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By Mark G. McLaughlin

Clogged sinks that drain slowly – or not at all – are not something anyone looks forward to dealing with. The dirty water that won’t go down is more than just unsightly – it is unhealthy, and it robs the family of the convenience of that most wonderful of all modern marvels – indoor plumbing.

The jugs of chemicals sold in grocery and hardware stores sometimes solve the problem, but they don’t always work, or if they do, they only work in the short term. Within a few days the drain will probably slow and clog up again. While a good, reputable plumber can easily fix this, even the most affordable are still comparatively expensive. Fortunately, there is one relatively easy solution a homeowner can try first –  snaking the drain themselves.

Hand-held Plastic and Metal Snakes

Snaking a drain means clearing it out, and it is not hard. Snaking comes in two varieties: the simple hand-held snake and the machine type you can rent from a hardware or rental store.  A hand-held snake can be of either the plastic or the metal variety, and is available in any hardware store.

Step One: Turn off the Water

The first thing to do when snaking a drain is to turn off the water. A sink or toilet will have a knob or faucet on a pipe underneath them that can be turned to shut off the water. A shower or bath will also have a knob or faucet on the main pipe, which is usually hidden in a cabinet in the wall behind the tub or shower stall.

Step Two: Remove the Stopper or Drain Cover and Clean Out Obvious Debris

The next thing to do is to remove the stopper from the sink – or if it is a tub or shower, to remove whatever is covering the drain or overflow. Most tubs and showers have an overflow, which is the best place to insert the snake. Most of these can be unscrewed by hand or easily pried open. If there are cross-hairs in the drain, as there are with most tubs and showers, make sure they are clear of debris.

Step Three: Insert the Snake Down the Drain

If using a hand-held plastic snake, simply insert the tool a few inches down the drain, and then pull it up. Most of the time the bits of the snake that poke out from either side will catch some hair or other debris, which will come up when you pull up the snake. Clean off this debris and insert the snake back down. Keep doing this several times, going deeper each time, until you can go no farther without losing your grip on the snake. Repeat until the snake comes back clean and clear of debris.

If there is standing water, it should go down. If there is no standing water, turn the water back on, run the faucet and see if it goes down. If it doesn’t, that means your snake did not reach down far enough to get to the clog. For that, you will need either a longer, hand-held metal snake or you will have to rent a machine.

A long, metal hand-held snake is about a yard long. It is flexible and coils, and has a hook of some sort at the end. Insert this the same way as the plastic one, keep turning it to make it go deeper down the pipe. When you bring it back up, it should bring some hair or debris with it — or it might just force an opening or loosen up whatever is blocking the drain. Repeat the process several times. If there was standing water and it goes down, the drain is open. If there wasn’t any standing water, turn the water back on and see if it goes down.  If it does, you just saved a lot of money. If it doesn’t, it is time to either call a professional plumber – or go rent a mechanical snake.

Step Four: The Mechanical Snake

Mechanical snakes come in many sizes and strengths, from a thin-wire cable you can use by hand to machines that require electricity to power them. The bigger and more powerful machines are meant to deal with major clogs, and should not be used lightly. Before renting such a machine, ask the advice of someone who works at the hardware store and read the instructions carefully.

A mechanical snake operates on the same principle as the plastic and metal hand-held snakes. Make sure you rent the right snake for the right job – some snakes are not meant for a tub or shower. If they are too thick they can’t make it through the bend in the trap under the tub, shower or sink. If too thin, they could become tied up in knots and add to the problem.

If all else fails, call a plumber

A good plumber, like a good auto mechanic or a good dentist or doctor, is someone you can treasure – and you should not choose any of them lightly. To find a reputable plumber, ask a friend or neighbor, or go to a site like SoCal Plumbers 911. SoCal Plumbers 911 can find an experienced plumber to come out to your Southern California home to fix the problem in no time.

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