Sinks and toilets have an uncanny habit of clogging on holidays or weekends when plumbers charge extra to come to your home. Before you pick up the phone, try these methods to unclog drains naturally.
Chances are, one of the methods below — or a combination of them — will get your drain flowing freely. If you have a particularly stubborn clog, they’re still safe enough that neither you nor the plumber risk injury when you make that call.
Unclogging Drains Yourself
Warning about Commercial Drain Cleaners
It’s tempting to grab a can of something like Drano then, if it doesn’t work, to try another commercial product. DO NOT DO THIS.
Some commercial drain cleaners are acidic, while others are alkaline. Since the first drain cleaner you used is still in there, the combination can produce a chemical reaction that sends extremely dangerous corrosive liquid splattering all over you as well as your home.
That’s why it’s best to start with natural methods to unclog drains, like those below. They can all be used one after the other if needed, and won’t put you at risk of injury.
Why Do Drains Clog?
Most drain clogs are caused by a combination of grease, hair, and other debris that builds up over time.
Wet wipes clog toilets. Some wet wipes specifically state they’re not flushable, others claim to be septic-safe or safe to flush. Even “flushable wipes” clog toilets regularly, however, when they snag on other debris that’s built up in the plumbing.
Food grease clogs drains. Pouring cooking oil down the kitchen drain or even washing very greasy pots and pans, instead of scraping the congealed mess into the trash can, leads to clogs known as fatburgs that can cause thousands of dollars in damage.
Bath products can clog drains, too. Soap, body washes, and even body oils washed off during showers are all greasy, too. Combine those with hair and food particles, and you’ve got the recipe for a clogged drain.
Deal with Clogs at the First Sign of Trouble
Since most things that cause clogs build up over time, you can prevent costly damage by taking steps to unclog drains as soon as you notice them slowing down.
Some signs to look for:
- Bathtubs that take longer to drain fully.
- The rising water level at the bottom of your daily shower.
- Slow drains that make gurgling noises.
- Sinks which empty so slowly that debris in the water collects in the basin, instead of going down the drain.
- A toilet or sink that backs up frequently.
- Foul smells coming from drains. (Also see these tips on how to clean stinky drains.)
If you notice one or more of these problems, don’t delay in dealing with it. Use one of the methods below to unclog drains naturally, before the clog gets too bad to DIY it.
Natural Ways to Unclog Drains
Most people find that a combination of methods works best, so start with the one that’s most convenient for you then work your way through the others if needed.
Hot Water and Dish Soap
The same properties that help liquid dish soaps cut through grease on your dishes can also cut through grease built up in your drain.
- Have a pot of boiling water ready.
- Insert the dish soap bottle’s spout as far down the drain as you can get it and give it a good squirt.
- Immediately pour the boiling water directly down the drain and wait 10 minutes.
If the drain empties, you’re done but should still use the baking soda and vinegar method to remove any greasy residue that’s built up.
Baking Soda and Vinegar
The same chemical reaction that makes baking soda and vinegar a Science Fair favorite also makes the duo fantastic at drain cleaning.
- Put a funnel down the drain and pour 1/2 cup of baking soda in it. Shake the funnel a few times to get the baking soda out of it and down your drain.
- Heat 2 cups of vinegar until it’s just simmering. Since this is going to fizz, you don’t want the vinegar to be boiling — just warm enough to help liquefy any greasy buildup in the drain.
- Pour the vinegar into the funnel where it will combine with the baking soda in your drain to scour away the buildup.
- Let this sit for 15 minutes then run hot tap water down the drain to flush away any remaining debris.
Wire Clothes Hanger
Although a plumber’s snake is needed to attack clogs deep in pipes, you can often reach clogs closer to the drain’s entrance with a wire clothes hanger.
- Unbend the hanger until it’s one long, straight piece of wire.
- Form a small, J-shaped hook on one end.
- Insert this hook in the drain until you meet resistance, twist the hanger a bit, and pull debris out. As you’re working, focus on pulling gunk out, not pushing it in.
- Repeat until you don’t pull up any more gunk, then follow with the baking soda and white vinegar method to get rid of any buildup.
Wet/Dry Shop Vacuum
Shop vacuums specifically rated for use on both wet and dry messes can also be used to quickly unclog drains. Since electricity is involved, don’t use this method while standing in water, like if you’re basement or bathroom has flooded.
- Switch the machine to the “wet” setting and plug it in.
- Insert the nozzle down the drain as far as possible.
- Switch the vacuum on and let the suction unclog your drain.
In an ideal world, you’d have separate plungers for toilets and sinks. In reality, most of us have just one. So, if you have to use the toilet plunger on your sink drain, plan to clean and disinfect the sink immediately afterward.
SAFETY NOTE: Do not use a plunger if you’ve already used a commercial drain cleaner on the clog, or you may wind up with dangerous, severe chemical burns.
- Hold the plunger vertically above the drain to create a strong seal. Keep the handle vertical over the drain opening the entire time you’re working, so you don’t lose suction.
- If you’re working on a double-sided sink, block the other drain to keep water from coming up it.
- Vigorously plunge using an up-and-down motion, keeping the handle upright the entire time.
- Stop when you hear the clog break free or the water level begins to recede.
Empty the Pipe
For clogged sinks, you can try removing the pipe yourself to reach the clog. When it comes to hair clogs or rings dropped down the sink, this is the best approach.
SAFETY NOTE: Do not use this method if you’ve already tried a chemical solvent or drain cleaner.
- Empty the cupboard below the sink and line it with towels.
- Place a bucket directly beneath the U or J-shaped joint under the sink.
- Unscrew the slip joint nuts on either side of the pipe’s bend. If you can’t do this by hand, use a wrench or channel lock pliers. Wrap the wrench’s jaws with duct tape to protect the pipe’s finish if you like.
- Set aside the O-rings, so they’re handy when you reassemble the pipe.
- Wait for the water to finish draining into your bucket after you’ve removed the joint. You can shove a rag in the pipe’s end if you smell sewer odors but will need to take it out before reassembly.
- Standing over a trash can, use an old toothbrush or the end of a screwdriver to dislodge whatever was clogging the pipe joint.
- Move to a different sink and clean the inside of the joint with warm, soapy water and an old toothbrush.
- Reassemble the joint, removing the rag if you used one to stop the sewer odor, and returning the O-rings to place. Hand tighten the slip joint nuts then tighten them a quarter-twist more with the wrench. Do NOT over-tighten them, especially if they’re plastic, or they’ll crack.
- Dry the entire pipe well with a fresh towel to make leak detection easier.
- Run water in the sink and inspect the pipe below to make sure it’s not leaking. Once you know it’s reassembled properly, remove the bucket and towels and put everything back under the sink.
Prevention is the Best Policy
As with many things that go wrong in a home, prevention is the best approach.
- Install a hair catcher like this one in the shower.
- In the kitchen, use a sink strainer to catch food particles then empty it in the trashcan after doing the dishes.
- Run your garbage disposal regularly to prevent kitchen sink clogs.
- And stop flushing wipes!