10 Really Easy Ways to Unclog Drains

by Paul Michael on 16 March 2011 27 comments
Photo: [casey]

We all know the warning signs. The sink takes a little longer to drain. You begin to notice water pooling around your feet in the shower. And the odors. The strange, unpleasant odors. They're all signs that you may soon be facing a clogged drain. And then one day, boom. Your drain is blocked completely. It's something you need to deal with quickly, or face the wrath of a burst pipe or a useless bathroom.

So you remove the excess hair and gunk that has built up at the surface of the drain. And nothing happens. You try some liquid plumber. No good. Then, the plunger. But what happens when it doesn't come to the rescue? Here are 10 ways to deal with the blockages before resorting to that expensive emergency plumber. (See also: 5 Household Fixes You Should Stop Paying Others For)

1. The Bent Wire Hanger

Simple enough, but surprisingly effective. Take a regular wire coat hanger and straighten it out as best you can. Then, bend one end over to create a small hook. Push that past the drain cover and start fishing. You should be able to get all sorts of hair and nasty stuff out of the drain. Remember, you always want to be pulling gunk out, not pushing it further. When you've got as much out as you can, run the hot water, and it should clear things up nicely.

2. Baking Soda and Vinegar

Mix 1/3rd of a cup of baking soda with 1/3rd of a cup of vinegar in a measuring cup. It will fizz immediately, and you should waste no time pouring it down the clogged drain. The fizzing action will help to remove the gunk, hair, and grime that has built up in the pipe. Let it sit for one hour or even overnight if you can. Flush with hot water. Alternatively, get as much of the dry baking soda as you can down the drain first, then pour on the vinegar.

3. The Wet & Dry Vacuum

If you have a wet & dry shop vacuum, it can become a terrific tool to unclog drains. First, set it to vacuum liquids. Cover up the vent to prevent a mess. Then, create the tightest seal you can over the drain. You may want to get creative and adapt an old plunger head for this purpose. With the vacuum turned on its highest setting, it can be powerful enough to draw the clog up the pipe and into the vacuum bag. It doesn't always work, but it's worth a shot.

4. Boiling Water

Tips don't get any easier than this. Put the kettle on (or use the stove or microwave if you don't own a kettle) and boil up as much water as it will hold. Now pour it slowly down the drain in two to three stages, allowing the hot water to work for a several seconds in between each pour. This is usually the easiest and quickest way to unclog a drain. If there's any water left, congratulate yourself with a cup of tea.

5. Caustic Soda

Get some rubber gloves and eye protection. Caustic soda (also known as Sodium Hydroxide) can cause nasty chemical burns. You can pick some up from your local hardware store, but always use caution handling it. Pour 3/4 gallon of cold water into a mop bucket, and then add 3 cups of caustic soda. Stir it well with an old wooden spoon. It will begin to fizz and heat up. Pour it into the clogged drain and leave for 20-30 minutes, then flush the drain with boiling water. Repeat if necessary.

6. Cleaning the Pipe

There are some plumbing jobs that I won't do, but this one is easy. First, place an empty bucket underneath the U-shaped pipe (the trap) beneath the sink. The bucket will collect the water that will spill. Using a plumber's wrench, loosen the slip nuts at both ends of the pipe. You should be able to finish the operation by hand. When the trap is free, remove it and turn it upside down, emptying the contents into the bucket. You may also need to fish around inside it for debris, and do the same with the pipes that were holding it. An old toothbrush is good for getting the tough gunk out. Rinse the trap with water and then put it all back together. In most cases, that will have done the trick.

7. The Drain Snake

This is a fairly low-tech piece of equipment that works wonders. It's basically a long flexible metal rope with a spiral of metal at the end. The following video shows you just what to do.

8. Salt and Baking Soda

Mix 1/2 cup of table salt with 1/2 cup of baking soda and pour down the blocked drain. Leave it for 10-20 minutes, then pour boiling water down. The salt, baking soda, and boiling water will produce a chemical reaction that should dissolve some of the nastiest blockages.

9. Dish Detergent

If your toilet is clogged, pour 1/4 cup of dish detergent in the bowl. Then boil some water. The dish soap will act as a lubricant and help break up any greasy residue. Then pour the hot water down, and get ready to start plunging. If the plunger doesn't cut it, rubber gloves may be the next option.

10. Baking Soda, Vinegar, Gravity, and Pressure

If your bath drain is clogged, mix up some of the baking soda/vinegar mentioned in tip two. Pour it down the drain, and then place the stopper over it. After 45-60 minutes, fill the bathtub with water. Then, remove the stopper. The pressure of 40-60 gallons of water should be enough to dislodge the blockage that has been loosened by the baking soda and vinegar. You could also try some plunging or the drain snake in conjunction with the weight of the water.

