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Top 10 Easy Ways to Unclog a Drain

Katy Ward
Unclogging a drain
With cotton wool, loose hair, toilet paper, and other unwanted substances often finding their way into our plumbing systems, most of us have encountered a blocked drain at some point in our lives.

But, although a blocked drain can be one of the most unpleasant (and potentially embarrassing) home maintenance issues, it is also one of the easiest plumbing problems to resolve if you know what you’re doing.

Here, we’ve put together 10 of the quickest and simplest ways to tackle this kind of plumbing emergency.

1. A wire coat hanger

As low-tech as this solution sounds, it is one of the most effective ways of unblocking a clogged drain, especially if the problem is in your toilet, shower, or kitchen sink.

Find an old wire coat hanger and then straighten it out as much as you can before creating a small hook at one end of the wire. Next, push it past the drain cover and start probing or fishing around for whatever is clogging your drain. 

Make sure you don’t push downwards too forcefully or you risk lodging any gunge even further down into your plumbing system and making the problem worse.

2.  A sink or toilet plunger

Like most of the measures on our list, the plunger is a remarkably simple piece of equipment and works on the basis of pressure and suction.

Before you get started, you’ll need to decide which type of plunger best suits your needs. A standard plunger has a rubber cap on the end of a straight wooden handle and tends to work best on flat surfaces, which means these devices are most effective at tackling sink blockages.

If your problem is in your toilet, you should opt for a flange plunger, which has a soft rubber flap that folds out from inside the cup and can fit into the opening of the toilet drain.

Plungers work by forcing fresh water into the drain and dislodging the blockage. If you have a love of science, you may be interested to learn that this principle is known as Boyle’s Law in physics.

3. Boiling water

Although it may not be particularly sophisticated, this is one of the easiest methods for removing any unwanted substances lurking in your drains. Once you've boiled as much water as you can in the kettle or microwave, pour it down the sink in several stages. To allow the water to take effect, you should leave a few seconds between each pour.

While it should work against almost any blockage, boiling water tends to be most effective against clogs that are made up of grease or soap scum. Of course, it goes without saying that you should be as careful as possible when dealing with hot water in order to avoid a nasty accident.

4. Vinegar and baking soda

Before you pay out for expensive drain unblockers, you might want to check if you have any vinegar or baking soda lying around your kitchen. In many cases, these household staples can be just as effective at unblocking drains as costly products you can buy from the hardware store.

Before you get started, you’ll need to pour boiling water down your sink and wait for it to drain away. Next, mix a solution of white vinegar and baking soda into a cup. As we all remember from school science lessons, this mixture will start to fizz almost immediately, so you’ll need to pour it down the sink as soon as this reaction starts.

Finally, leave the drain for several hours (or even overnight) to give the solution time to tackle all the gunge and grime that has built up. Once you return, rinse the drain again with boiling water and your problem should be solved.

5. Cola

If any blockages are still refusing to budge, emptying the contents of a can or bottle of cola down your drain could do the trick.

As cola tends to be very caustic, it can tackle stubborn gunge that may be more resistant to boiling water. It also works especially well against build-ups of grime. Once you’ve poured the cola down your drain, leave it to work for a couple of hours and then turn on your hot water.

Any brand of cola will do, so there’s no need to waste your money on the more expensive stuff.

6. Dish detergent

If your problem is located in your shower or toilet drains, you could find that dish detergent is an ideal solution to break down substances such as hair, excess toilet paper, and cotton wool balls.

Pour a liter of boiling water into your drain to loosen up any material causing the obstruction and then add a cup of detergent. Wait for several minutes and once the detergent has taken effect, you can use a plunger to remove any residue that has been left behind.

Remember, you should always avoid flushing any substances other than toilet paper down the toilet as doing so is one of the most common causes of blocked drains.

7. Caustic soda

Also known as sodium hydroxide, caustic soda can be a powerful tool for unblocking clogged drains if used correctly.

But, although it is available from most hardware stores, it is also a potentially harmful substance that can cause serious chemical burns if it comes into contact with your skin. Before you attempt this method of unclogging your drains, it’s therefore essential that you make sure you’re wearing rubber gloves and eye goggles or other suitable protection.

Begin by taking a bucket and adding 750ml of caustic soda into 3 liters of cold water and then stirring this solution with a wooden spoon. After the mix begins to fizz, pour it immediately into your drain and leave it for approximately 30 minutes.

As an additional safety precaution, you should ensure that you’re working in a well-ventilated area if you’re attempting to unblock a drain with caustic soda.

8. Drain snakes

A drain snake, also known as an augur, is a piece of metal rope with a spiral on the end, which resembles a corkscrew. These devices can be used to unclog blockages in tubs, showers, kitchen or bathroom sinks, and toilets.

Depending on the product you choose, it may be possible to insert the snake up to 25 feet into your drains. Once the snake is inside, turn the metal rope in order to rotate the spiral, which should then snag any substances that are blocking your drains.

Because of their length, drain snakes tend to work best against blockages that are deeply embedded in your plumbing system.

Be aware, however, that it is possible to damage, or even puncture, your pipes by using a drain snake incorrectly, which means they may not be suitable for those with little or no plumbing experience.

9. Wet-and-dry vacuum

Cleaning both liquids and dust, wet-and-dry vacuums work on the same principle as a plunger, but with far greater power if you need to tackle particularly difficult blockages. 

To clear the blockage, you’ll normally need to turn the device to its highest liquid setting and place it over your plug hole. When you’re using the vacuum, it could also be a good idea to put a few towels down in case of any water leakage from your drain or blowback from the cleaner.

If you don’t own one of these devices yourself, you may be able to rent one from your local hardware store.

10. Call a plumber

If you’ve tried one (or more) of these tips, your problem should ideally be sorted, which will allow you to focus on more pleasant tasks. Otherwise, it may be time to call in an expert. 

Before contacting a plumber, you should check your home warranty plan to see whether you’re covered for this type of issue. While some of the most comprehensive policies will cover plumbing stoppages, others may not.

Although finding the right home warranty will depend on your circumstances and the level of cover you need, Liberty Home Guard and Select Home Warranty are two of the most respected providers on the market and can provide coverage for plumbing issues.

As a general rule of thumb, warranty companies are likely to cover plumbing issues caused by wear and tear, but not those resulting from misuse or negligence.

Conclusion

When you encounter a blockage in your drains, don't panic as there are a number of relatively simple home remedies that may solve the problem. One point to bear in mind: if any of these DIY techniques involve handling dangerous chemicals or boiling water, it’s vital you take all the necessary security precautions to avoid a nasty accident. And if you don’t feel confident doing so, you should call in an expert.

Katy Ward
Oxford graduate Katy Ward is a seasoned journalist and editor covering personal finance and software topics for Top10. Over a 15-year career, Katy has worked with several finance titans, including Barclays, Tandem Bank, and Yahoo! Finance.