What’s Clogging Your Drains and How Can You Unclog Them?

Water is the most plentiful natural resource on the planet. And since it’s so abundant, you rarely think about it. That is, until you have to figure out how to unclog pipes. “Just about every plumbing fixture in your home can become clogged, from that fabulous farmhouse kitchen sink and bathroom sinks to the tub and shower,” says Doyle James, President at Mr. Rooter Plumbing. Here’s a look at what’s causing those clogged drain pipes, and how you can unclog them.

Clogged drain causes

Clogged drain Fat oil and grease
Fat, oil and grease can clog your drains and pipes. Image: Pradit_Ph/Getty Images

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“Food and substances that do not break down, such as fibrous food, egg shells and non-food items, along with grease and oil, will build up in your pipes and create a clog in your drain over time,” James explains. Leaving a clogged drain unaddressed could even lead to attracting household pests such as drain flies so you’ll want to fix the clogged drain line issue quickly.

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Clogged drains - hair
Hair is a major culprit in clogged drains. Image: sasimoto/Getty Images

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Also, hair can wash down the drain during showers or while washing your hair in the sink causing clogged drain lines. In addition to washing your hair, combing and cutting it over the sink will also eventually make the water drain clogged. Soap is another culprit. “Sometimes, soap itself is not a problem, but when it is combined with hair and other substances, it can form into solid clumps, clogging your drain,” James says. “But on the other hand, many traditional bars of soap also include grease or fat, and neither should be washed down the drain.” 

Clogged Drains - toys
These toys look so innocent — until they get stuck in your drain. Image: Robert Reader/Getty Images

And according to Audrey Monell, President of Forrest Anderson Plumbing and AC, a clogged drain pipe can also be caused by kids wanting to see their toys float on top of the water. In addition, your drain could be clogged from flushing excessive amounts of toilet paper or flushing paper towels, tampons and other objects down the commode.

Clogged drain solutions

Clogged drain - clothes hanger
A clothes hanger is an inexpensive solution. Image: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

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Wondering how to unclog a drain pipe? If you have a clogged drain pipe, a bent wire hanger is one option. “Use a regular wire coat hanger and straighten it out as much as possible,” James says. “Bend one end to create a hook, push it through the drain, and start fishing.” After you pull out the hair and/or other substances, he recommends running hot water to help clear the drain. 

A plunger is another option, but many people don’t know how to use it properly. The initial plunge should not be forceful. You’re trying to force the air out of the plunger’s bell, but you don’t want it to splatter — especially if you have hardwood floors in the kitchen and bathroom. After the water is out, you can start plunging more forcefully but make sure the plunger is firmly in place. Don’t give up if you don’t see any progress after four or five plunges. It may take over a dozen plunges when clearing blocked pipes to see any results. Also, make sure that there’s enough water in the toilet to cover the plunger. 

Clogged drains - vinegar and baking soda
Vinegar and baking soda are an alternative to poisonous chemicals. Image: Eskay Lim/Eye Em/Getty Images

Yet another solution to clogged drain pipes is baking soda and vinegar. “Concoct a mixture of 1/3 of a cup of baking soda and 1/3 of a cup of vinegar, which will fizz when combined,” James says. “Pour it immediately down the drain and the fizzing action will help break down the gunk, hair and grime.” He recommends letting it sit for an hour — although he says leaving it overnight is even better — and then flushing with hot water. “You can also pour the dry baking soda down the drain first and chase it with the vinegar,” James explains.However, he says boiling water is probably the easier tip. “Boil as much water as your kettle will hold and slowly pour it down the drain in two or three stages, allowing the hot water to work for several seconds between each pour,” James says. “Make sure your sink is empty before trying this and be extremely careful when handling hot water.”Chemical-based drain cleaners on clogged drain lines are a risky option since these chemicals don’t work as fast and can be corrosive. “If you aren’t sure what to do or the solutions above haven’t worked, contact a professional to help you clear your drain quickly and more effectively,” James advises.

Preventing Clogged Drains

Clogged drains - trap hair
Trap hair or debris before it goes down the drain. Image: deepblue4you/Getty Images

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or trying to clear a pound of hair and grease). For example, if your hair tends to shed badly when you wash it, take a proactive approach. “Make sure you have a guard over your drain to catch the hair more frequently,” James recommends. This advice works whether you wash your hair in the shower, sink or while soaking in your favorite bathtub.Whether you use your dishwasher or wash your dishes by hand, scrape the dishes over a trashcan first to ensure there’s no food left on them.

Clogged Drain - hot water
Use care when transporting hot water to the drain. Image: RyersonClark/Getty Images

You can also regularly maintain your drains by pouring hot water down them on a weekly basis, or by pouring a cup of vinegar down the drain, letting it sit for half an hour, and then pour two quarts of hot water down the drain.“It’s also a good idea to have your home’s plumbing checked regularly for leaks and clogs to avoid a plumbing emergency that could cost more in repairs,” Monell says.

The bottom line

No matter how nice your appliances are, all plumbing fixtures are subject to clogged drain lines. Among some of the top culprits are hair, food, grease and oil, soap, and bath toys. Should you find your pipes building up with water due to an uncleared pipe, there are a few inexpensive approaches you can utilize before you resort to calling a plumber. 

Frequently asked questions

Q:

Can I use a plunger to unclog my drain?

A:

While plungers are typically used on toilets, you can also use them to unclog minor plugs in your drain. Just make sure there is water in your plumbing fixture as using a plunge on a dry surface can damage your pipes.

Q:

What's the best home remedy to unclog a drain?

A:

If you find yourself with a clogged drain line, hot water, vinegar, and baking soda can serve as an inexpensive way to unclog it. Pour the hot water down the drain first, then baking soda, then vinegar, followed by more hot water after you’ve let the mixture sit in the drain for 10-15 minutes.

Q:

Does Coke unclog drains?

A:

Yes—the phosphoric acid in soda makes it possible for Coke to unclog drains. A two-liter jug of Cola should do the job.