Dear Handy Andi,
We have a slow drain in our bathroom. I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a plumber, but I’ve heard that chemical drain cleaners can damage pipes. What can I do?
– Tim, Oklahoma
It’s true that chemical drain cleaners can be hard on pipes, especially in older homes, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw away your hard-earned money calling a plumber. Most slow drains, and even outright clogs, can be cleared up quickly and easily with items you probably already have around your home.
Different rooms in the house attract different kinds of clogs. Clogs in the kitchen tend to come from food particles, grease, or some combination of the two, while clogs in the bathtub or shower are usually from hair.
Regardless of where your clog is, the first thing you’ll want to do is remove the drain guard, the small cage on most drains that prevents large objects from going down the drain. Guards are great for keeping the pipes clear of major debris, but are unfortunately often the cause of slow drains themselves, as food particles or hair often become trapped in them and impede the flow of water into the drainpipe. To remove the guard, first remove the screw or screws holding it in place, then pry it up with the tip of a flathead screwdriver. Remove any food or hair caught in the guard and throw it in the garbage (not down the drain!).
Take the opportunity, while the guard is off, to thoroughly clean the drain opening, too.
Next, use this gentle homemade drain cleaner: pour half a cup of baking soda into the drain, chased by half a cup of vinegar. The two ingredients will create a chemical reaction that should attack most minor blockages. Allow the mixture to set for about three hours before running water.
If things start flowing as they should, replace the drain guard. Repeat the baking soda and vinegar application about once a month to prevent future clogs.
If the drain is still clogged and you suspect the culprit is grease, try another homemade drain cleaner. Pour half a cup of salt, half a cup of baking soda, and a teakettle of boiling water down the drain and allow it to sit overnight.
If you suspect the culprit is hair, you will need to go in after the clog with an object such as a bent wire hanger, a drain claw, or a plumbing snake. A wire hanger is the easiest and most inexpensive option. Just straighten out the hanger and make a small hook on one end. Push the wire down the drain as far as it will go. Once you hit the obstruction, use the hook to try to fish it out. This will take some finagling, but you should be able to loosen it with some effort. A drain claw is an inexpensive piece of equipment designed to grab onto hair clogs, similar to the hooks on Velcro. It is effortless to use, but not always as easy to find as a hanger.
The most effective, but most expensive, remedy is to use a plumber’s snake to attack the clog. A plumber’s snake is a long, flexible auger specifically designed to dig through tough clogs like a corkscrew. If neither the wire hanger or drain claw work, you should be able to purchase a snake at your local hardware store for under $20. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and things should start flowing again in no time.