What could be clogging a shower drain other than hair?
September 3, 2015 10:57 PM   Subscribe

Our bathtub has started draining slowly in the past month or so but I don't see how it could be due to hair. What could it be?

Earlier this year (February?) when our shower was draining slowly, a plumber came and removed a clog that had been deep in the line. (The clog was only affecting us, however, he was not able to get at it from our bathtub and had to go into the apartment below us and hack into their wall to get at the clog in the pipes there.) When I asked, I was told that the clog was due to hair.

However, everyone living in our apartment has short hair (think typical men's hairstyles) AND we use a strainer at the bottom of our shower drain to catch hair which we clean out regularly. Additionally, the bathtub had a not-fully-functional internal stopper system, but the plumber removed that when he was here last (we just use a rubber stopper for baths now), so that would not seem to be it either.

What else could be causing this? The first time this happened it seemed possible that there was an existing partial clog from previous tenants who had longer hair and that somehow it snowballed and got fully clogged but that seems unlikely now. I'm worried about this because I don't want to be stuck with the plumbing bill if it's not our fault (and if it is our fault, I'd like to figure out how to prevent it from happening again.)
posted by needs more cowbell to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, also, more data:

We have a zip-it but it didn't really pull anything up when I tried sticking it down the bathtub drain, though the drain hole has a crossbar covering it that makes it hard to stick the zip-it down very well.

The bathroom sink was draining somewhat slowly about two months ago. Sticking the zip-it down that DID bring some stuff up, although it started draining slowly again after that. A housemate bought and used some Draino which seems to have solved that problem.

Last time we had the shower clog, I tried the baking soda and vinegar trick for opening drains a few times with no success.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:16 PM on September 3, 2015

Have you already tried the Draino on the bathtub? My previous landlord showed me that trick when our sink started draining slowly (he lent us some for the sink and then also poured it into the bathtub for good measure, explaining that he had two daughters).
posted by serelliya at 11:24 PM on September 3, 2015

I had a bad clog in my shower and the plumber came and he used an auger and got the clog out in about a minute and a half. It didn't look like much -- just some slimy hair -- but he explained that the hair forms a spider-web in the pipe and then soap scum accumulates and eventually the plug is formed. He said it happens more with long hair, but it happens with short hair all the time too.

So I went out and bought an auger after he left -- this is the one I got -- and I bet it's saved me $500 in plumbing bills since. It's not worth skimping on - get a good one that's gonna stand up to some abuse. You want to make sure you get one that can hook up to a handheld drill. It'll make operation a lot easier.
posted by incessant at 11:48 PM on September 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Or just use plain Sodium Hydroxide (which is in Drano).
posted by SpacemanRed at 1:37 AM on September 4, 2015

Do any of you use any sort of oily/greasy non soap products?

Emollients/moisturisers, aqueous cream, treatments for dry skin or eczma? We had trouble with that causing clogs.
posted by Dext at 2:33 AM on September 4, 2015

The last thing that did this to me was bath powder, of all things (yup, emollients like Dext said). I usually go with dish soap and hot water, and if that doesn't work, 2nd the recommendation for a proper auger/snake. That will clear most anything unless there's a more serious plumbing problem.
posted by thetortoise at 3:31 AM on September 4, 2015

It could be the previous tenants' hair, soap buildup, dead bug/animal, and even a rag. I could be roots growing in the pipes. Do you own or rent? If you rent, the building's owner should pay to have the lines flushed (rotor rooter). Check with your neighbors to see if they are also having problems. It could be a building wide issue.

You don't want to throw chemicals into a mystery clog. If the chemicals can't break through then you have poisonous fumes in your pipes, bubbling back up into your home.
posted by myselfasme at 4:30 AM on September 4, 2015

Soap scum, hair conditioner, body grease washing away, and pubes, which are longer than you think. Just pour some drano down there and wait like 20 minutes, and flush thoroughly with water.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:43 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, seconding the drain augur. Make sure you go in through the overflow drain as it will provide much better access than the main drain.

I used to use Drano, but the drain augur was a one-time purchase and has been a lot cheaper over time. ($4/bottle times multiple bottles per clog vs. a one-time purchase which was around $25. I went for the mid-level augur -- it doesn't hook up to a drill but it's fairly long and it's been enough for my needs.)

