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Drain Cleaner and Drain Opener Buying Guide

Slow drains are nuisances that build over time. Clogged pipes can lead to water damage. Learn the options for getting rid of buildup and clogs in your plumbing.

Using a Drain Stick on a Sink Drain.

Pipe Clogs

Clogs and slow drains can result from several common causes:

  • Soap residue and organic matter can collect in drain pipes. Grease buildup is an additional problem in kitchen pipes.
  • Deposits from hard water — water that has an excessive amount of dissolved minerals — can accumulate on pipe walls.
  • Hair can wrap around a sink stopper, collect in a bend in a drain pipe or slowly build up with other material inside the pipe.
  • A foreign object such as a ring or a small toy can lodge in a pipe.
  • Pieces of food can get stuck in kitchen sink drain pipes.
  • Clumps of paper can get stuck in a toilet trap.

As soap, organic material, mineral deposits or grease build up inside a pipe, drainage slows and it becomes easier for hair, food particles or other obstructions to lodge in the pipe. Drain stoppers, P-traps and horizontal sections of pipe are common areas where clogs can occur.

Good to Know

Removing and cleaning the drain stopper and P-trap or S-trap will solve many drainage problems in sinks. See Unclog a Stopped Bath Drain for instructions.

Chemical Drain Cleaners

Chemical Drain Cleaner.

Chemical treatments are products that you pour into a clogged sink, tub or shower. Typically heavier than water, they drop through standing water to get into the drain and reach the clog. Gel products are particularly thick and dense, allowing them to get through the water and to the clog quickly. Products with foaming action fill the pipe to allow the product to contact and attack the clog.

Used properly, chemical drain cleaners can soften and break up a clog caused by buildup or hair, allowing you to rinse the blockage away. Typical active ingredients include:

  • Bases such as caustic potash (potassium hydroxide) or lye (sodium hydroxide)
  • Oxidizing agents such as bleach (sodium hypochlorite)
  • Acids such as sulfuric acid

Drain maintenance products clear away buildup in pipes before it causes a clog. Removing this buildup can also improve slow drainage. Some of these products recommend regular use to keep pipes in good shape.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for using any drain or septic system product. Below are some things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure the product is intended for your system. Note whether it's suitable for the type of pipes you have. If you have a septic tank, make sure the product is labeled for use with septic systems.
  • Match the product to the type of clog you have and the fixture — sink, tub, shower or toilet — that's clogged.
  • If one drain cleaner doesn't clear the clog, don't try a second type. Mixing chemicals can create toxic fumes.
  • Wear safety gear, such as rubber gloves and eye protection, as recommended by the product manufacturer.
  • Don't allow a drain cleaner to remain in the pipes longer than recommended by the manufacturer — flush it out with water as directed.
  • Don't let a drain cleaner contact finished surfaces such as faucets, stoppers or drain trim.
  • Don't use plungers or other drain-opening tools or remove a P-trap after using a chemical drain cleaner. You could come into contact with chemicals that may still be present in the standing water. If the drain cleaner doesn't open the drain, contact a professional plumber.

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Good to Know

An organic septic system treatment restocks the bacteria population in the septic tank. It also contains enzymes to break down soap, grease and paper that collect in the tank. These products can help reduce buildup in pipes to keep your drains operating smoothly. A root killer is a treatment designed to kill roots that have invaded a sewer pipe.

Plungers

Toilet Plunger.

A plunger — also known as a plumber's helper — is a common tool for opening sink, tub, shower and toilet drains. It's effective on clogs in the trap area of the drain line. The cup or bell combined with a plunging action creates suction in the pipe to break up or dislodge a clog. The deeper the cup or bell on a plunger, the more force it can apply. A plunger with a bellows or accordion design can generate even more force.

Plungers with a flat cup are best suited for sinks. Those with a funnel or cone extending from bottom of the cup are more effective on toilets.

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Drain Sticks

Drain Stick.

A drain stick is a flexible rod or strap you insert into the drain of a sink, tub or shower to remove hair. It works on clogs in P-traps, but isn't long enough to reach deeper in the drain line. Simply push it into the pipe and pull it back out. Hooks or barbs on the stick catch on the clog, allowing you to pull out the material. Some drain sticks are washable and reusable. Due to the sharp edges on other types, manufacturers may specify a single use only and caution you to not attempt cleaning. Some chemical drain cleaners come packaged with a drain stick.

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Hand Augers and Sewer Rods

Hand Auger.

A hand auger — also known as a plumbing snake or plumbing auger — is useful on in-house plumbing. Use it for clearing clogs beyond the P-trap in sinks, tubs and showers. It has a flexible cable with a handle on one end and a sharp, coiled head on the other. As you rotate the cable and push it through the pipe, it bends to navigate turns. When you reach the blockage, the head bores through the clog. Obstructions such as hair or paper wind into the head, allowing you to remove them when you pull out the cable.

Drum models have a storage housing for the cable — the drum — and a handle that simplifies unwinding and winding. Some have a second, pistol-style grip for easier control and some include an adapter that allows you to attach a power drill to turn the cable. A drum auger has a screw or lever that lets you lock the cable to push it around bends in the pipe and unlock it to unwind it farther into the pipe. Those with a lever are easier to lock and unlock.

A toilet or closet auger has a protective sleeve covering a portion of the cable to protect the toilet's porcelain finish and add rigidity to the cable. This tool has a shorter cable than other types of augers.

A sewer rod or tape auger functions in a similar fashion to an auger, but is flat. It is stiffer than an auger, allowing you to push a blockage through the pipe. The rod may include a spear-type head to help force the clog down the pipe.

Pay attention to the length of the auger or sewer rod. More length means you can work on clogs deeper in the drain line.

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Good to Know

Machine augers are powered devices typically used by professional plumbers.

Bladders

Bladder.

A bladder uses a stream of water to break up clogs. Use it on in-house plumbing or a sewer main for clogs at least 6 inches from the insertion point. You need a helper with this tool. Attach it to a garden hose and feed it into the pipe you need to clear. When you reach the clog, your helper turns on the water. The bladder fills with water and expands to lodge tightly in the pipe. Once the bladder is full, it discharges the water in a high-pressure stream to loosen the clog. Bladders come in different sizes to fit different pipe diameters. With an optional adapter, you can connect the garden hose to an indoor faucet rather than an exterior hose bib.

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Good to Know

If you need to twist the hose while working with a bladder, turn it so it tightens in the bladder coupling rather than loosening and possibly disconnecting.

Caution

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for use and safety when using any chemical drain cleaner or drain-opening tool. Use caution when clearing clogs in older pipes. Chemicals, tools and the high-pressure stream from a bladder may not be suitable. If you have older or corroded pipes, you're concerned about damage or you can't clear a clog, contact a professional plumber.

Watch our DIY Basics video: How Do I Unclog My Toilet?