techniques for keeping your drains clear.

  2. LB says:

    We have had great luck with just a plunger. I read on This Old House’s website a couple of years ago that the key to plunging a tub or sink is to completely and firmly cover the overflow hole with a WET cloth. When we have a clogged drain, I hold the cloth over the overflow and my husband uses the plunger. If one person tries to hold the cloth and plunge at the same time, it’s not as effective since you can’t plunge as fast or as vigorously (I know that sounds bad. I can’t think of any other way to say it).

  3. Thomas says:

    I have no experience with NaHCO3, but I use NaOH for drain cleaning and unless it’s stuck with something solid (toilet fresheners,…) it will melt it.

    1. prepare few spoons of NaOH into a cup
    2. prepare 1/2 liter (16oz) of boiling water
    3. pour all boiling water in toilet
    4. scream “fire in the hole”
    5. dump whole cup in same place (be careful about your eyes!)
    6. wait 10 minutes
    7. flush

  4. Steven says:

    Makes me want to go clog the drains and try out your tips! ;)

  5. lurker carl says:

    My years of experience dealing with tenants in rental properties. Most chemicals are a waste of money, they may open the drain just enough to drain water but seldom remove the clog.

    Disassemble the trap and clean it out. If the obstruction is beyond the trap, suck it out with a wet vac. If the obstruction is beyond the sewer line vent, use a hand snake or auger. Flush the drain lines with boiling water after the clog is removed.

    Dump two gallons of boiling water down each sink drain every month, weekly in kitchens, to dissolve fresh grease and soap/detergent buildups. This will also control slime molds that grow large enough to restrict drain lines. Teach the tenants (or family members) not to use sinks or toilets to dispose of grease, garbage, diapers, paper towels, socks, rubber gloves, jewelry, underwear, toys.

    Be careful with acidic or alkaline chemicals, not only can they be quite destructive to living tissues but will eventually corrode metal sewer lines.

  6. Debbie M says:

    Yeah, the prevention tips don’t work so great with kids. But I found that adding a strainer made a big difference. Of course you have to clean out the strainer all the time, but at least the strainer is easy to reach. But then most of my clogged drains have been due mostly to hair; sometimes carpet fiber sticking to bare feet that then go into the shower.

    I do love those drain-cleaning sticks–or at least the one I have which is a long thing of plastic with plastic barbs. It’s super cheap, like $2 or $3, and though they say not to re-use it, I just make sure to be careful when cleaning it and to store it in a way where you won’t accidentally stab yourself.

    Thanks for leaving out the pictures of the clogs. Pictures of the tools would be okay, though. I never heard of the plastic drain-cleaning tool until I read about it online.

  7. deb says:

    Years ago we had only one toilet in the house. My husband left for a business trip and also left a clogged toilet when he departed (no, he didn’t know). We had two young boys at the time and one of them “had to go” and we had real mess. The plunger did not work. I went to the hardware store and bought a “miracle plunger” that also didn’t work. Back to the hardware store (also used their bathroom while I was there, lol), I found a plumber’s snake. Used it. It was GROSS, but worked. I spent about $40, learned a lot about toilets, saved big $$ by not calling a plumber.

  8. Alice says:

    every few months, I find the shower and bathroom sink drains get clogged. I take a wire coathanger and fold it in half, and twist the hook a bit to get an angle. I push it into the drain a few times, and invariably pull out big clumps of hair. Run hot water through after no more hair can be pulled out. It has worked every time (there is a trap thing over the drain, which is cleaned daily, somehow the hair gets through). I didn’t know about the plastic drain cleaning thing.

  9. SwingCheese says:

    We haven’t had the problem at our house, but in our last apartment, the shower drain was constantly clogging up. I tried both baking and washing soda, but to no avail. We had to call maintenance every time, and each time, he just brought up the pipe snake. I’ve wondered since if a pipe snake might be a good investment :)

  10. Bill says:

    Pipe snakes are a great investment and they make a special one for toilets that has a covered bend to protect the finish of your toilet. It’s been said above the best preventative care is boiling water.