Also -- you say your internal stopper system was removed. Was it actually removed or just re-set? If those are set wrong they can lead to both a poor seal AND slow draining. (If you get a drain augur you'll need to remove the overflow cover anyway so you should be able to see if any of the internal stopper assembly was left in place.)
posted by pie ninja at 5:19 AM on September 4, 2015

If the pipes are at a funny angle, that can contribute. We have a bathtub pipe which is at a shallow angle, so water doesn't flow through it fast enough and even though we too all have short hair, we get clogs. We alternate between Drano and that auger that incessant mentions upthread.

NOTE: We have a cat. When we pour drano down the tub, we cover the drain with a weighted bucket. A lot of drain cleaning stuff is horribly poisonous.

Also: Boiling water poured down the drain weekly can clear away a lot of gunk and prevent build-up.
posted by Frowner at 5:45 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

This could also be, um, bodily fluids (if you get my drift).
posted by thefang at 5:49 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Agreed, lots of things could cause the issue beyond super-long hair; we have an ongoing problem where there's a length of drain pipe that isn't angled very much and ends in a reducer about 20ft away so stuff builds up along there. We've had great success with the heavy-duty sulphuric acid stuff -- the labels and markings will make you think you're going to die a painful death if you even slightly diverge from the directions, but it's not really all that bad -- pour it down, cover the drain, run water down it after a while (check the specs to make sure your pipes will be OK with the stuff, of course). Snaking and drano only ever fixed it temporarily, needing a repeat every couple months, but the acid totally works for a good year or more before things build up enough again.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:05 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

For slow drains, you can pour in baking soda, then add vinegar. You get the fun foaming action, and it can push some clogs out. Follow with a teakettle full of boiling water. Also, easy, uses stuff you probably have at home. Do you have a plunger? Small, soapy clogs respond well to plunging. And, once in a while, Drano or similar does the trick, but is probably not great for the plumbing, and is a nasty dangerous product to keep around.
posted by theora55 at 6:12 AM on September 4, 2015

Conditioner clots, the fats in shampoo & conditioner (not to mention body washes bath oils etc) combined with all the gunk washed down drains, even short hair can make wonderfully gross slimy clogs. I have super long hair, and badly designed plumbing so we get hair, conditioner clogs at regular intervals, I Draino the drains as it is great at breaking up fats, the second they start running slow & it helps stop clumps from settling in
posted by wwax at 7:10 AM on September 4, 2015

We have intermittant problems with slowly backing-up drains in a couple of our bathroom sinks as well. The problem is generally not so much hair itself, as clumps and thick plaques of lotion and toothpaste held together by stray hairs. Usually a little vigorous plunging brings up enough of the cloggy gunk (it's unpleasant and black from mold, and often quite firm in chunks) that I can round up the larger chunks of before they wash back down the drain.

If you have a mechanical stopper you might need to remove that to get a good plunger seal and to allow the chunks to surface where you can grab them (oh yeah, rubber gloves are good). In some sinks and tubs, removing the plug mechanism can be a pain to do and then reinstall (and which is why your plumber removed the one from your tub permanently). I'm lucky that in our master bath, it's actually not too hard to remove the sink plug for cleaning (it too accumulates the black plaque of toothpastes/lotion/mold that needs to be wiped off).

Don't forget, when you plunge a drain, somehow close the overflow opening with a thumb or a rubber stopper, otherwise you won't get a tight enough seal on the drain to suction up the clog(s) out of the place they're wedged in the pipes. (If a sink, you know, the little hole near the rim of the sink bowl that keeps water from overflowing if you were to space out while filling the sink? You have to cover that while plunging to get a good result.) While plunging, you want get that good seal around the drain hole too, and to do that the water should be deeper than the bell of the plunger you're using. (Splashing usually occurs; wear work clothes in addition to rubber gloves.) You put the main effort into the "upstroke" - i.e., sucking the clog toward you, rather than pushing it farther down into the pipe, if possible.

I probably have to do this every six months on our master bath sink, once a year on our guest bath. Toothpaste, I find, really is the major contributor to the glunk. I find the boiling water and baking soda/vinegar treatments help a bit, but do not eliminate the longer-term need to plunge.

I feel very lucky that so far I have not had to invest in a snake for my drains (and I hope I did not just jinx myself). So far our clogs are relatively high up in the pipes, but I know that for deeper clogs that's the way to go.
posted by aught at 7:39 AM on September 4, 2015

You can also never tell what previous owners put down the drain. The best-described-as-triflin' former owners of our place had disposed of an entire broken lightbulb, several coins and half a dozen safety pins down the drain, and these were lurking in the trap. No amount of corrosive chemical will shift that, but it will eventually eat away at the drain, requiring an urgent and messy replacement, during which all the previously-described objects were found.

