What's going on in the washroom pipes?
September 23, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

How do I fix my slow-draining toilet and sink?

I have a 1-bathroom house with an unfinished basement. For the last couple of weeks, the bathroom sink has been slower and slower to drain. The toilet is also getting slower. The water isn't having the "swirly" action it typically does. It hasn't overflowed, but water flow is definitely not getting any better. Plunging helps, but I'm assuming there is a deeper problem. MeFi, before I bring out the Drano or call the plumber, what else can I do? What's going on?
posted by Giggilituffin to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might use the Drano for the sink. Don't use it for your toilet. If you have to use it more than once, call a plumber to bring over a drain snake and do some deeper cleaning.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:27 AM on September 23, 2011

1) Try Dran-o.
2) Try a snake.
3) Call a plumber.

But, since BOTH the bathroom sink and toiler are getting slower, your issue a a little further down the line, which might be a bigger diameter pipe (at least it is in our 1930s house), so that would be one heck of a clog.

Could a toy be logged in there?
posted by TinWhistle at 11:29 AM on September 23, 2011

Yup, if both are slow it sounds like you might need your main sewer line snaked. By the way, once you call a plumber to do it, don't be suckered into signing anything! If they say "Well you need this and this and this" just tell them to drain the line and pay for nothing else. I had an issue where I had to go to court to fight a plumber because of this very reason.
posted by amazingstill at 11:36 AM on September 23, 2011

You can Dran-o the sink, but definitely no Dran-o down the toilet! You'll need a snake for that. If you're willing to do it yourself (it's not difficult) see if you can borrow one from a neighbor instead of buying one.
posted by griphus at 11:36 AM on September 23, 2011

Don't Drano anything, that won't fix it. Your problem is further down, in the side sewer (the line that runs from the street mains to under your house, where all the appliances drain into).

You need a real plumber with a snake machine (big rotating drum that feeds a metal cable down underground. If you are curious, you can have them bring a snake camera and see what's up down there. Have fun.
posted by Aquaman at 11:39 AM on September 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Nthing that this sounds like the main sewer line, so grab a plumber.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:42 AM on September 23, 2011

Is your tub draining ok? They ultimately drain to the same place but it's possible the sink and toilet are just clogged separately rather than the pipe leading out to the sewer/septic. So if the toilet, tub, and sink are all slow to drain, it's probably the outflow pipe. If the tub is draining ok it's probably the individual fixtures.

Do you shave in the sink? It's possible it is clogged with hair. You can buy a drain auger at Home Depot for under $20.00. I just used one to clean out my shower and it was like night and day. Pretty scary what I pulled out of there.
posted by bondcliff at 11:42 AM on September 23, 2011

You can snake it yourself. Find the cleanout under the house and get a 20-50' snake to snake it. I have an older house and need to do this every 3-4 years. If it doesn't help then the clog is further down the line and you can either get a plumber or rent a giant snake (recommend the plumber at that point.

Since all bathroom fixtures are slow. Look for the cleanout after they all come together. It's a good way to learn about your plumbing, which you should have a basic grasp of.

(This is not legal plumbing advice...)
posted by Vaike at 11:43 AM on September 23, 2011

Long shot, but make sure the vent stack isn't blocked.
posted by jon1270 at 11:44 AM on September 23, 2011

If this was the main sewer line, wouldn't the kitchen sink drain slowly, too?
posted by rhizome at 12:02 PM on September 23, 2011

The children in the house wouldn't flush toys, so I'm not very worried about that.

The tub, kitchen sink and basement sink all drain fine.

Hair in the bathroom sink is likely, so I'll get right on that. Is it as safe or effective to use a wire coat hanger in lieu of an auger?
posted by Giggilituffin at 12:11 PM on September 23, 2011

It'll be difficult getting the coat hanger to do anything but go back and forth.
posted by griphus at 12:15 PM on September 23, 2011

Is it as safe or effective to use a wire coat hanger in lieu of an auger?

Safe, yes. Effective, no.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:21 PM on September 23, 2011

I've unclogged sinks with a hanger before, but it was so much easier with the auger. Using the hanger also involved unscrewing the trap drain and attacking it that way.

