a person using a drain snake

How to Effectively Use a Plumbing Snake

A clogged drain or pipe is one of the most annoying and common plumbing issues in any home. While liquid drain cleaners may seem like an easy solution, they come with dangers and limited effectiveness. A far better tool for clearing clogs is the venerable plumbing snake, also called an auger or drain snake. Used properly, this simple device can quickly clear blockages and get water flowing freely again.

How Do Plumbing Snakes Work?

A plumbing snake is a long, flexible metal cable wound around a spool. The end of the cable features a spiral-shaped auger bit. To use a plumbing snake, you slowly feed the rotating auger down into the pipe while cranking the handle. The auger bit screws into the clog, hooking any debris. Cranking the handle pulls the debris up the pipe and out the drain opening.

Plumbing snakes come in various sizes - longer ones for main sewer lines and smaller ones for sinks, showers and toilets. Electric versions make turning the auger easier. A plumbing snake is an economical, effective tool no home should be without. Used regularly, it can prevent minor clogs from becoming major blockages.

Key Benefits of Using a Plumbing Snake

  • Clears Clogs Quickly: A plumbing snake can break up and remove clogs in minutes, far faster than liquid drain cleaners that take hours to work. Quickly restoring drainage avoids damage from leaking water.
  • Works on Any Type of Clog: Snakes can clear clogs composed of hair, grease, soap buildup, or even toys or other objects accidentally flushed down a toilet. The mechanical action easily clears a wide range of blockages.
  • Prevents Damage from Harsh Chemicals: Caustic drain cleaners can harm pipes and plumbing fixtures. A plumbing snake provides physical clog removal without dangerous chemicals.
  • Saves Money: Repairing burst pipes or replacing corroded plumbing damaged by drain cleaners costs far more than a plumbing snake. The snake also avoids the need to call a costly plumber for minor clogs you can clear yourself.

Types of Plumbing Snakes

While all plumbing snakes operate on the same basic principles, they come in various types and sizes tailored for specific drainage applications. Common types include:

  • Hand Snakes: Compact hand snakes with 10 to 20 feet of cable are ideal for clearing sink, tub and shower drains. Their small size allows easy access through drain openings.
  • Toilet Augers: Designed to navigate the sharp bends of a toilet's drainage system, toilet augers feature a protected spinning tip to prevent scratching the porcelain bowl. They typically have 3 to 6 feet of cable.
  • Drum Snakes: Drum snakes on wheeled frames contain up to 100 feet of steel cable, making them suitable for clearing main sewer lines, laundry drains and other long pipe runs. Their motorized cranking makes turning long cables easier.
  • Electric Snakes: Electric drain snakes use a motor to spin the cable and auger bit while also propelling it into pipes. This makes clearing long drains easier, with models working up to 300 feet from the drain access point.

How to Use a Plumbing Snake

While each drain presents unique challenges, the general process for using a plumbing snake is similar:

  1. Determine the Location of the Clog: Start by pinpointing the clog's location as closely as possible. Try flushing water to see where it backs up. This focuses the snaking effort.
  2. Protect Yourself: Wear gloves and eye protection. Place a bucket under pipes to catch drips. Cover nearby surfaces with towels or a plastic sheet.
  3. Insert the Snake: Feed the rotating auger into the drain opening as far as it will go, turning the handle or crank as you go. If you meet resistance, keep steady pressure on the snake to work through it.
  4. Clear the Clog: Once the snake reaches the clog, crank the handle backward and forward repeatedly to screw the auger tip into the debris. Slowly pull the snake out while cranking - the torque helps extract the clog.
  5. Remove Debris: Wipe debris off the auger bit and repeat snaking until the drain is clear. Flush with hot water to confirm normal drainage.
  6. Clean the Snake: Rinse debris from the cable. Scrub with a brush and wipe clean before storage.

Snaking Different Types of Drains

While plumbing snakes follow the same basic operating principles, effectively clearing different drains requires adapting the approach:

Sink Drains: Remove the curved p-trap under the sink to get a straight shot into the tailpiece with a hand snake. Have a bucket ready to catch water.

Tub/Shower Drains: Use a hand snake and insert it into the drain overflow opening if snaking via the tub drain crosspiece doesn't work. Consider removing the trip lever assembly for better access.

Toilet Drains: Position a toilet auger so the protected tip curves into the toilet's bend. Gently work through blockages to clear the hidden inner drain system while avoiding damage. Be ready to quickly lift the auger out if you feel it penetrate a clog.

Main/Long Drains: Use drum or powered electric snakes for longer pipes. Let the motor do the work of rotating and advancing the cable. Position buckets under cleanouts to catch debris pushed through by the snake.

Kitchen Sink Drains: Disassemble the curved p-trap pipe assembly to get a straight shot down the tailpipe with a hand snake. Or snake through the dishwasher drain connector if applicable.

When to Call a Professional Plumber

While plumbing snakes can clear many basic clogs, some drain issues do require a professional:

  • Clogs or damage very far down main sewer pipes - beyond a snake's reach from any cleanout.
  • Drains requiring inspection by camera to identify/locate the clog.
  • Serious drain backups likely caused by tree roots or collapsed pipes.
  • Drains that worms or snakes cannot clear after multiple attempts.
  • Signs of leaks, corrosion or other problems only a plumber can detect and fix.

Don't hesitate to call us if a serious drainage issue or plumbing emergency demands specialized tools or expertise beyond an ordinary snake. We have high-powered electric snakes that can scour 100 feet or more into pipes. Cameras can also pinpoint stubborn clogs. RooterPlus! can determine if repairs like pipe replacement are necessary.

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