If you get drain flies - the little greyish flies with huge wings - you've got an algae problem too. That shit's nasty.
posted by scruss at 7:47 AM on September 4, 2015

If you have a septic system be aware that Drano may be harmful to the flora (even though Drano always maintains it isn't). I understand why people use it when desperate but I personally avoid it because of the risk of chemical burns if it backs up on me.
posted by aught at 8:08 AM on September 4, 2015

I would like to gently re-direct people to my question of what might be clogging the drain, particularly considering that a plumber un-clogged it less than a year ago.

The internal stopper was removed. I watched the plumber do it myself. (He took away the thing that is brass-colored in this picture.)

Also: if only the bathtub drain is draining slowly, does that 100% mean that whatever is causing the clog came from the bathtub? That seems to be what spatial logic would dictate, but it just seems more likely that something nefarious would have come from another drain, given the strainer on the bathtub. (I'm also personally suspicious about my housemate's old-fashioned shaving soap that comes in a cake, which he uses at the sink, though nothing on the internet suggests that that tends to be a problem.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:22 AM on September 4, 2015

You're afraid of your landlord and overthinking this.

Did you put a child's toy down the drain? No? Then your landlord has to fix this and 1000% can not charge you for it.

Old pipes get a lot of build up, they need maintenance. It's nothing abnormal you did. Just put the call in and get it fixed.

PS - I don't think the last plumber did the right things. That was my first thought. Was he licensed? Because he sounds like a handyman, not a trained and licensed plumber. Just FYI. Don't fear your landlord. Make them fix this.

PPS - Do not auger pipes you do not own. If you break something, it would be so so bad for you (and possibly your neighbors if you busted a pipe. Call the landlord and let whoever he contracts fix it.
posted by jbenben at 8:34 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hair is clogging it-- the strainer is better at catching long hair and curly hair, because those are the hairs that have a harder time just flowing with the water. Short straight hair? It'll line itself up with the flow of water and slip through the strainer.

You also have soap scum accumulating, waxy shampoos and conditioners, you could have something growing down there that's starting to take up room; you have various bodily oils that wash down there. And yeah, it's reasonably probable that some people are tugging it in shower and that's making its own contribution. There's also all the stuff that people washed off themselves: mud, blood, other crud.

If you go drano shopping note that some products are meant for stopped drains and other for slow-running drains. The difference is usually in the viscosity.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:22 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Depending on where your shower is located among the building's plumbing, it could be one of the last plumbing fixtures in line before the main line -- so if there's an obstruction further down the line, the shower's draining speed might be affected more than other fixtures in your apartment.

Does that make sense? Thought I'd throw that out there as something to think about, since we recently had a plumbing issue in our apartment and it was for the reasons stated above. Our own line was snaked and did nothing -- it wasn't until the main line was also taken care of that the problem went away. And we were the only ones in the building with the issue because of the plumbing layout.
posted by phatkitten at 11:23 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some years ago I read about some researchers trying to duplicate drain clogs. They ended up using some unholy combination of human hair, soap, and human body fat.

Apparently in the right conditions, these items together can congeal something fierce.

Unfortunately this is so many years ago I can't locate the reference, but those are likely to be the main ingredients of your clog, and regardless, they are the only required ingredients to make a clog as cloggy as ever you like--particularly given older plumbing, which make have rough surfaces inside for clogs to get started on, smaller diameter pipes than really required, and/or less than optimal slope and other configuration problems.

Perhaps something even more abnormal/clogging has gone down the pipes*, but even absent that, hair (even short), soap, and reg'lar old body fat is all you need. And you've definitely got all those going down your drain.

*One time I pulled up a complete wire clothes hangar, set of boxers (firmly attached to the hangar), and a few more miscellaneous hangers-on out of the inside of a toilet drain. And, it was still somewhat working even with all that junk inside it. The most amazing things can go down drains . . .
posted by flug at 12:36 PM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

The plumber unclogging was a year ago? A year is plenty of time for a clog to build up under the conscientious conditions you describe, especially in older pipes. The consensus here is pretty clear: long hair, short hair, soaps, conditioners... all of it will eventually clog your pipes. Lots of people have mentioned toothpaste--does anyone brush their teeth in the shower? Another idea: Does anyone in your place have a skin condition? I think that people who shed more skin cells (eczema, psoriasis) sometimes clog drains faster but that's just a personal theory.

All that said, some strainers are more effective than others. I have found this one tremendously effective.
posted by purple_bird at 2:44 PM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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