There are few home repairs that demand your immediate attention like clogged drains. Regardless of what you're doing, you generally have to stop everything to fix it, or else you risk inadvertently flooding your home. Here's how to keep the water flowing.
Photo by Will Powell.
Unclogging a drain isn't always a simple matter. Before you call the plumber, try these tips:
Flush with Boiling Water
One of the first and easiest things you can do is simply flush your drain with a kettle full of boiling water. It's not guaranteed to unclog physical or grease blockages, but if you have a slow drain that you think is due to a light or small blockage, a good boiling water flush can clear it out with minimal effort. Wait until the sink or tub has finally drained, and then flush with water.
A note of caution though: the boiling water trick works best on metal pipes. If you have PVC pipes, boiling water can soften or melt the joints in your pipes. If you don't know, don't use boiling water -- just use hot water, or water as hot as your tap normally makes it.
Make Your Own Drain Cleaner
Some drain cleaners are only effective on certain kinds of clogs. You could run out and buy a bottle of commercial drain cleaner, but even many plumbers will tell you that it should be a last resort. If you know your clog is because of grease, try making your own drain cleaner from vinegar and bicarb soda.
The blog Bonzai Aphrodite has a great guide to making drain cleaner, but it's pretty simple: take a half-cup of bicarb and siphon it directly into the drain, as far down as you can get. Then add half of the vinegar. Be careful as it will fizz and bubble, so cover it to ensure you get as much of that fizzing action down the drain instead of up towards you. For toilets, just skip this step and flush immediately when you add the vinegar. Once it subsides a bit, add the rest of the vinegar. Let the whole thing sit for a half hour (or longer, if you have time) and then flush the drain with hot water. Photo by [F] oxymoron.
No one likes having to handle a household plunger, but when the drain is clogged, you need to know how to wield one. Most households have cup plungers, which you can place on top of a sink or bathtub drain and start plunging away. For the best results, put a strip of duct tape on top of the overflow drain at the top of the sink or bathtub. Doing this will force the air or water down the drain and into the clog, without it escaping through the overflow drain instead.
If you don't have a cup plunger handy, you can get a similar effect with an empty juice or milk carton. Just put it upside down over the drain and squeeze it to send a jet of air from the carton right down the drain. If something's just lodged in the way, this can do the trick.
For toilets, you'll want a different tool. Cup plungers just aren't the best shape to get down into the narrow drain of a toilet, so you'll want a flange or toilet plunger, available at any hardware store. You won't have to worry about an overflow drain in a toilet, but since the flange plunger is shaped specifically for toilets, you'll have much better luck getting a clogged toilet to drain with a flange plunger than anything else. Just make sure you have a good seal between the plunger and the drain opening before you go to work.
Build or Buy a Drain Snake
For small clogs and light household duty, you can take your drain cleaning game up a notch by heading to your local hardware store and picking up a small drain snake or long pipe cleaner to see if you can break through or pull out whatever it is that's clogging your drain. This is especially useful if you think the drain is clogged with hair.
Alternatively, you can make your own mini-snake or use a wire coat hanger with a small bend at the end to snake your drain. Just be very careful when doing this, because you don't want the tool you make or use to inadvertently damage the pipes or drain that you're trying to clear. If you're feeling really crafty, try making your own drain de-clogger from a plastic bottle, or using air pressure to blow your drain clear with a plastic bottle or an empty milk carton.
Again, it's worth noting that homemade snakes and most easily available household snakes are made for small clogs and light duty, not deep in-the-wall grease clogs form your kitchen sink. They're worth a try for hair clogs or lost bits of soap in the shower or bathroom sink, though. Photo by stu_spivack.
If you really like to get hands on, you can buy a handheld Drain Auger, which is essentially a light duty, hand-operated version of the power snake that plumbers use. Thankfully, they're inexpensive, many around $20, and handy to have around the house if you deal with slow or stopped drains often.
When All Else Fails
Yes, you can use chemical drain cleaners, but as we said earlier they can do more harm than good in some cases, and if you're trying to be environmentally friendly they're certainly not green. The bigger problem with chemical drain cleaners is that they're just not very effective at the type of clogs that you would need a snake or plunger for anyway, and if they don't work you wind up with a sink or toilet that's backed up, clogged, and now full of drain cleaner. Only use them as a last resort, if at all.
If none of the above methods work, it's definitely time to call a plumber. You may have a deep clog somewhere in your walls, or a backup beyond the reach of most household tools.