  11. ysabet says:

    Just thought I’d pitch in with a little chemistry knowledge, because knowing what’s actually going on is usually a good thing.

    NaHCO3 + heat -> Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2

    Basically, heating your bicarb soda will give you washing soda (sodium carbonate, Na2CO3), water (as steam) and carbon dioxide. Domestic quantities are unlikely to present a safety issue, so you may be being slightly overcautious by recommending opening windows etc. The risk of suffocation is pretty low. The same gas is produced when you add the vinegar to the bicarb or washing soda. The bubbles caused have a scouring effect,

    A note – only the dissolved soda is reacting with the vinegar, and both sodas have fairly limited solubility in water (it increases a little in warmer water). This is why heating the vinegar is more effective – it dissolves more of the soda. Either way, though, you’re probably using far too much soda for the quantity of vinegar, since only the active ingredient (acetic acid) is actually a reagent in the reaction.

    Just a last thing – drain cleaners tend to have one of two active ingredients, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) or chlorine bleach. Sodium hydroxide cleaners are safe to mix with vinegar; the reaction produces a little heat, but no dangerous byproducts. Chlorine bleach mixed with vinegar (or ammonia, another acidic substance) is quite different – it releases chlorine gas, which is quite poisonous. Of course, both caustic soda and bleach should be handled with care, and kept away from children. With that in mind, though, caustic soda is fine to use instead of the other sodas, and rather more effective in smaller quantities, as it is far more soluble in water. It doesn’t get the fun bubbles (and thus not the physical scouring effect) when vinegar is added, but it is more effective at dissolving fats and keratin based substances (such as hair) than the other sodas. Also, adding (enough) vinegar halts the action of caustic soda, leaving nothing more dangerous than a slightly warmer salt solution in the drain.

    Hope this info is interesting :)

  12. kj says:

    Another trick to try is enzyme based washing powder such as napisan, although most powders have enzymes in them these days. Make up a normal solution of about two litres and pour down the sink last thing at night. It will sit in the same spot as the fat, hair etc and eat them all night. It is a good preventative and if the drain is just sluggish over a few nights to can clear a drain for just a few dollars, at most.

  13. deRuiter says:

    A “super plunger” works a lot better than a traditional plunger, more power. You can also use a can of lye with cold water to clear gunky drains. It’s dirt cheap. Read label directions and follow them carefully, wear goggles.

  14. Karen says:

    I’ll toss in my favorite drain cleaner because maybe it will give someone a good idea, or maybe someone will tell me why I really shouldn’t be doing it :-)

    Every once in awhile when I think of it, I pour a little peroxide down the drain. The sizzle tells me it’s found some gunk and is working on it.

  15. Elisabeth says:

    For the shower drain, I just use a coat hanger. For the the sink drains, I pour in a bit of bleach. Wait ten minutes or so and then flush with hot water. Works like a charm.

  16. Kittie says:

    Anybody ever use those drain care products like ridex or septic helper? You are supposed to pour it in the toilet and flush once then let sit over night. This supposedly cleans the pipes and adds beneficial bacteria to your septic system. You can also use it in other drains as well. Just wondering if it really works?

  17. cng says:

    A word of caution to anyone who reaches stage #6: even if you do “have a desire to learn how to remove pipes and reconnect them”, you may still want to hire a plumber and get him/her to show you how it’s done by a professional. An owner in our condo played plumber two weeks ago and ended up flooding the suites on two floors below, so badly that they both now have to be gutted. The kicker: the pseudo-plumber has no insurance. And even if they did, who knows if the damage would be covered in those circumstances?

  18. Annie says:

    I like articles like this. My plumber told me since i have a lot of hair and it does clog up believe me along with my dog washes in my tub that Coke Or Pepsi not the diet coke or non caffene but the regular coke and caffine will actually destroys hair clogged in the drain. At first i was like get real but after i tried it, i have not have clogged drains in the past 5 years, before it was every 6 months. I think there is some truth to what he is saying. so next time you find a good deal on soda, buy one for your sink, drain, washtub,etc.. .it really works.


