When is it time to call the experts with a tub drain clog?
February 2, 2009 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Drain snakers, how much longer should I mess with this bathtub drain before I call a plumber?

I have an old slow-draining bathtub. When I take a shower lately, I wind up standing in water. This has gotten worse over time, and I also recently got a new showerhead which may have highlighted the problem by using more water. Nothing else in my house drains slowly.

What I have tried

- removing the trip lever -- I seem to have this version but with no stopper -- and pulling out a big chunk of gross hair. I've been snaking through that hole, not through the drain.
- Drano-type drain cleaner, no effect that I noticed
- boiling water, ditto

I borrowed a manual drain snake, basically like this one, and have been sort of flailing around with it. I've pulled up a little hair but mostly this vile smelling black ick that makes me feel like I'm probing the depths of the X-Files. The snake goes about three feet down and then seems to stop and rattle, which makes me wonder a little (like where is the missing arm to my stopper assembly for example, or could I have a drum trap?). I've read this thread and especially this comment in preparation.

I live someplace where it's snowy winter so it's possible my roof vent is blocked, but I wouldn't be able to tell that on my own. I'm sure my landlady will call a plumber if I ask her to, I'd just like to make sure I'm not able to fix this myself. So my specific question is: at the point at which I seem to go no further with the drain snake AND don't seem to be hitting a clog of any sort [turning the augur part doesn't bring up any more hair or other scuzz] is that the time to call the plumber, or is there something I haven't tried yet? Thanks for any advice or help.
posted by jessamyn to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Try a plunger with vigor while blocking any overflow vent with a wet towel. With luck you'll force a hairball through.

To help avoid future problems.
posted by exogenous at 4:55 PM on February 2, 2009

I had the exact same problem a couple of weeks ago, and it turned out to be a pretty lengthy chunk of frozen pipe (I live in a shoddy old apartment building). The rattling snake, the standing water, the whole bit. Try some more boiling water, I guess.
posted by nasreddin at 5:03 PM on February 2, 2009

Do you have a basement below the bath? If you do, you can follow the drain pipes and see if there is a trap. Also if you have a round chrome cover on the floor somewhere near the tub, that's your trap.

Try that snake again and use the small end, the plain end first. It goes through corner joints more easily and it's my best handyman trick! It will still grab whatever is in the pipes.
posted by lee at 5:09 PM on February 2, 2009

with plumbing and wiring my motto is - let someone else do it.

when it comes to chemicals and snakes and all that, the unschooled have far more chances of damaging things than fixing them.

but, if you want to try some more - i always heard put some dishsoap in that boiling water. of course, i've only had the boiling water trick work on the toilet.
posted by nadawi at 5:10 PM on February 2, 2009

Yeah, if you've removed any of the junk at all, you might have made enough of an improvement that the other methods could start working.

What I've done in those situations, is to do a round robin of methods. Considering you've hit the end of the line (ha!) with the snake, another round of drano and plunging and drano and plunging again might just do the trick.

My opinion is that the drano crystals are the only way to go- that liquid stuff seems less effective to me.

And also, I like to use a bacterial drain cleaner once every 3 or 6 months to keep things running clean. When I was in charge of a condo building, this stuff did make a huge difference in reducing plumbing calls. As in, reduced them to zero.
posted by gjc at 5:30 PM on February 2, 2009

Response by poster: Try that snake again and use the small end, the plain end first.

I will try that. Maddeningly at this point I seem to have gotten the other end [the spring end] stuck on something metallic-sounding about four feet down [so not the drain plug assembly] and when I finally dislodged it, it looked as if I'd possibly broken a small part of it off. I don't know what's clatering around down there.... And yeah I don't seem to have a drum trap, and I'm on the third floor, so no handy basement with open pipes.
posted by jessamyn at 5:31 PM on February 2, 2009

You probably need it snaked from the vent at the bathroom. You could try a shopvac (wet/dry) on the drain while blocking the overflow as above. it is a hair/soap goobball
posted by patnok at 5:34 PM on February 2, 2009

When I bought my place, the previous owners were, to put it kindly, morons. The main bathroom had a tub drainage issue exactly like you describe, and I snaked it out, using one of these, which I already owned and had to use periodically at my rental. I find this type works a lot better than the snake you linked to, and is easier to clean and store as well.