Having bought the auger, I wish I'd bought one ten years ago.
posted by bondcliff at 12:21 PM on September 23, 2011

IMHO: Skip the Drano and go with something called, here in the southern US, "Kitchen Crystals"... it's in a tin container, somewhat like a Comet container and is uber-powerful. Worked like a charm on my shower drains. I mean, you could literally hear the hair/whatever being eaten away. IAMAP btw, but I did this weeks ago and I'm seeing no recurrence of slow drains or of piping damage.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:29 PM on September 23, 2011

Instead of a wire coat hangar, try the Zip It. It's a plastic strip with a lot of hooks on it, and it's like $3, tops. Worked like a charm for me. They say they're disposable, but I've re-used mine a few times.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:40 PM on September 23, 2011

Grocery store drain de-cloggers may help you temporarily, but it's pretty likely you need to just have the line snaked. If you rent, your landlord should pay for it. Otherwise, you can pay a plumber (I'm guessing on the order of $100, +/- for your area), or do it yourself. I believe big-box home repair stores rent snakes.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:54 PM on September 23, 2011

For a slow drain, before you break out the caustic stuff, try an enzymatic/biological solution. My stand-by is Plumb Clean, but there are others, and even Drano has a Build-Up Remover product. These work especially well with toilet lines. Essentially, the stuff you're flushing down the drain tends to catch on the pipes and build up a sludge or plaque (similar to that inside blood vessels), which gradually reduces the pipe's capacity. The slower the water in the pipe, the more sludge gets deposited, and soon you have a clog. The enymes and bacteria in biological cleaners break up and even eat that sludge. It's advised to use these regularly (a spoonful monthly, for example -- a jar can last a year or two) for preventive maintenance.

It's also very useful to have, or have access to, a toilet snake (the type with the L or J-shaped pipe that gets into the trap) and a sink snake. But undersink traps, by design, can also be physically removed and cleaned manually. If it's PVC, you don't even need a wrench.

I will say that if you use a caustic chemical of any type (anything from lye to the sulfuric acid solution I had to use on a basement drain recently), use rubber gloves to protect your hands and protective eyewear if you subsequently try to plunge or otherwise mess with the standing water. If you call a plumber after using caustic solutions, they will hate you and maybe charge you extra, because it basically burns any exposed skin, even in mild solution.

By the way, Roto-Rooter will do cleanouts and augering, and can be less expensive than a plumber if you know that's what you need. We use them every 2-3 years on the backyard cleanout, although I'm trying to extend that by dumping root killer in the basement drains.
posted by dhartung at 1:12 PM on September 23, 2011

Speaking from recent personal experience, when you clean out your bathroom sink with a bent wire hanger (yes there are better tools, but you've already got your mind set on trying this first, right?), consider protective eyewear and gloves, because you'll accidentally send the sludge everywhere. You'll get tiny globs all over everything, and while they clean up super easy, in the first moment when they hit your face, you'll be tempted to vomit.

I have a plastic u-bend on my sink that can be removed by hand. I unscrewed it with a bucket underneath, drained the water, rinsed the u-bend, then ran the wire hanger up and down from the sink drain down to the open pipe. Got lots of hair and black (not smelly!) blobs out. Put the pipe back together and then it drained like a dream. Didn't spend a cent, didn't have any stinky chemical fumes, didn't have to wait for my husband to get around to looking at it. I feel like a champ.

I didn't try the bent wire hanger on the toilet, though. It just seemed like a bad idea. So we bought a toilet auger on Amazon. Got the cheapest one that had positive reviews. It took two or three goes before the toilet stopped being so fussy, but seems to have finally worked. I hear it brought up some mildly gross gunk, but I didn't witness because that was in "his" bathroom, not mine. We figured maybe the kids that lived here before us flushed some toys or something, but it didn't bring up any rubber ducky shreds.
posted by katieinshoes at 1:29 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had the deluxe plungers (the one on the right) unplug drains that a regular toilet-style (cup shaped) plunger wouldn't help. I reiterate the plunging in part because personally I really hate putting caustic stuff down drains. If this stronger plunging doesn't help, you might need a snake (the problem sounds like it's in the line after the sink and toilet join up but before the shower line connects).
posted by aught at 1:45 PM on September 23, 2011

Long shot, but make sure the vent stack isn't blocked.

Very good thought, but I think that would affect the tub draining as well.
posted by aught at 1:48 PM on September 23, 2011

Rather than the coat hangers or similar gear, the right way to clean your bathroom sink is to get on your hands and knees (plumber's crack opportunity!) with a wrench and take off the U-shaped trap that's in the cabinet underneath. Have a bucket under there, clean it out good, put it back.
posted by beagle at 2:31 PM on September 23, 2011

Just went through this myself. Toilet would mysteriously "burble" in the middle of the night, the shower and tub would back up, and the place started smelling like, well, ass.