Those are 10 quick and easy tips that should help you deal with the most stubborn blockages. Do you have any great tips? Let us know.

Additional photo credit: Jessica Mullen
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Guest's picture

I bought a small plunger designed for sinks (the typical one would have been too big to create a seal and it's kind of gross to use one that you'd used in the toilet anyways), and that worked like a charm to unclog a drain that had been giving me fits since we moved in. I had tried many of the suggestions you listed as well as Drano and the standard fare. All provided temporary relief but it was the plunger which really did the trick. Warning #1: The plunger 'brought up' some particularly vile contents into the sink so be prepared to clean up. Warning #2: Using the plunger loosened up contents which not only backed up into the sink but also into the area that provides the overflow drain. You'll want to flush this with boiling water immediately to rinse the loosened up matter down. Still, it worked like a charm and draining a half-full basin went from a two minute process to roughly four seconds.

Guest's picture

All good tips. I've tried several of them.

But the best plan is to keep the drain from getting clogged to begin with. You can buy little rubber caps with perforations to fit over your drain. If you clean out the hair caught in it each time you bathe, you'll have many fewer clogs to clean out.

Guest's picture
S. Carvalho

You missed Zip-It, it's a $3 piece of plastic with teeth on it, slide it down the drain all the way then slowly pull up. The teeth hook onto all the nastiness and pull it right up. I think they're supposed to be disposable, but if you just use a plastic bag to pull the gunk off in the opposite direction of the teeth, a quick soapy rinse and you can use the tool again and again. Fixed in 5 mins a drain issue I'd been battling with water/draino/etc... for years.

Guest's picture

I second the Zip-it. I was skeptical, but one try and I was hooked.

Also, if you have plastic pipes you do need to be careful about the hot water. Lengthy exposure to boiling water can be bad for the pipes.

And maintenance is key. Try to keep stuff (including hair) from falling in the drain, and clear the pipes occasionally to cut down on residue inside the pipes. I fill my sinks with hot water periodically, then open the drain to let it clear the drain. I also periodically use the baking soda/vinegar/hot water treatment to keep the drains clear.

Guest's picture
virulant spider

I have owned a zip it and I will tell you how you can make your own if you can't locate one in your local retail hardware store. Besides, you might need it right now. You will probably be able to find what you need in the garbage bin of your local hardware store so don't leave without getting a handful. What is it you ask? The plastic strapping material used for boxes and lumber. It could be yellow or white thick plastic strapping material about 3/8 of an inch wide. The thicker the better. I recently pulled some from a box of paper and noticed it was thinner. Next just take your scissors and nick both sides of the strap with 1/4 inch cuts at an angle probably about a 75 degree angle all along the strip. Hopefully your strip is about 3 feet. Nick as much you want, making sure you don't cut through. When your done, and it will probably take you no more than 2 minutes to make your own, you will have a free "grip it" and you will have it for free. Works as well or better than the one you buy at the hardware store. The problem with the zip it is that you usually can't find it when you need it thus the homemade version I came up with. I refuse to buy something like that twice.

Guest's picture

Now don't blame me if this goes wrong for you, but after trying most if not all of the above tips on a badly clogged bathroom sink, and resenting the payment of $150-250 for a plumber, I watched several videos on You-Tube about clearing and/or replacing sink traps and did it myself, slowly and carefully. It was startlingly easy. The trap was pretty stuffed, but there was also a fair amount of gunk in the pipe into the wall, which I could never have reached without removing the trap. The trap was fine, so I just reinstalled it. The clog was gone, there were no leaks, and the whole thing, including watching the videos, took about an hour and a half. I could have easily wasted a full morning or afternoon waiting for a plumber, so I not only saved money but time.

OK, when I needed to replace my water heater, I called a plumber (and learned from him how to check the expansion tank and drain sediment), but I've tackled several other plumbing problems in the last three years successfully, using You-Tube 'tutorials' to guide me.

Guest's picture

One other really super handy tool you can use which has literally saved me over 1,000.00 on an outside drain, is a bladder type tool. It comes in different circumferances and attaches to a garden hose. You need to fit this bladder tool which has been attached to your hose down the drain pipe. Once in you turn on the water and wait for a few minutes till the bladder fills and the force of the water pushes the clog out. Before I found this tool, I spent 800.00 on 2 occasions having the plumber come out with his water jetting equipment to clear a clog in my extremely long run to the street. That bladder for the large outdoor pipe cost me 20.00. I used it a second time so it cost me a total of 20.00 for what would have cost me 1600.00 had I had to have that service performed. These tools are extremely effective if you get them down the right pipe. I had one case where I couldn't get into the bend so I had to get a plumber to come out. He pulled a huge wad of steel wool out of that pipe Every other time these bladders have been a life saver for me. The smaller sizes are cheaper, under 10.00 probably. They can be used over and over. Warning, the bladder has to fit inside the pipe so that the bladder can expand and fill the pipe hole so you have to use the appropriate size.