Anyway, back to the snaking story, I just persisted pulling out clumps of ... stuff.. and eventually pulled out the mother lode consisting of a wad of twist ties. Idiots! WTF possessed them to flush twist ties down the tub drain?

I'm not what you would call a plumbing-inclined guy, but using that snake I don't see how you could really break anything, though YMMV and all that. But if you're only going down a few feet and pulling up wads of something, sounds to me like you're hitting whatever is causing the clog. Were I you, I'd just keep drilling and extracting until I got through it or until I wasn't able to extract anything else.
posted by barc0001 at 5:37 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

How old is your house? My bathtub drained slowly when we bought this house because output pipes used to be made of lead, which "shrug" under their own weight after 80ish years.

(We left the pipes where they were, under the floor of the back bedroom, and redirected the drain to a brand-new pipe that runs across my kitchen ceiling (above the happy new drywall) into the main chase for the house.)
posted by desuetude at 5:47 PM on February 2, 2009

It could be bad. My parents have a few pipes in their ancient house that the plumbers have told them need to be replaced to fix the slow drainage. I never really heard why though. You can get a longer snake, and that might be worth the $30 or $50 dollar investment as even if it doesn't work on this clog you will have it for later. I am definitely a member of the new tool is cool club. I would not be afraid to call in help if a new snake doesn't help. Replacing pipes in an old house is a big pain though, you generally have to open walls and they are usually lath not drywall etc.

but using that snake I don't see how you could really break anything

Some of these pipes get to be as thin as aluminum cans over time. Go gently with the snake.
posted by caddis at 6:03 PM on February 2, 2009

I was in this situation a few weeks ago, snaking and getting little bits of "something" without seeming to make a huge difference. But after plugging the overflow and plunging again, it got going. So I'm seconding the advice above that says to alternate between the two methods.
posted by saffry at 6:04 PM on February 2, 2009

If you live in an old house the pipes could be metal. After years, the metal corrodes and the pipes become super small in diameter, so any little bit of stuff can clog it up. That could be the reason for a slow clog.

My downstairs shower drain 'slows down' about once a year. I go under the house and snake the heck out of it. I always get a clump of hair, then it works fine.

I would keep snaking a bit. If you keep fishing, more and more will come up.

I wish I could remember the name of the drain cleaner that works a hundred times better than Draino I don't bother with Draino, ever) But you could ask your local super cool hardware store for the drain cleaner that comes with a zip lock bag around the bottle. It is a miracle worker. Especially on organic clogs.
posted by Vaike at 6:38 PM on February 2, 2009

Uh, I Am Not Your Plumber. I had a similar problem, and the issue was really a multipart problem. Draino, boiling water, various enzymes never helped me.

1) Repeat snaking. I had to keep going further and further. I definitely ran up against that twist in the pipe about three or four feet in. I had to keep at it and eventually I got further and retrieved my, uh ... hideous prize. But the fact that part of your snake broke off is just a tiny bit scary.

2) I was letting too much of my long hair go down the drain. One of those plastic filters did me just fine. That was for maintenance. I still have to snake about once a year or so.

That vile black ick? Ah, the smell which shall never leave my nostrils. That's decomposing hair. And other stuff. Before snaking, I put a thin layer of whatever goop is handy down on the shower basin floor, like Vaseline, Crisco, whatever. That black ick will stain just about anything.
posted by adipocere at 7:02 PM on February 2, 2009

We used to Draino the bathtub drain in my apt like, once every few weeks. And that was after 2 weeks of having standing water. It was useless.

