Slow drains - my problem, or the landlord's?
March 27, 2014 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I just moved into an apartment a month ago. The bathtub, bathroom sink and kitchen sink drain slowly (but eventually). I don't remember whether they were slow when I moved in. I didn't have a hair strainer on the tub for the first few days so it's entirely possible it's my hair causing the backup (though that doesn't explain the kitchen sink). Is this my problem to fix or theirs? It's getting progressively worse.

Possibly relevant - the apartment was built in the 1920s and there are 8 other units. I haven't talked to anyone else in the building, but could their plumbing habits affect mine?

The toilet works fine.

The kitchen sink does not have a garbage disposal. I've been pretty careful about not letting food or grease go down the drain but it's possible some crumbs got down there. It's a double sink; I hand wash dishes in one sink and use a drying rack in the other one. When I drain the first, the water backs up slightly in the other one, but it does all drain.

The lease doesn't say anything about plumbing. The landlord is okay, if a little gruff, and I expect they would fix this if asked but I'm planning on staying here awhile so if this is my responsibility, I want to take care of it. (Add-on question: best method to clear the clog, assuming these are old pipes?)
posted by desjardins to Home & Garden (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to them and say you're happy to take care of it but would like suggestions because you're not used to old pipes. If the suggestions they give don't work, then presumably they'll be inclined to contact a plumber then. Of course they might cheap out about it, you never know.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:22 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't say whose problem it is to fix, but for the bathroom sink and tub, you might have luck opening it up with a simple bent paperclip. I did this in our bathroom sink after it got really slow to drain, and we thought the culprit was my wife's long hair, but it was mostly an accumulation of gunk. It was unpleasant, but I was happy to spend 5-10 minutes rooting around with a paperclip instead of pouring drain cleaner down the drain. The shower drain, on the other hand, was mostly clogged up with hair, which was another relatively quick fix with tweezers.

Of course, this is all assuming your clogs are near the top, and not a larger/longer issue, which is quite possible, given the age of your unit.

Also, the reason I suggest trying something like this yourself is because it could be a quick, cheap fix, instead of having to deal with back-and-forth with a landlord.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:25 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd check the traps under your sinks and bathtub. It's very straightforward to put a bucket or bowl underneath and unscrew the trap (assuming you can get to it). The trap itself can be blocked, or there may be a blockage just down the line from the trap - I use a length of curtain wire to break up any blockages in the pipe.

Having said that, if this has been a problem all along, your landlord should probably do it for you. But if I had tenants in a property of mine, I'd consider the unblocking of sinks, toilets, tubs and showers to be mostly their responsibility.
posted by pipeski at 8:26 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

My experience with old pipes is that I've never fixed one thing without causing another issue. You might want to think about that before you tackle the job yourself.

Clearing out a trap is pretty easy, all you really need is a wrench, a bucket, and a coat hangar, but if the drain bolt is rusty, or the gasket (if there is one) is old, or if it's a tight fit under the sink(s), it could turn into a bigger job than you'd expect.
posted by bondcliff at 8:26 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nope. Their problem.

Put it in a letter. Keep it simple:

"Dear Landlord,

The bathtub, bathroom sink, and kitchen sink are all very slow to drain.

Please send someone to snake the pipes.

Thank you."

That's all you need do.
posted by jbenben at 8:27 AM on March 27, 2014 [25 favorites]

It may be a plumbing issue but before you go to the landlord, go to the supermarket and grab a drain cleaner (Mr Muscle or such) and follow the instructions.

If that doesn't solve it grab a plunger, and plunge.
Tip1 have warm water in the sink 1 inch or so so that it's water and air you are putting down the pipes
Tip2 Cover the overflow hole in the sink with your hand. The water come out there if you don't.

If that fails then talk to the Landlord. He may know what the cause is, I doubt it's nevered happened to him before.

The toilet is fine because it's a different outlet to the sink
posted by MarvinJ at 8:29 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the moment, try one half-cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by one cup of vinegar, chased by a kettle of boiling water (it should be fine; check with landlord if in doubt). Big box stores sell two-foot-long plastic zip strips (long, flat plastic strips with small teeth along the sides); they're cheap and work amazingly well at clearing drains. A simple self solution might be quicker than hashing this out with the landlord, as noted above.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:29 AM on March 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Do NOT touch pipes in an old apartment building.

You just moved in. You do not own these pipes. Do not attempt to fix this on your own.

If the building is old and all three drains are slow, the building likely needs a repipe.