Paul Michael's picture

Thanks for all the great tips guys, these are excellent! And please, keep 'em coming, i appreciate them and so do our other readers.

Guest's picture

I do have one more. There is a product and I am sorry but I don't know the name of it, but it uses canned air to blast your way through the clog. I have found this product to be useful without the use of chemicals. It usually comes with more than one treatment to a can. I found one on amazon I won't name names, but Power Plumber Pressurized Drain cleaner is a search name you can use. The ones I had were named something else (can't remember) but I haven't seen them retail since I bought mine at a yard sale. I take drain cleaning as a multi pronged approach, you need several tricks in the bag for the drain you are working on. I am a landlord, so I try to keep available several options. Another tip I read somewhere was for a hair clog. The guy said his wife got her hair removal cream for her legs out and poured some in and that did the trick. so I guess I just gave 2 here.

Guest's picture

Wow, the wet&dry vacuum worked great for me!

Guest's picture

For slow bath drains because of hair, check out The Drain Claw at www.thedrainclaw.com. It is a simple tool to unclog a bath drain without chemicals.

Guest's picture

The green clean alternative to unclogging drains: the Drain Genie. A quick, easy, low cost, green tool that attaches to a wet vac to clear drains without the use of harmful chemicals. Please see: http://draingenie.com/

Guest's picture

Or spend $200 on a Kinetic Water Ram. The simplest way to kiss your plumber goodbye. Pays for itself the first time you use it.

Guest's picture

Easy way is to get a tupperware cover (it's better if it is thin) then put it on the sink hole and start to pump. Remember, just like doing a CPR. PUSH HARD AND FAST. Repeat it and remove it quickly. Then check it if it works. and Voila! If it doesn't, don't give up. Keep it up! God bless!

Guest's picture
john vally

Wetvac worked perfectly for me. Word to the wise - second time I've fixed a kitchen drain with eggshells being the culprit.

Chemicals and plunger did not work for me. Now it's messed up my dishwasher. Onto the next challenge.

Guest's picture

Wire hanger worked like a charm! Thanks

Guest's picture

Time for a plumber. None of that worked for me.

Guest's picture

Has anyone used this tool called DRAIN-FX? Does it have enough pressure to clear the clog? I can't use chemical drain cleaners because I am allergic to Sodium hydroxide and my landlord managed to unclog my bath tub a few times (too cheap to bring in a plumber)

Guest's picture

Vinegar and Baking Soda are the best, boiled water also helps. But i hate using old plunger method. Last time i tried to use a cable that also helped.

Guest's picture

Tried hot water and baking soda/vinegar methods but unsuccessful. Gave the wet/dry vac method and was able to get a lot of particles out. Hopefully that did it. Crossing fingers. Thanks wisebread.com!

Guest's picture

Thanks for these tips, I never thought there were so many ways to deal with a clogged drain. Maybe I can give one of these a try instead of taking apart the trap next time. Do you think they would be beneficial for drain cleaning as a way to prevent blocks?


Guest's picture

Thanks for the tips! I have one bathtub clogged with hair and one kitchen sink clogged with nasty food garbage, despite having bought and used drain catchers for both. The boiling water looks like it's going to work on both, though.

Guest's picture
Loic Brun

Vinegar and baking soda are, indeed, the most useful natural products for cooking and cleaning the house. Clogged drains can definitely cause flood that may turn the situation into a more serious one. So it is advisable to fix this immediately. Those pieces of advice are all beneficial to a lot of users. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

I'm surprised other than another reader commenting that using the plunger method isn't mentioned in this list. Whenever my tub clogs up, I block up the overflow hole with a wet towel and use a plunger to clear the drain. It works every time. Once I plunge out the drain and the water is flowing again, I put baking soda and vinegar in there and let it sit for a while. Living on the bottom floor of an older three story apartment complex, I get drain water from the above apartments in my kitchen sink and the tub tends to clog up once every few months. The first time, I had a plumber come in and fix it but when I saw what he did and how simple it was, no need to call again.

Guest's picture

great list, and some other good advice from the commentors. (Go Zip-it) Usually the first thing I try i teh boiling water, if that doesn't work I'll clean the pipes.

Guest's picture
Susan Hirst

Thank you for the tips. The picture you painted at the beginning of this article describes my situation perfectly. Everything I've tried so far hasn't worked, but I'm hopeful that these drain cleaning tips will help me.

Susan Hirst

Guest's picture
Melanie Wilson

I usually go with vinegar and baking soda, but you have really done a proper research on this. I will definitely try some of other methods in the future.