Now, after my former roommates dad came to visit (who is a landlord in his city), I know the answer...for my apartment, anyway. Plunging, violently, after letting warm water run for a few minutes to get all of the stuff in the drain soggy. It keeps my drain clear for at least a year. In fact, I just did it yesterday. It's disgusting, and that black stanky ick will come flying from the overflow drain, but it's worth it. And sort of therapeutic.

If your drain is the type that can take one of those metal mesh strainer things, use it. It will keep the majority of the hair and whatnot out of the drain. If you share the place, make the shower policy = "clean out your shower hair" because no one else wants to touch your shedded hair.

I have no idea if plumbing violently is doing anything bad down the pipe-line, but it's been working for me for a while.

(I just reread that sentence, and it's weird. He came to visit my former roommate when she lived here. He did not come to visit me. And he said "wow, your tub drain sucks!" and he fixed/plunged it, and I was AMAZED. For the first time in two years, the drain ran clear. And life was happy again.)
posted by AlisonM at 7:56 PM on February 2, 2009

haha, violent plumbing. you know what i meant, right? :)
posted by AlisonM at 7:57 PM on February 2, 2009

We used to Draino the bathtub drain in my apt like, once every few weeks. And that was after 2 weeks of having standing water. It was useless.

Same. I used a Zip It after reading about them on metafilter, and it worked magic. Haven't had any problems since. It may just do the same thing as a snake, but might be worth a shot (only a couple dollars at Home Depot/Lowes/etc).
posted by inigo2 at 8:44 PM on February 2, 2009

Plunging works fantastically in kitchens. I'm not sure if it can do much for hair, but it probably can. As AlisonM says, the trick is that you have to really go at it.

After sealing up the overflow so that it is more or less air tight (in a kitchen, seal up the other side of the double sink).. You first have to do enough to get the plunger loaded up with water. I think you can draw enough water back out of the drain if you go hard enough, but you can also try filling the tub part way and loading the plunger with that water. You then drive the load of water down into the drain as forcefully as possible by pushing down on the plunger. And, suck it back out equally forcefully by pulling. Keep going back and fourth. Once it is working right you should be able to really 'feel' the water moving. In this way you are scouring the inside of the pipe with turbulent water and whatever crud has already come loose. You can even 'feel' obstructions as they move with the water.
posted by Chuckles at 12:55 AM on February 3, 2009

Seconding drain opener crystals instead of liquid. I had a nasty plug in the bathtub in our old house and a few applications of the crystals did the trick.
posted by ulotrichous at 6:31 AM on February 3, 2009

This is guaranteed to work - from experience.
posted by watercarrier at 9:47 AM on February 3, 2009

I had an extremely slow shower and managed to get it cleared with plunging. You've got to seal up the overflow as best you can with a wet rag. Depending on the design you may need to pull out the stopper assembly to effectively plug the overflow. Then just keep at it with the plunger. It actually helps to have water in the tub, at least a few inches, so you're forcing incompressible water down the drain instead of compressible air.

I did this after a snake failed to get the clog.
posted by 6550 at 9:56 AM on February 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the helpful suggestions. I'll have to see if I can borrow a plunger. During my last escapade into the tub drain it really seemed like I was hitting a lever or a valve or something that goes sort of * click click * [like the drain plug assembly] about 3-4 feet down when I push up and down and the snake doesn't go past it. That said, it's already draining a bit more quickly, so I feel like I've made some progress.
posted by jessamyn at 10:07 AM on February 3, 2009

Snaking-in only three feet is not enough. You need to gently work the snake past the restriction you feel, and then run as much of the snake as you can. I have a 20-foot snake and try to run the whole thing, whenever I use it.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:08 AM on February 3, 2009

There should be a cleanout on the outside of the house, other than the roof vent. If so, give the snake a try here. It will reach different places that snaking the drain won't.
posted by Danf at 10:13 AM on February 3, 2009

I am a landlord and do a fair amount of drain snaking in older and recalcitrant plumbing as part of my work. I am not an official plumber, however.

