Keep Your Drains Flowing Free – Part 2
Keep your drains flowing free
by Jerry Alonzy
Part 2 – Solving common drain problems
As we learned in Part 1 of this article, each drain in your home has special characteristics designed to minimize the chance of a blockage, while allowing maximum water flow. For example, some have reduced or restricted openings to keep small items out (such as coins or wedding rings). Toilets have the least restriction on flow, which I think you’ll agree needs no further explanation!
But, despite the designer’s best efforts, all drains have design flaws that can make blockages more likely. Likewise, small behavioral changes on your part can either limit or eliminate the chance of expensive plumbing calls!
I am going to discuss the simplest methods of repairing common blockages. I will not be discussing plumbing snakes, which would be an article in and of itself; but can be needed if these do-it-yourself methods fail.
Blockages caused by “acts of nature,” such as roots growing into your sewer pipes or earthquakes, are out of your control, but most other blockages are repairable by the home handyman. Here are some do-it-yourself tips to keep your drains flowing.
The Kitchen Drain
Standard kitchen drains have a small, restricted opening to keep large items, such as bones and kitchen implements from dropping in. They are also the least likely to get blocked, because small particles that do get through are very biodegradable and unlikely to stick to the sides of the drain, which is the origin of most blockages.
One specific thing you should never send down your kitchen drain is liquid fat, such as bacon fat or grease from grilling. These fats are solid at room temperature and, as they travel through the drain system, can stick to the pipes, causing the formation of a plaque that grows over time as more particles are trapped.
Otherwise, you probably will never experience a blockage in your kitchen drain. If you do, disassemble the trap underneath the sink. Put a bucket underneath the trap and loosen the two large nuts till the elbow-shaped trap drops out (see graphic below, courtesy Delta Faucet). Clean out the trap and reassemble. If the blockage isn’t there, you’ll need to look further down the line to determine where the real blockage is and, if necessary, call a plumber for help!
Garbage disposals are not really garbage disposals. In my experience, most people don’t realize that they should NEVER intentionally throw anything into the disposal aside from light plate scrapings. It isn’t that the disposal can’t handle a heavy load. People grind up leftover veggies, egg shells, scraps of meat and even small bones (though harder bones can jam a disposal).
The problem involves what happens after the waste is flushed into the drain pipes. Even though all waste is ground into a fine mash, it still needs sufficient water to carry it away. Think about your own experience with a disposal. How long do you run the water after running the disposal? Two or three seconds after the sounds of grinding ease to a gentle electric murmur? If you have a low flow kitchen faucet, you have probably run a few cups of water to carry all that waste through the pipes, if that! You can appreciate that a few cups of water can’t possible carry a cup of waste any distance.
Unless your kitchen drain is right over the large sewer pipe, which will move the grindings out the next time you flush a toilet, you may be starting a blockage that can take weeks or months to become critical enough to need a serious snaking.
The lesson here is obvious… garbage disposals are not garbage disposals, they merely make plate cleaning a little less tedious and eliminate the need for a drain strainer for most folks.
If you do experience a blockage in your kitchen sink and have a garbage disposal, DO NOST USE A LIQUID DRAIN CLEANING PRODUCT. This recommendation comes from the manufacturers of both disposals and drain cleaners. Instead, clear the trap under the sink as mentioned above.
The Bathroom Sink
The mechanism that operates the drain stopper or “pop-up” is the cause of most bathroom sink blockages. The pop-up assembly is a lever-style mechanism that connects the stopper to the handle you pull up to close the drain. The design of the stopper itself and the metal rod that moves the stopper are both sticking points for hair… the cause of nearly 100% of all bathroom sink clogs! (The only reason I said “nearly 100%” is because I’m sure someone somewhere had a bath sink clog caused by something else, but I have never seen it!)
Using a liquid drain cleaner can help if you do it regularly (no more than once a month) before too much of a blockage occurs, but once the blockage is substantial taking apart the pop-up mechanism may be the only solution. In fact, if there is enough material tangled in the stopper assembly, using drain cleaner can cause the blockage to migrate and stick in the trap, making the problem worse!