Expect many plumbing problems down the road.

Under no circumstances should you go on record as offering to fix this or as the cause of any issue.

Your landlord knows the pipes need to be done and is likely delaying the expense. Just ask for the pipes to be snaked and move on.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 8:29 AM on March 27, 2014 [19 favorites]

As a long-time renter, this is the kind of thing I would only call the landlord about if it blocks up completely (i.e. overflowing, not just draining slowly). It usually creates goodwill with the landlord to try and fix minor issues like this yourself.

I'd try the following:

1. Pour half a cup of Bicarbonate Soda into each drain, followed by a cup of white vinegar. Leave it to fizz while you boil the kettle. Follow up with a good stream of boiling water in each drain.

2. If that doesn't work, go to your nearest hardware store and ask for a drain-unblocking product like Drano. (Be sure to follow safety instructions to the letter; purchase gloves at the same time).

3. If you're still having problems...landlord.
posted by Salamander at 8:30 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Try that first. If it doesn't work, ask the landlord. (Wear gloves)

Admit no wrong-doing. It's just something that happens, ie. no need to apologize or attribute it to your own wrong-doing.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:30 AM on March 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

I also rent and I have this problem in my bathtub occasionally myself. What Salamander describes is exactly what I do, and the Drano method always works.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:31 AM on March 27, 2014

I'm shocked by all the people advising to do this yourself. I am a landlord and I would not want tenants trying to fix clogged drains themselves (beyond making sure the trap is clear). Tell your landlord that your drain is slow, they should be the ones to fix it.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:32 AM on March 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

If the plumbing isn't working, then yes it's the landlord's responsibility to fix it. If there's evidence that you caused the problem you may need to pay - but the landlord is responsible for actually getting the work done.

That said - if you can take care of it yourself, you'll likely score a few points with your landlord by making it easier on him.

First - buy one of those cheap plastic drain uncloggers. They are about 3 feet long, made of thin flexible plastic with toothed edges. You slide them down and pull back up - they aren't meant to truly snake the pipes, but to catch smaller blockages in the traps, and they are sufficiently soft and flexible that they won't damage anything.

If that doesn't work, ask your landlord what they recommend as a next step. Depending on how old the plumbing is (it may be newer than the building), he may or may not recommend using store-bought drain cleaner, in which case go ahead and buy a bottle and try it yourself.

If he says not to use that stuff, or recommends getting the pipes snaked, ask him to come fix it as it's gone beyond your ability to take care of it yourself.
posted by trivia genius at 8:32 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding the zip-it, but they are the landlord's pipes. What would happen if you or a plumber you hired caused some major damage?
posted by Gungho at 8:32 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the lovely things about renting is that things like this are not your responsibility. I would email or call the landlord in your situation. Don't give more detail than necessary - just, drains don't drain quickly, can you take care of it. You could try Draino first I suppose (that is what I would do).

It's likely an easy fix but it could be tricky and the last thing you want to do is call and say "hi I took apart the plumbing under the sink and now it still drains slowly and I can't use my sink because I stripped the pipe when removing it and so I just have a bucket under there for now." No landlord is going to want to deal with that, and the issue will now be your fault, because you monkeyed with the pipes.

So, landlord, if you don't want to just try Draino (a pretty caustic option but very hard to mess up) first.
posted by sockermom at 8:33 AM on March 27, 2014

P.s. I've never done the 'undoing traps' thing; never had to go beyond the Drano step. Frankly, I'd be afraid that level of self-maintenance gets a bit hairy (no pun intended). If you start taking a wrench to old pipes and something cracks or bursts and causes permanent damage, the landlord might have grounds for making you pay. So, that's something I might do in a property I owned, to save the cost of a plumber, but in a
posted by Salamander at 8:33 AM on March 27, 2014

I have rented all my life in old buildings. I'd try the plastic Zip-It, and maybe some Liquid Plumr if you are comfortable with the environmental and health implications. If the slow drains are caused by something as simple as not using a strainer for a few weeks, this should fix it.

I would not try opening up any pipes in a rental building, or have a plumber do so, without getting permission in writing from the landlord. Even if the issue is your "fault," maintenance is the landlord's responsibility, and they will have plumbers or handymen they regularly work with and are comfortable using.
posted by enn at 8:35 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you cook meat it could be built up grease. Try pouring a few litres of boiling water down it first.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:37 AM on March 27, 2014

I end up doing Drano on both the kitchen sink and the tub about once a year when they start to slow down a bit, and I've never needed to do anything more than that.
posted by Sequence at 8:38 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Several landlords have told me never to use harsh drain cleaners, as they can eat away at old pipes. The other thing is, if you put something caustic down the drain, and it doesn't work, and then you end up calling the landlord and he uses a plunger, that stuff is going to splash back up into the sink. Nasty.