  19. Alice says:

    I strongly agree with @17: don’t start messing with the pipes if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s not worth risking thousands of dollars in damage to save a few hundred. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn water off; sometimes it’s essential to have the correct tools, the plumber has experience with these sorts of things. My criteria for a do-it-yourself home project is if I know I can’t make it worse, thus I will not try to disassemble pipes.

  20. AnnJo says:

    I once spent weeks trying all of these techniques on a sloooow-draining bathroom sink to no avail. Finally, I looked up clearing a sink trap on You-tube, watched several different videos and did it myself – I disassembled pipes. The collection of hair-wrapped junk I hauled out of that pipe was never going to be dissolved by any chemical that wouldn’t dissolve the PVC pipe as well! It took about 20 minutes, not counting watching the videos. And it was easy!

    I don’t plan to re-plumb my house, and I mean no disrespect to plumbers, who know much more than I do about how to do the job more quickly and efficiently (and have exactly the right tools to do it with), but it is possible for many of us to do such a basic task ourselves, especially now with all the freely available learning options we have.

    In the last few years, I’ve also replaced the flapper in the toilet, and cleaned out the overflow valve of the dishwasher and the center column of the clothes washer, as well as made repairs or replaced broken parts on my refrigerator and stove. It’s saved me hundreds of dollars, and there’s a nice feeling of self-reliance or competence that goes along with the savings.

    Basically, it just takes some study, taking plenty of time, and keeping careful track of what you’ve done so you can put it back together. I’ve drawn the line at anything that might cause me injury, anything I don’t fully understand after thorough study, and anything that would void a warranty. Oh, and if you don’t know what it means to “discharge the capacitor” don’t work on electrical motors, microwaves, or other electrical devices.

  21. Adam says:

    I do something very similar. I start with dumping a pot of boiling water down the drain. I then mix baking soda and water 50/50 to make a light paste (this will get it to flow down into the trap. I then poor vinegar down the drain. On our shower drain, I sometimes add some dish soap to the vinegar to cut the grease. I leave that for an hour and dump another big pot of boiling water.

  22. Money Beagle says:

    I also had great luck with a sink plunger. We had a clog and I tried a lot of different things, but the plunger did the trick. It was pretty gross as all of the stuff got loosened up, but a few minutes of cleanup was well worth the time. Ever since then I go around with the sink plunger and hit all the sink drains every six months or so to stay ahead of the game.

  23. tentaculistic says:

    @AnnJo #20 – great job! You’re a stud! I’m impressed.

    I just dealt with the hair-clogged shower drain. I could feel the slimy hair, but couldn’t pull it out. I tried different thicknesses of wire (didn’t think of the wire hanger, darn it!), and then looked everywhere for the plastic drain clearer (ZipIt, a long thin plastic flat rod, it’s got little “teeth” to grab stuff out) but couldn’t find it (or at the local store). I have used the baking soda + vinegar trick before, but I knew this one was a physical obstruction and so I capitulated and got Drano, despite the chemicals. And it worked like a champ. I’d rather get the ZipIt tool though, and avoid the chemicals. Mental note, go visit Amazon.

    Clean and clear drains are such a blessing!

  24. Andrew says:

    #18 Annie-

    If cola really works to destroy hair in clogged drains I can’t imagine what it does to one’s stomach lining, esophagus, etc.

    I think I’ll go have a nice drink of water.

  25. ChrisD says:

    #20 AnnJo

    Snap. I had a blocked sink and my landlord just told me to pour some chemical down it (I think it was NaOH). I did it three times and it had no effect. Finally we removed the U-bend (pretty sure these are designed to come off easily) and the whole thing was clogged with what looked like paper and the odd plastic disposable razor cover. It took three seconds to tip this into the bucket and fix the problem.

  26. Jenni says:

    I don’t know if this works, but I read somewhere about using or sending Nair down the drain. Since it works with getting rid of hair on you, that it would do that in the drain. I don’t usually buy Nair so I haven’t tried it out.

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