Seven easy ways to unclog any drain in your home

Whether it’s a backed-up kitchen sink, a build-up of standing water during showers, a bathtub that takes ages to empty, or your average clogged toilet, it may be time to investigate the state of your drain. Clogs should be dealt with immediately, but they don’t have to bring your life to a halt in the process. Here’s what to do, no matter what pops up.

group of wrenches and PVC pipes on blue background

Table of contents

Why clogs happen in the first placeSigns that your drain is cloggedWhat to do if you suspect a clogged drain7 ways to unclog your drain3 tips for preventing clogs

Why clogs happen in the first place

A clogged drain is a slow drain. Drains slow down when they accumulate debris over time.  

If you’re dealing with a clogged shower drain, clumps of hair are the most common culprit, while temperamental toilets might clog when there’s a build-up of toilet paper. Kitchen sink clogs are usually caused by large food debris in the garbage disposal or long-term build-up further along in the pipes.

Signs that your drain is clogged

You’ll know it’s time to unclog a drain when:

  • The toilet won’t flush

  • Water takes longer than usual to drain in the shower, bathtub, or bathroom sink

  • There’s a funky odor that you can’t track down

  • The kitchen sink has filled up with debris-filled water—and running the garbage disposal has little to no effect

What to do if you suspect a clogged drain

  1. First thing’s first: check your drain for a visible obstruction. Depending on what kind of clog you’re facing, look into the drain (this might mean underneath a drain cap, like in a bathroom sink). Use a flashlight if you need to. Remove anything you see that might be blocking the drain. Unfolded paper clips or the small plastic hooks found at hardware stores are especially useful for shallow clogs.

  2. Next, double check that your drain is open. Is there room in the pipe for water to flow? How you check this depends on the type of drain and stopper you have: Some drains have a stopper that you can unscrew and lift out completely. Bathtub-showers often have a switch under the faucet that opens and closes the drain. Investigate if your drain has any sort of stopping mechanism and make sure that the stopper isn’t accidentally blocking the drain. 

If you’ve removed any visible obstructions and verified that the drain is open, and water still isn’t draining, it’s time to unclog. 

black and white plunger

7 ways to unclog your drain

Strap on some rubber gloves, and try these steps to remove or dissolve any clog you encounter. 

  1. Remove the clog by hand. Sometimes, a clog is immediately visible near the surface and easily accessible. Put on a pair of rubber gloves and extract the clog as best you can. A wire coat hanger will also work for a little extra reach and leverage. 

  2. Use a drain snake. A drain snake, also known as a plumber’s snake—is a retractable, flexible drilling tool you can pick up at hardware stores. You’ll use the snake’s hand crank to send a metal wire down your drain to either break up or pull out whatever is clogging it. Disposable plastic versions of the snake are also available—no cranking required, and you can even use it on a clogged toilet. Make sure to clean your drain snake after use. 

  3. Use a plunger. Plungers aren’t just for clogged toilets: They work on kitchen sinks, too. For the best suction, you’ll want a cup-style plunger that completely covers the drain opening to create a tight seal. Make 6 even, up-and-down thrusts, keeping the seal intact. Remove the plunger: If the water drains away, you’ve made progress. If it doesn’t, repeat the process. 

  4. Use a pot of boiling water. If there are no visible obstructions blocking the drain, and a drain snake has been unsuccessful, contact with boiling water can help dissolve softer build-up like soap scum or cooking grease around the edges. Repeat the process two or three times as needed. 

  5. Use a natural drain cleaner. Conventional drain cleaners don’t usually work as well as they claim to, and they’re full of harmful chemicals. A natural remedy of white distilled vinegar and baking soda can be just as effective, depending on the state of the clog. Pour 1 cup of baking soda into the drain, followed by 1 cup of vinegar. Plug the drain using a drain stop or rag, and allow the mixture to work its magic for at least an hour. Rinse with boiling water. Repeat as necessary. 

  6. Remove and clean the drain trap. Sometimes a clog will be located in the drain trap, also called a U-pipe, which is located below the garbage disposal underneath the sink. Clear the area and place a bucket below the U-pipe to catch any runoff. Use a plumber’s wrench to loosen the nuts on either side of the pipe, holding it steady with the other hand. Empty the pipe into the bucket and inspect for clogs. Clean, and reattach the U-pipe when finished.

  7. Call a plumber. If all of the above has had no effect on the speed of the drain, it’s time to call a professional.

snaking a bathroom sink

3 tips for preventing clogs

  1. Use drain traps. When it comes to clogged shower drains, snags of hair are almost always the cause. A basic rubber or plastic drain cover is an inexpensive way to capture any stray strands after every shower. Similar mesh drain traps can be placed over kitchen sinks to catch larger bits of food for easy disposal. 

  2. No excess waste. It can be tempting to empty a dustbin or shake out a rug into the shower and wash it away, but larger bits of dirt and debris can accumulate and make clogs worse later on. Things like seeds, pits, and nuts wreak havoc on dishwasher filters and kitchen sink drains, and long peels or stringy vegetables like celery get wrapped around garbage disposal blades and accelerate build-up in the drain. Cooking oil coats the pipes and traps food as it passes by, leading to stubborn, hard to dissolve build-up.

  3. Good drain maintenance. Routine drain cleaning will keep them in good working order and odor-free. Keep a bottle of distilled white vinegar or baking soda in the bathroom and pour a little of one or both down the drain every so often (definitely during your seasonal deep cleans), followed with a blast of hot water. Get in the habit of running the water a little longer after putting anything down the drain, be it toothpaste, food debris, or shampoo run-off. This will ensure it doesn’t set around the surface of the drain.  

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