First, see if you can pull the stopper out. When assembling the pop-up assembly, the installer has the option to lock the pop-up onto the rod or not. So you may be able to pull the stopper straight up and out. If not, you’ll have to go under the sink and remove the “pivot nut” that holds the pop-up rod and pull it out. This will free the pop-up removable. (See graphic below, courtesy Naturalhandyman.com)
When you pull the stopper out, you’ll most likely see a visible clot of hair, soap residue and whatever else has gone down the sink! Remove as much waste material as you can from the top of the drain… then flush it through to the main drain by pouring a bucket of very hot water through the drain. (Be sure to cover the hole where the pop-up rod attached to the drain or it will spray water underneath the cabinet.) When you are satisfied that the visible drain is clear, reassemble the pop-up assembly.
Please feel free to read my article with more information on sink pop-ups.
Limiting what you flush down the toilet will go a long way towards preventing blockages. Despite the advertised flush-compatibility of various paper and sanitary products, you should avoid flushing anything other than human waste and toilet paper. Kitty litter, for example, is not carried well through the pipes due to its weight. It is also not biodegradable, so it can be the starting point for a future clog.
Most other paper products, such as paper towels, should also not end up in the toilet, unless you absolutely have to flush them. They stay intact for quite a while after becoming wet. And don’t send anything solid, such as wooden matches, dental picks, toothpicks or cotton swabs, or you are just asking for trouble!
Drain cleaners should never be used in toilets. This is because the types of blockages in toilets are usually caused by (1) stuff that has gotten stuck in the toilet itself or (2) a general blockage further down the line. In either event, drain cleaner will just make the eventual snaking or removal of the toilet more dangerous for you and/or the plumber!
Having a toilet plunger is a necessity for any renter or homeowner, and can clear blockages within the toilet, even if something like a cotton swab is causing the problem! The sucking action of a plunger moves the standing water back and forth, breaking up the blockage to allow the toilet to drain freely into the larger pipe below.
Sometimes, you can get away without using a plunger, a messy tool for sure. Instead, get out a 3 – 5 gallon bucket and rapidly pour it into the bowl. The dynamic action of the water rapidly entering the bowl will break all but the most vicious toilet bowl blockages! Do not try this method if the water does not begin to drain out of the bowl on its own within 5 minutes or so. Use a plunger instead.
Most shower stalls don’t have stoppers, but they can still become sluggish because there is not enough water flow to flush hair, shampoo, and soap product cleanly through the pipes, partially due to the limited flow from water-saving showerheads. As with most drain problems, shower drains clog slowly. That is, till you notice standing water at your feet!
I have found that the application of a drain cleaning product every few months can stop most blockages in their tracks, and most blockages can be cleared in an application or two. I, personally, prefer the full-strength or so-called “Max” products. Pour at least a quart of product and leave in the drain for at least 4 hours. Flush with very hot water. Repeat if slow draining is still present.
By the way, you can use a toilet plunger in a shower drain if you have standing water, but if you have already used a drain cleaning liquid be careful not to splash yourself as these products can damage eyes and skin!
Many tubs have a complicated stopper mechanism that can catch hair and cause a blockage to grow. Regular use of a drain cleaner can stop most blockages from growing, but you may find that you’ll have to take the assembly apart. Here is a diagram (courtesy Delta Faucets) of a typical bathtub stopper mechanism.
Basically, you remove the two screws on the overflow cover and pull the mechanism out. Remove the drain cover and run lots of hot water through the drain to wash out any residue. Clean the stopper mechanism, reinsert it into the opening and reinstall the screws. Over 30 years, I’ve had two occasions that the mechanism was so stuck that I could not remove it and had to call a plumber to do a more extensive repair.
If you have a toe-activated stopper, it can be removed by first unscrewing the plated top of the stopper counterclockwise, which will give you access to a screw. Remove the screw and the rest of the stopper can be removed for cleaning.
Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation. As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites, including his own at www.naturalhandyman.com.