The most I would do is the Zipit, and if that doesn't work, call the landlord and say the drains are slow. It's their responsibility.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:40 AM on March 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Zip-It is about as far as I go with other people's pipes, but it is almost all I ever have to do for bathroom sink and tubs. Plumbers hate Drano, I don't use it except in an emergency.

You've been there what? Three weeks? Unless you are cramming handfuls of coconut oil down the drains, this isn't you. Even when my large head of hair is halfway down my back, it takes me about 8 months to slow a tub drain. It is, in fact, the landlord's problem.

I would suggest owning a Zip-It (Home Depot always has them hanging in the plumbing aisle, but my grocery store and CVS also have them. They're about $4.) because they're handy to have.

When all drains slow at once, it's almost always a blockage in the roof vent or a clog in the main sewer outflow. Professionals need to deal with that, and not even gallons of drano will do anything.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:43 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Plungers are $10 and handy to have around, especially if your sink gets backed up on a weekend and your landlord can't be found. I live in a 125-year-old house. My kitchen sink was super slow to drain, but a few minutes with a plunger made everything run perfectly.

Nthing that in an old building, you don't want to mess with harsh cleaners like Drano.

I'd try a plunger first, then call if it's not getting better.

And Nthing that this isn't your fault.
posted by mochapickle at 8:50 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a landlord, I like it when my tenant lets me know there's a problem.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:52 AM on March 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Drano is a fool's errand, it's not really for slow drains.

I live in an old building with old plumbing. I've lived here for almost 20 years. Once or twice a year, I need to have my bathtub drain snaked. That's just how it is. I don't have long hair and I do have a drain cover.

And it is always an idiotic fight with the landlord. Last week he told me he and his "handyman" looked at the drain and didn't see a problem so they didn't snake it. I would totally hire my own fucking plumber, except that the pipes are really old and two years ago the "handyman" broke some of the pipes while snaking them and they had to get at the plumbing by cutting a hole in the outside wall of the building. Yikes. So it is totally their responsibility and I will (and do) bug them until it gets done.

After he emailed me last week, I took a deep breath, slept on it, and wrote the following to him the next day:

Hi Eric,

Got your email yesterday.

For clarity, when the drain is working properly, at the end of a shower, there is no water built up in the bathtub. Currently, at the end of a shower, there is 2 to 3 inches of water. I would prefer not to wait until it is ankle deep at the end of a shower before having it seen to. As you know, the tub needs to be snaked once or twice a year, and this has always been true. You probably recall that this was done in February 2013 and that the time before that we had an issue with Antonio not understanding that the drain needs to be snaked from the tub rather than outside the building.

Last year on 2/6, you wrote: We tested your drain and didn't find it problematic but we snaked it just in case.

It would be great if you would do so again.

Also, the drip in the tub is to some extent intermittent but I learned this morning when I turned on the water in the tub that you had left the faucet set to the showerhead, rather than the tub faucet, and that will prevent drips from the tub faucet. Leaving it set to the showerhead is not optimal however, as it causes water to pour on me unexpectedly when I am turning on the water to set the temperature before routing it to the showerhead for my shower.

Thanks, Eric.


He responded to tell me they will snake it this week some time.

This isn't my fault and it isn't my responsibility and you know, fuck him.

posted by janey47 at 9:01 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Based on experience living in NYC (strong renter culture, rentals tend to be large apartment buildings with very structured landlord/tenant arrangements), my advice would be to call the super and ask him to come take a look at it.

Based on experience living in Los Angeles (slightly weaker renter culture, rentals are often standalone units with more hands-off landlord/tenant arrangements), my advice would be to do the following:

1. Try pouring vinegar and baking soda down your drains and see if this helps a bit. Can break up general gross build-up, also maybe food gunk in your kitchen sink. I don't think it's strong enough to break up hair, but it's not going to do any harm in your tub.

2. Plunge, maybe? Strongly likely to help clogs in the sink, less likely in the tub.

3. Invest in a drain snake from Home Depot. They cost about $20 and are dead easy to use. This will almost certainly help any hair in your tub drain.

