A Complete Homeowner’s Guide to Identifying and Unblocking a Drain

A Complete Homeowner's Guide to Identifying and Unblocking a Drain 1

Drains in your home can be lifesavers preventing unexpected and unwanted floods in basements, utility rooms, and garages. But, when they get clogged, problems abound. While some drain clogs are easy to clear on your own, often the best method is to hire a professional.  

Identifying Drains

The first step in unblocking a drain is figuring out what kind of a drain it is. There are several different types of drains and they have slightly different features. Only a few of actually look like a hole in the fixture or floor. The rest of the drains are more complicated.

Fixture Drain or Floor Drain

These are the first lines of defense in plumbing fixtures. They are the drains at the bottom of sinks and tubs or in the floors of your basement, utility room, or garage. While some drain problems do start here (usually with hair clogs), most problems start farther down the drain-waste-vent line. If necessary, new pipes might become a solution. One tool you may need to install pipes is one of the best PEX crimp tools. Such tools make turning of pipes a really easy task.


You usually do not see these, but you might smell them. The P-Traps or floor drain traps are just below the drains and are curved pieces of pipe that have a significant bend in it. The bend is designed to hold some water to prevent sewer gasses from rising up and out of the drain pipe. Occasionally, that water evaporates, especially if the pipe isn’t used regularly. When the water evaporates, sewer smells will seep into the room. The best way to remedy this is to put water down the drain so the P-Trap can fill up.

Toilet Traps

These function like P-Traps and are built into the toilet. If you look at the profile of the toilet, you should be able to see this feature.

Washer Traps

This drain pipe is behind the washing machine. It usually is not covered by drywall and is easy to spot. This trap is a tall, vertical pipe that the washing machine water empties into after the cycles are complete.

Branch Drains

This is one of the first routes out to the main drain. They are horizontal with a slope that leads to main drain lines. In most cases, you will not be able to see these because they are under finished walls or ceilings. They are usually under the lowest point in the house. If you have a problem with a blocked branch drain, you will need to hire a plumber.

Main Stacks

The branch drains will stop being horizontal at the point where they empty into the main stack. These vertical pipes move both wastewater and solids into the sewers or septic system. Problems with main stacks will also require the work of a plumber.

Main Stack Vent

These are easy to see because they extend out of the roof of the house. The main stack vent is open to the air and it keeps the necessary air pressure in the plumbing system. It also allows harmful fumes to leave the home, too. There might be instances when you can hear the main stack vent working as the air pressure is trying to move water out of the traps. If this happens, you might hear gurgling water.

Sewer Line Drain

Another drain that you might see, but not really recognize is the sewer clean-out drain. It is generally in the basement and is either flush or raised above the floor. It is only accessed when the main sewer line has a clog. Plumbers usually use augers to empty clean this out after the cap on the drain has been removed.

Unblocking the Drains

After you have identified the drain, vent, or stack that has a blockage, the next steps involved clearing it. Before you get busy working, you should put on protective gear, especially gloves and eyewear. The last thing you want to do is get dirty water on your skin or in your eyes.

Another important step that you should never skip, especially if you have to get into drains, traps, or vents, is to turn off the water. Unfortunately, homeowners often forget to turn off of the water to the house, then they create unwanted messes.

Preventing drain blockages

Some of the worst offenders are drains that are exposed to items that will clog them up. So, exterior drains, garage drains, and fixture drains, too. If you find that grass, garden debris, and leaves are getting into your exterior drains, the easiest way to keep these drains functioning properly is to rake over the drain. Garage drains can also be filled quickly with debris, so these should also be kept as clean as possible. The same goes for fixture drains, which can be clogged with hair, which should be cleaned out regularly.

Using a pressure washer

If you cannot keep the drain clean with preventative maintenance, then the next step is to open the cover and get into the drain. You might be able to pull the clog out, but if you are not able to do this, you might have to use water to loosen the clog. If pouring water down the drain will not work, then you might need something stronger – like a pressure washer.

With a pressure washer, the stream of water will force the debris out of the clog. Of course, be careful when you use a pressure washer as debris could fly out quickly and get into your eyes. You could also have problems with the debris pushing farther into the drain. Hopefully, everything will work out and the clog will clear out easily.

Clearing a Clog with a Drain Rod

Drain rods can be useful tools for clearing out a clogged drain, especially if you have to clear out a fixture drain. Drain rods come in different lengths and diameters and they can be stuck together so you can extend them to whatever length is necessary to get to the source of the clog. It is easy to recognize when the rod meets the clog because the rod cannot be extended any farther into the pipe.

Once you reach that point where the rod cannot go any farther, you then get active with the rod. You move it back and forth and spin it clockwise. This will start to loosen up the clog. Eventually, the rod will do its job and the clog will break up and move through the drain. If you pour water down the pipe, it should move all the way through rather than puddle at the top of the drain. To really clean out the drain, send hot and soapy water through it.

Cable Augurs Clear Clogs, Too

The cable augur works in the same way that the drain rod does, but the augur can go deeper into the clog. The cable winds up and down so you can move it deeper into the drain. Plumbers use these to get through troublesome clogs.

Chemical Products Clear Out Drains

If you do not have the tools or the patience to work with clogged drains, you can always turn to chemical products instead. If you have a clog in your kitchen sink, soda crystals are good tools that will clear out clogs from grease and oil. These are cheap and they only need about 10 minutes to get rid of grease balls. You will need about four cups of soda crystals to pour into your drain if you want to see the clogs break up. After you’ve poured the crystals into the clog, wait 10 minutes, then use hot water to rinse away the debris.

If you get a clog and you want to use basic household pantry items to clear out a drain, then there is one solution you should know. Vinegar and baking soda will clean out a kitchen sink drain in just a few simple minutes.

You begin the process by boiling water in a teakettle. You are going to pour most of it into the drain, but leave some for a second pour. As it sits, you pour a ½ cup of baking soda into the drain. Then, you pour a cup of vinegar and another more cup of boiling water into the drain. To get the chemical reaction happening in the drain, plug the drain. Let it sit for at least five minutes and as the reaction happens, boil another teakettle of water. After five to ten minutes, pour the boiling water down the drain, which should be clear after the vinegar and baking soda do their work.

Avoid Toxic Drain Cleaners

The last resort should be toxic chemical drain cleaners. They do get the job done, but they are made from extremely harsh chemicals that can actually damage your plumbing. Using them sparingly shouldn’t damage your pipes, but if you use them frequently, then you could have a big plumbing bill coming your way soon. Try using pressure washers, rods, augurs, pantry mixtures, and hot water before you dump those heavy-duty chemicals into your expensive drains. If you are in need of drain cleaners on a regular basis, then you might be using your drains inappropriately.

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