Turns out that our townhouse shares plumbing with the unit next door. Which means (in the most recent incident) whenever anyone next door would use the plumbing, we'd get a lovely backup, and unusable toilets. This week, it was paint coming up the shower and bath. I was grateful; we've had worse.

This has happened three times. First time, plumber came out, snaked main line, got some roots, but the problem came back 48 hours later. Called a second plumber, and told him to clear the vent stack on the roof, as we don't have a cleanout near our property. That solved the problem for about 6 weeks. We got the same trouble, called the plumber who told us we should pull the toilets in our unit and snake from there. As it was Friday evening at the beginning of a holiday weekend (with no functioning toilets) we begged him to go on the roof, and clean the vent stack (he pulled out a brillo pad from the pipe, which we don't use -- thanks, neighbors!). That was the Forth of July weekend.

This week, with the paint incident, I called the plumber and said "Fuck it -- pull the toilets." He pulled one of our toilets and snaked and snaked and snaked and said "I can't clear the clog."

Not what I wanted to hear. However, he did manage to get next door and find the shared pipe, dig a hole to it, cut out the top, snake from there, pulled some roots, put on a patch, and job done. $489.89.

I am negotiating with the management company to share the bill for this latest escapade, and to get bids for installing a cleanout.

So -- get it done correctly. Find your cleanout. Get a good plumber. Local clogs (toilet only) -- buy a toilet auger.

Good luck! You have a lot of sympathy from me.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 3:01 PM on September 23, 2011

My town has a modest tax which goes to pay for sewer maintenance. The bonus is that when your sewer line is blocked, the city will send out a Roto-Rooter or similar service truck to fix it at no additional cost to you. It's possible that your town also has something like this, so you might save a few hundred bucks by calling city hall before you call the plumber.
posted by tomwheeler at 9:24 PM on September 23, 2011

Look around for your clean out--an opening to the sewer line created for just such situations--before you rent a snake. Not all house have them, or have one that is easy to get to. Without a clean out your option is to remove a toilet and snake there. It is a nasty job either way and worth hiring out if you can afford a plumber.
posted by LarryC at 11:06 PM on September 23, 2011

Voice of dissent: it could easily be separate clogs. (Mine were, just recently).

Plunger worked on bathtub, not on toilet. Small, cheap snake, bent coat hanger both ineffective. What worked was a gloved finger clearing gunk that had built up in the siphon. That hole in the bottom front of the toilet that sluices water directly down the drain when you flush it? It had more of an effect than I would have believed. Directly I cleared that, the water swirled down swiftly once more. It might or might not be your problem, but try it before you go to a lot of trouble on other things. Good luck.
posted by wjm at 2:39 AM on September 24, 2011

For sinks, my first stop is to simply remove the trap under the sink, along with the sink stopper mechanism, and manually clean-out all the crud that ends up clinging to the neck that extends from the sink down to the trap, as well as clinging to the stopper itself.

If that area is clear, then, with the trap off, I run a snake down the drain pipe. With any luck, doing so will also dislodge whatever is making the toilet slow (assuming they're on the same line, of course)

Never use a coat hanger. They really can't make the turns in the lines as well as a snake can. And, because of that, hangers can sometimes become stuck in the pipes.

I'd try a closet auger on the toilet before I pull it.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:28 AM on September 24, 2011

I was going to suggest a vent stack issue/your trap is dry as a possibility as well. It's less obvious, but a slow drain or slow drains is differently a symptom. That's probably a call-the-plumber problem.

If you've narrowed it to one drain and believe you may have hair, toothpaste or whatever in there, skip the drano. I have long hair that somehow always finds its way into sink drains, etc. In my former apartment the bathroom sink was always backed up, and drano didn't ever fix it completely (or sometimes at all). Know what did? Baking soda and vinegar. Put the baking soda down first, push as much as you can into the drain, then pour vinegar on it. Remember science from like seventh grade? These two substances react when mixed. And that reaction breaks down the gunk in your drains. Do this a few times if the water doesn't drain perfectly the first time. These are cheap and basic household products you probably have on hand, and they're safe to put down the drain and shouldn't kill any fish, pollute anything or require a gas mask and open window. I used some old baking soda that had been sitting in the fridge for months and expired white vinegar and it worked perfectly.
posted by ilikemethisway at 9:04 PM on September 25, 2011

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