How to Unclog Any Drain, From the Kitchen Sink to the John

You don't need a plumber for this, but the right tools go a long way.

by Sal Vaglica
Originally Published: 
image of someone using a plunger demonstrating how to unclog a toilet

Aside from a fire, few things can fill you with dread like watching the water level in a toilet bowl rise. As the water crests the top of the throne, you know it’s going to take a half-hour, likely some paper towels — and hopefully some bleach — to get it cleaned up. Unclogging a toilet, sink, or tub drain quickly — before it becomes a mess — is a vital skill.

But first, there are a few different reasons why drains clog — and it’s not always poop (although that’s not helping). Waste is a common culprit in toilets, along with wads of toilet paper and baby wipes — which you should never flush, not even the ones that claim to be flushable. In sinks and in tub/shower drains, everything from soap to food and hair accumulates over time, slowing the path of water. Drain stoppers that operate with a lift rod, to raise and lower the stopper, have a flawed design that’s ground zero for catching hair on the way down the drain.

The internet is rife with fast hacks to clear drains. Some might work — we included our favorite here — but if one doesn’t, don’t waste time. Bring out the big guns for mechanical extraction. It might require some specialized gear, but if you have the right tools on hand, relying on power to clear the drain is just as easy as the quick fixes.

Start simple, with the fast fix, below, which can free up a slow drain (where the water leaves, but it takes a while) or a clogged one.

The Tool-less Option: Boiling Water

To unclog a drain, bring a pot or kettle of water to a vigorous boil. Into an empty sink or tub/shower drain, pour enough water to fill the trap so it comes to just the top of the drain. You’re relying on the heat to dislodge and wash away the blockage. Try this once or twice — but if after that, it’s not cleared, move on. The internet is full of vinegar and baking soda tricks, which might work in time, but using the right tool will up your chances of success. (Though the vinegar does help with stinky shower/tub drains.)

If the Water Trick Didn’t Help Your Sink Drain, Try a Flexible Snake

When plumbers talk about snaking a drain, they mean sending a metal cable down into the pipes. Electric versions can be expensive and a pain to use and store. Before you break out the plunger, try a simple flexible snake. Usually made from flexible, toothy plastic about 16 inches long, you slip these down the drain from above without removing the stopper. Work them back and forth, wiggling them around and through the curved P trap under the sink where they should snag the clog. When you pull the snake back up it’ll be full of gunk, so have paper towels handy. If this snake didn’t grab the clog, the obstruction is further down the waste line.

How to Unclog a Bathroom or Kitchen Sink With a Cup Plunger

Start by picking the right style of plunger. A cup plunger works in a sink, but the better tool is a flange plunger (see below). With a pair of gloves on, remove the sink’s stopper. Every bathroom sink has a hole in the basin to prevent the sink from overflowing. Stick a wet rag in that hole, otherwise whatever is down that drain will spill out of that hole and make a mess as you work. Add some water to the sink now so it covers the drain by about an inch, which helps create a water seal. Center the plunger over the drain and pump it for 15 to 20 seconds, then remove it. Check if the water is draining, and repeat if necessary. The process is the same in the kitchen sink. But if your sink has two bowls, remember to cover the one you’re not plunging with a rag to prevent dreaded splashback.

Unclog a Bathroom, Kitchen, or Tub/Shower Drain With a Utility Vacuum

If the plunger didn’t work, or you don’t have one, you can yank the clog out instead of trying to push it downstream. With gloves on, remove the drain’s stopper, and block any secondary drains with a wet rag. Add a couple of inches of water to the drain. Now stick the end of the utility vacuum over the drain and hit the power. The wet-dry vacuum will suck up the water and loosen the clog. Just be ready for the funk it pulls up and have paper towels on hand, as well as something to sanitize the end of the vacuum with after.

How to Unclog a Toilet With a Flange Plunger

Here’s where a second style of plunger is handy. Cup-style plungers work well on the relatively flat bottom of shallow sinks, but in toilets better to use a flange or accordion-style plunger. These deliver more push per pump and they seal better around the toilet’s drain. You can use the flange plunger on sinks too if you fold the rubber tail up first. Seat the plunger at a slight angle toward you; the handle should not be perfectly vertical. With water in the bowl and the head of the plunger submerged, push in and out, going easy at first. Ramp up your speed pushing in and pulling out, while maintaining the seal against the toilet. Hit it with elbow grease for about 20 pumps. If the level of the water doesn’t recede to normal. It’s time to move on.

How to Unclog a Toilet With a Closet Auger

Using just any snake to clear a toilet leads to scratched porcelain. The closet auger is designed to clear the toilet with a protective rubber boot that rests in the bottom of the bowl. From there you push and turn the steel auger so that it snakes its way down the trap and into the waistline. You’ll need towels on hand because the auger’s going to hold onto water. Once the clog is clear, clean and disinfect the snake outside with vinegar or a commercial cleaner and a toilet brush. Then dry it to prevent rust.

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