How to unclog a bathtub?
October 16, 2010 4:49 PM   Subscribe

PlumbingFilter: how do I unclog my bathtub?

I have a (possibly badly designed?) bathtub drain system that gets clogged often. I got a plumbing snake that hooks up to a drill, but there is a slight problem.. The drain pipes are arranged like this:

| |
| |_ _____a

Where 'a' is bathtub floor, 'b' is the side and the other lines show two pipes, the upper one is where the stopper lives, and the lower is the drain. Now, the problem is that if the snake goes into the stopper pipe, it comes out the drain pipe and vice versa. Where does the pipe branch out to the outside? More importantly, how do I get the snake to go there? Since both pipes make a turn, there's very little you can do in terms of wiggling. How would a professional plumber do this?! The last time one was here, it took him maybe around 10 minutes (but I wasn't around to watch). Inquiring minds..
posted by rainy to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The drain pipe should go straight down from b. Did you remove the stopper mechanism? That should help. How old is the building? There may be a drum trap in the floor just outside of the tub, covered with a round metal plate with a screw in its center.
posted by lee at 5:07 PM on October 16, 2010

One good trick is to reverse the snake if you can so that the end with no head goes into the drain first. It will work just as well and go through the corners much more easily.
posted by lee at 5:10 PM on October 16, 2010

I assume this is something that is unresponsive to drano? I'm not sure what the deal is with the tub in my new apartment, but it tends to drain very slowly. (Maybe it's my roommate's long-haired boyfriend?--dunno) But I have taken to prophylactic draino-ing before my showers. Pouring just about a tablespoon in there a few minutes before I start my shower has completely removed the problem for me. (This might be bad for the drain long term, I don't know, but long term it's not my problem.)
posted by phunniemee at 5:23 PM on October 16, 2010

I just realized that picture doesn't show up right on the page here. The line segment under be should be 2 spaces to the right. Hopefully that's clear anyway.

Yes, removed the stopper; it doesn't go straight down from b, otherwise snake would go down it instead of showing up through the drain..

Clearing the corners in itself isn't a problem. I have another plastic mini-snake that's more flexible and the issue is still that if it goes through the drain, it comes up, and if it goes through the stopper pipe, it comes back through the drain.
posted by rainy at 5:29 PM on October 16, 2010

phunniemee: drano only improves things a little bit for a week or so.. If I could figure out a way to snake it, it'd be better and cheaper because it fixes it for 2-3 months at least, but if nothing else helps I'll just have to keep pouring precious drano literally down the drain!
posted by rainy at 5:31 PM on October 16, 2010

lee: there is no drum trap anywhere, unfortunately. The building isn't very old I think but not that new either.
posted by rainy at 5:35 PM on October 16, 2010

A move I use is to plug up the top drain with a wet towel and apply a plunger to the drain. After a tiresome amount of plunging, clogs often clear.

This will not work if you have a drum trap, as I found out two months ago when I moved into a house (from 1927) with a drum trap.
posted by zvs at 5:37 PM on October 16, 2010

zvs: thanks, I'll try that.
posted by rainy at 5:45 PM on October 16, 2010

I had a clogged tub recently. I also have a tub that is not easily snake-able, so the guy at the hardware store recommended lye, saying it's especially good on hair clogs. The lye worked beautifully, no problems since.

I don't know whether your preference for the snake is environmental (mine is). If so, here's a smidge of info on lye. According to the EPA website, "Lye and caustic cleaning agents are highly toxic. They can cause acute effects where they are dumped. They are very reactive and do not persist in the environment." So while a major dump directly on a site would be bad news, a bit down the drain presumably has degraded by the time it gets back into a water system...
posted by marlys at 5:57 PM on October 16, 2010

I recently had this problem, and after trying drano, plunging with an old plunger, and snaking, what finally worked was buying a new, sturdy plunger and plugging up the top drain with a wet towel. It's key to make sure that there is some water in the tub while you're plunging.
posted by analog at 6:11 PM on October 16, 2010

i also recently had this problem, and what worked for me was a combo of plunging with a quality plunger and lots of water in the tub and the top drain sealed, along with alternating treatments of boiling water, baking soda, and vinegar. this was after repeated doses of full strength acids did not help.
posted by paradroid at 7:04 PM on October 16, 2010

I swear these guys don't pay me or anything, but the Zip It drain cleaner is less than five dollars and worth a try. I even re-use mine a few times.

It's basically a long piece of plastic with barbed hooks, that brings up so much hair and gunk. It really works a treat on my clogged bathtub.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:08 PM on October 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've been in a similar (but likely not a similar) situation; after an expensive "expert" cleaning, I went proactive and poured maybe a half cup/cup of bleach down the drains semi-regularly (like, whenever I got around to it, but definitely before problems).

Let it sit a few minutes (5? a cigarette and a bit) and flushed lots of cold water.

Stopped having problems.
posted by porpoise at 8:18 PM on October 16, 2010

I've used a garden hose attachment like this to clear out my bathroom sink a number of times. It blasts a super-high pressure spray down the drain. It's easy and safe to use, and there's nothing to clean up afterwards.

I recommend adding a garden hose valve to it so you can turn it on and off without having to go the spigot.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:37 PM on October 16, 2010

I second paradroid on trying the non-drano drano before giving up on it and moving to the snake. Vinegar and Poli-dent are my new heros!
1) Heat 1 cup vinegar (I had a cider one, some internet recommends honey vinegar...) to boiling
2) Put 2 Poli-dent tablets in drain; Alka-seltzer should also work.
3) Add vinegar
4) Run some hot water as a chaser. This could be 10 or 30 seconds, but pushes the reaction to where the clog is.

After having clogs up and back for weeks, and failing with drano, this has 100% cleared that shit up. It is cheaper and less hazardous.
posted by whatzit at 2:38 AM on October 17, 2010

I have a similar problem when I try to snake the drain in my shower. It invariably ends up heading up the nearest vent stack. I think the issue is that home snakes are smaller than the commercial units the plumbers use, so they are more prone to taking wrong turns in the pipes, the way your drill-snake is. The plumber's snakes also usually have a different cutting tip, that might make the difference in where it goes, too. That's just my armchair-plumber theory, deduced after watching a plumber run his commercial snake through the same drain and never have an issue with the vent stack.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:49 AM on October 17, 2010

Another "trick" is to use a wet/dry shopvac & suck to crud out of the drain (you need to plug the top drain). I learned this from a lifetime plumber.
posted by patnok at 8:49 AM on October 17, 2010

Wow. The videos at the Zip-It Clean website are both horrifying and fascinating.
posted by Alt F4 at 8:57 AM on October 17, 2010

Nothing worked.. blocking upper pipe with towel and plunger thumping, boiled vinegar and polident, baking soda and vinegar, more thumping, Zip-It snake, foam liquid-plumbr and regular liquid-plumbr.

Did not try lye yet. Thanks everyone.
posted by rainy at 8:13 AM on October 18, 2010

The tub may not be the only culprit. The clog may exist between the tub and the main drain, and you need a longer snake. I think you might need a professional at this point.

PLEASE be careful with the chemicals! I *really* do not recommend pouring lye down a clogged drain that already has liquid plumbr in it (and not just because my uncle and grandfather are plumbers).
posted by noxetlux at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2010

Ok, it got fixed somehow, after I poured a bit of bleach and then an hour passed and I took a shower. It might have been bleach or those polydent tablets worked in slowly, or the combination of all the things I tried!

noxetlux: yep, I know about not mixing different chemicals together.. I always made sure to flush after one and before the next.

Thanks everyone!
posted by rainy at 5:37 PM on October 23, 2010

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