For what it's worth, I agree with others that, if this is happening in all your drains at the same time, it's probably not a clog but something affecting the whole building, and you're inevitably going to have to work with your landlord about that regardless of what rental culture is like where you live.
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 AM on March 27, 2014

You need to get a hair trap for the tub and a food trap for the kitchen - the little mesh or perforated metal baskets that sit in the drain and cover it. (I'm surprised the landlord didn't provide you with these.) If you aren't using them, the landlord may accuse you of helping cause the clog - that's happened to me in the past.
posted by amaire at 9:05 AM on March 27, 2014

Because your slow drains are throughout your unit, it could very well be a more global issue that will involve other units. I rent in a building the same vintage as yours, and over the years, have had a number of slow drain - no drain issues which were caused by all sorts of things outside my unit, things that I would not have been able to DIY detect or fix:

-- rooftop air vent (that creates drain suction) was clogged with leaves
-- old pipes had chipped and built up debris further down the pipe system than a plumber's snake could reach
-- neighbor was getting high in his bathtub and chillin' out in there for hours and somehow that caused the building's delicate system to back up (WTF)
-- someone else's shower at the ass-end of the building was backing up with sewage, and this caused troubles upstream for my unit.

Point is: with these old buildings, the fix may be something you don't even WANT to touch. This is the landlord's issue, not yours. Their part of the contract is to provide you with a working, livable space; your part is to pay rent on time, not trash the place, and not annoy your neighbors. It's a normal and customary repair for them to handle (you're not a charity case).

No Draino unless the landlord specifically instructs you to do so. Unless you are willing to have a backed up tub/sink filled with toxic goo while you wait for a plumber.

(Magic trick that recently solved a slow-draining tub that didn't respond to a long-ass snaking: plumber attached a wet-vac nozzle to the drain, formed a seal by blocking the tub overflow vent, and sucked up some broken pipe pieces.)
posted by nacho fries at 9:22 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes to hot water, baking soda and vinegar, and zip it. With pipes that old, I wouldn't do anything else - we lived in an older house (but not that old) and the iron pipes were rusting and would very easily break open (we tried to avoid drano, etc, for that reason).

Zip it is amazing, but definitely wear gloves - it can be really disgusting.

Jolie/Ask A Clean Person actually recommends the baking soda and vinegar pretty much monthly for drains, to keep them clear.
posted by needlegrrl at 9:32 AM on March 27, 2014

Yeah, hot water, baking soda, and vinegar are pretty harmless and easy (are your pipes in external walls? my landlord came out to fix slow drains for me earlier this winter and said that they tend to slow down a lot in the winter, so hot water helps a lot), but beyond that I'd say your landlord should deal with it.
posted by Vibrissa at 9:36 AM on March 27, 2014

Call the landlord and ask if you can attempt to fix the problem using commercially available drain openers (such as Drano), or if they'd rather call in their plumber. Do NOT attempt to do anything more than this; you do not own the apartment and you do not own the pipes.

If the drain openers do not work (or if you're not allowed to use them), then ask maintenance/the landlord to fix the problem.

Personal anecdote: In my first house (which was built in 1952), I attempted to fix a clogged bathroom sink drain that was unresponsive to Drano. I removed the trap successfully, but in the process it broke. With a plumber's snake, I was able to snake out several rocks and the head of a Barbie doll (no doubt left there from years and years ago; the previous owner had had teenage daughters at the time I bought the house). BUT, since the trap cracked in half at the screw and I couldn't screw off the broken piece, I had to call and pay for a plumber anyway. You do NOT want to have something like this happen with old pipes in a building you do not own, so let your landlord handle it if the problem isn't solved by using drain openers you have permission to use.
posted by tckma at 9:39 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

One month of hair is not going to clog up your shower drain. I'd make a good faith effort and take off the cover and see if you can pull out any hair clogs with a paperclip or something, but other than that, call the landlord.
posted by radioamy at 9:42 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Slow drains could be plumbing or venting or who knows, but it's a job for a plumber and something you need to have the Landlord take care of.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:46 AM on March 27, 2014

Don't do anything before talking to your landlord.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:03 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If they're all slow, I'd just talk to the landlord. (Maybe try the zip-it first, but no Drano.) I grew up being taught to avoid Drano and the like when possible because they can sometimes (eventually?) do damage, and when I used it for the first time on my kitchen sink last month, it did something that caused a slight leak. Not worth it when the problem is likely beyond Drano.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:29 AM on March 27, 2014

When this happens in my own apartment, I've always used Draino to see if that does the trick which it usually does (though I might be switching to the hot water/vinegar/baking soda that many of you mentioned). If not, I contact the landlord/super. I also work for a (different) apartment complex where our maintenance crew takes care of this for residents, no questions asked.

