Handling Clogged Drains Frugally

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