It sounds like you are snaking the tub correctly: The usual procedure is to remove the lever thing that works the stopper and feed the snake down through there. It doesn't usually require a huge distance -- most of the time, the bathroom sink and bathtub drains feed into the big drain for the toilet (it's 3" or 4" diameter pipe) as soon as possible. Kitchen drains frequently run quite a distance with smaller diameter pipe but bathroom fixture drains generally hit the 3" or 4" sewer line at the nearest toilet.

What it sounds like is happening, with the failure of the snake to progress, is that you're hitting something (a bend in the pipe?) before you get to the big sewer line. Look at the layout of your bathroom and consider the distance from the tub drain to the toilet drain. That's probably (usually) the distance of the small diameter drain for your tub. You're likely going to need to work that much of the snake into the line to solve your issue.

To advance the snake, fiddle with it, remembering to twist and, if it seems stuck or won't advance, pull it back a couple of inches and twist while feeding it forward slowly. Sometimes it is difficult to get the snake around turns. Sometimes it is remarkably difficult. Snaking is a skill and you will improve with practice.

The "works better than Drano" stuff in the plastic bag that someone else mentioned is called Liquid Fire at my local hardware store. It's in a red plastic bottle inside a plastic bag. Liquid Fire is made of sulfuric acid and WILL BURN YOU if you get it on your skin. Badly. It can also BURN THROUGH PIPES. Please use due caution in handling the stuff if you go this route. Liquid Fire is sold in gallons and also in smaller containers. If the drain drains at all, you can *probably* put the entire contents of one of the smaller containers down it without killing anything. A gallon is usually way too much and overkill. Liquid Fire eats through organic clogs (including hair) pretty efficiently.

The plunging suggestions of others are also useful -- the reason that plunging works is that it shoves the clog along the drain to the big toilet drain pipe and then you're golden. Make sure that there's water in the drain line when you go to plunge it and the advice about plunging vigorously is spot on. Most people do not make enough of an effort with plunging.

I'd give it a couple more rounds of snake/plunge before giving up and calling the landlord.
posted by which_chick at 5:02 PM on February 3, 2009

When I have rented out property, I have definitely 100% considered it my responsibility that everything is 100% working. I don't know about your relationship with your landlord, but as a past landlord I would have preferred a tenant to tell me immediately so that I could fix it my way, instead of potentially doing it a way I as a landlord right or wrong would balk at. So my vote is don't be shy, just call and ask politely if she can have someone take a look at it as soon as possible.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 5:11 PM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: update: I am a total coward and have been showering at the gym for a week to avoid this mess. BUT, I took a shower today with decent [though not highest] water pressure and the drain drained fine. So... I'm not sure what was the final trick that wound up working [and maybe it will still be broken when I turn the shower all the way up or put the drain plug assembly back together] but it officially falls into the realm of "good enough" and I'm thrilled. I'll also mention it to my landlady when I see her just so she knows what's up. Thank you everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:37 AM on February 10, 2009

Followup: The "Liquid Fire" stuff is also sold as ClearLine, etc. and yes, it's concentrated sulfuric acid. You may want to try it now precisely because you are flowing better. It works great but obviously it's dangerous.

3 warning:
1) Above all , DON'T use it if you tried Drano and it failed. Drano = a concentrated base, so adding ClearLine = that volcano experiment from grade school (baking soda + vinegar) times 10,000. You really don't want this stuff to erupt into your face as you look down at the drain.

2) Make sure you don't whiff the fumes.

3) Don't use it if your drain doesn't go down. You don't want it parked in your drainpipe -- as which_chick said, it can actually eat through pipes if it sits long enough.
posted by msalt at 5:01 PM on May 16, 2009

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