Since you just moved in recently and it is an issue, I would just contact the landlord about fixing it first and go from there.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 11:03 AM on March 27, 2014

Do not use a drain cleaner. I've lived in many an apartment and the leases stated explicitly not to do. I would especially not do it with such old drains.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 11:12 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just for clarification regarding commercial drain cleaning liquids: strong drain cleaners will not only eat through clogs, but they can also eat away at PVC, old, or corroded pipes, and porcelain, stainless steel, or aluminum bathroom fixtures.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:46 AM on March 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

The other problem with Drano is, what do you do when it doesn't work? Then you have to snake the drain or take the pipes apart, except now they're full of caustic poison! That's always fun to have splashing around!

When I lived in a basement apartment, the drains just needed snaking once or twice a year. It was just the way it worked. If you really want to make sure you don't get off on the wrong foot with your landlord, you can mail them and say "Hey, my drains are really slow -- how do you like to handle that?" but really it's their responsibility.
posted by KathrynT at 1:20 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

The neighbor's plumbing could affect yours! If you are on the bottom floor and there's a clog farther down the line that turns into a total blockage, the upstairs neighbor's grey water could back up into your unit. (I have had this happen at least twice at the property I manage. Once, while the bottom floor tenant was on vacation so the gross grey water was in the unit for a week!)

Tell your landlord the drains are slow. Better to deal with a clog/slow drain now rather than a blockage/flood later.
posted by vespabelle at 3:17 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is not your fault. This is the landlord's responsibility, nthing those above noting that you don't own these pipes and it's their job to maintain them. Call and politely expect them to handle it.

If it turns out that your landlord is a total slacker, THEN go the zip-it route.
posted by desuetude at 7:10 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Popping in to recommend the zip-it, as many others have.
It is a great tool for keeping drains draining smoothly, pretty much risk free and cheap as cheap can be.

But like others, I wouldn't go any furthr than that. It's the landlord's job.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:04 PM on March 27, 2014

It's the landlord's responsibility, not because it's their hair down the drain or whatever, but instead because health code and also, the landlord almost certainly does not want you fucking with the plumbing because there are expensive consequences if you break it.

That said, if you're at all handy, you're probably not going to do harm by snaking the drain. Drano, on the other hand, has a small but non-zero chance of harming pipes.

tl;dr: "landlord, mah sink / bath / etc isn't draining. Do you want to fix it or should I call a plumber and deduct the cost from the rent."
posted by zippy at 9:04 PM on March 27, 2014

One note on DIY snaking: the last time my kitchen sink got snaked, the snake ended up somehow bursting forth out of my downstair's neighbor's kitchen sink drain, whipped around and thrashed like something out of a horror movie, and scared the living daylights out of my neighbor who happened to be doing dishes in her kitchen at the time. Oh boy.

(The cheapo ZipIt thing won't produce such terrifying results, but a longer store-bought snake might.)
posted by nacho fries at 9:17 PM on March 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is the landlord's responsibility, not yours - whatever you do, don't offer to fix the problem or pay to have it fixed.

Have a short visit with some of your neighbors - you'll undoubtedly find they have the same problem with their plumbing. The building is old and the pipes are old and there have been many people using - and clogging - the drains over the years. Old buildings have plumbing problems - and your landlord knows his building has them, too.

One thing you MUST know: Do NOT use Drano or any liquid drain cleaner, especially if your neighbors are having the same issues. Plumbers absolutely hate snaking drains full of backed-up lye-based chemicals, and with good reason. Running a little Drano or other drain cleaner through an open, problem-free drain from time to time is fine, but if the drain is plugged and there's a chance that a plumber is going to have to open the drain, please don't fill it up with nasty chemicals.

I used to manage apartments in an old building, so I kinda know of what I speak. The man who usually did our plumbing work had little white scars all over his arms from Drano that backwashed in a spray up onto his arms (his "spots" matched mine, which came from Easy-Off Oven Cleaner flicking off the brush and onto my arms, but his spots were a lot bigger and badder than mine).
posted by aryma at 2:57 PM on March 28, 2014

« Older Where can I find bulk t-shirts with random prints?   |   Classes or Activities in NYC to get over fear of... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.