Reality check re: slow bathtub drain on the third floor
January 19, 2016 3:42 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I'm being gaslighted by my landlord, who is either crazy like a fox or completely idiotic and I can't tell which, and I just want to ask a few really ELEMENTARY questions regarding my slow draining bathtub. Snowflakes? Oh you bet I've got snowflakes.

My apartment is on the third floor of a fairly old building in San Francisco. I've lived here for 20 years and for at least the last 10, I've needed my bathtub drain to be snaked about once a year. My landlord either knows this or has forgotten this.

The reason I worry that I'm being gaslighted is that, every year, we go back and forth on it for a few weeks to a few months before the snaking actually occurs. For a long time, he would tell me (via email or voicemail) that he and the handyman had come to my apartment, checked the drain, didn't see a problem, so left without doing anything. I would have to beg and plead to have them snake it anyway.

A few years ago, we had a thing where he told me it had been snaked, and it obviously hadn't been snaked, so I kept insisting that nothing had changed so his handyman was confused or lying or whatever, and ultimately we found out that the handyman had snaked the drains from outside the building, rather than from the damn bathtub itself.

I think that's what's going on now, but my landlord is now insisting that the handyman snaked it from the bathtub and they're going to have to get a professional in with a long snake because the clog is past the handyman's snake's reach.

So I'm not inclined to believe the handyman at all. I do not believe that the bathtub drain was snaked from inside the bathroom. I have my reasons, aside from past history, and I wonder whether they are reasonable:

I'm on the third floor. If the clog were so far down the plumbing, wouldn't my other drains (kitchen, bathroom sink, and toilet) also be having drain problems? And wouldn't the tenants on the first and second floors also be having drain problems? Is it even possible that the drain in my bathtub leads to one pipe that goes all the way to the street?

I have tried baking soda and vinegar, followed in 20 minutes by boiling water. I did this 3 times over the weekend, and during the baking soda and vinegar portion of the third time, I got a little backflow from my overflow valve, which made me think that something was different about the third time, since the backflow didn't occur during the first two applications of baking soda and vinegar. Is this true? Could there exist a universe in which this meant that the clog was moving down the pipe due to the baking soda etc, and could this also mean that the clog is not so very far down the plumbing?

Also, I've timed it and it literally takes five minutes for the backed up water to drain out of my bathtub after a shower lasting from four to six minutes. Given that this is not a total clog, but just an incredibly slow drain, does this timing tell you anything about where the clog is located?

If you have reached this point in the snowflakes, you are probably wondering why I don't obtain a snake, and go ahead and snake the muthafucka myself. Reason: The handyman broke a pipe during a snaking a few years ago, or so I'm told. As you might imagine, I do not want to break a pipe. The handyman may be an idiot or the story may be apocryphal, but in any case, I'm not willing to risk it personally.

I have nicely requested that my landlord take care of this pretty soon. It's disgusting. I wish I could force him to plug up his bathtub during his showers until he gets this fixed. I have all of our email correspondence and the first time I asked him to take care of it (this round) was October 27. He told me it would be done on November 1, then on November 11. On December 1, he said it would be done "again", and that he would be sure that it was snaked from inside. I think it was supposedly done "again" during a period of time when they were working on my bathroom and I didn't actually have plumbing in the shower, which also makes me think he's lying (although I absolutely don't understand why he would lie). I asked him last week what the new snaking date would be, and that's when he told me they would need a professional. I sent him an email today, offering to repair and deduct.

The thing is, I don't know if I'm crazy or if he is. Can you help me discern where the craziness lies?

TL:DR -- See questions in bold above
posted by janey47 to Home & Garden (22 answers total)
I don't know for sure where your clog is or if your landlord is gaslighting you, but I am going to encourage you to take matters into your own hands: there is no way you can break a pipe with a standard short manual drain snake, unless the pipe is so corroded that just using it puts it in danger. Maybe the handyman used an electric drain snake (which can get enough force behind it to damage a pipe, especially if you're using it on outside pipes full of roots) or maybe your possibly-lying landlord is telling more tales. Snaking your own drain is a gross but easy and viscerally satisfying home maintenance experience, and even the longest manual drain snake costs under $25. Short ones are under $10.
posted by gingerest at 3:53 PM on January 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would try a snake yourself like gingerest says and see if that takes care of the problem.

I have nicely requested that my landlord take care of this pretty soon.

Mistake #1. Just keep hounding him. Email him video of your slow drain. I understand the SF rental market is insane, so contact a tenants organization to see what you can do if you're in fear of getting kicked out over this.

Can you work from home? Ask them what day they will be there and then physically watch them do it so you know they're not lying. Ask the plumber questions (politely, since he's not the asshole).
posted by desjardins at 4:04 PM on January 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Can you talk to the plumber directly by saying you are thinking of putting an offer on the place (or some other white lie so you don't have to say "because I think the landlord is lying") ? Because when you said the pipe broke before it sounds to me like the plumber has said "you need all new plumbing" and the landlord is stalling. This may be something you could get information on from either city planning (who would like to know that the plumbing wouldn't pass inspection, or at least would tell you how to find that out and what to do) or the health department because sounds like it could be or turn into a health problem.

Yes, the best way to know where the clog is, is to test the other drains. If your kitchen sink drains, it has to be above the kitchen sink. If the kitchen sink drains that means it is not tree roots outside.
posted by cda at 4:06 PM on January 19, 2016

I had this exact same problem in my 3rd floor condo built in 1925. The handyman's efforts failed, so I hired a plumber who fixed it in one visit. As he explained it, the trouble was in a lateral expanse of bathtub drain pipe getting over to the main drain; there was not enough flow to push hair and what have you all the way through, so clogs were prone to develop.

He recommended this little gadget, and I lived happily ever after for 15 years more until I sold the place.

Me, I'd pay a plumber to fix the problem and chalk it up to more free time that you're not dickering with your landlord, but YMMV.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:12 PM on January 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you have a couple hundred bucks you don't want to do anything with, ask a plumber to come in with a camera and have her make a video.

Or, make a video with your phone of the slow draining tub. Send to landlord.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:14 PM on January 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a similar issue last year and although I live on the ground floor and have a generally good maintenance team at my complex, the maintenance man's dinky snake did nothing and our problem wasn't resolved until a plumber with a ridiculously long snake was called in.

Since your landlord is already offering to call in a plumber, let that be your next step. Make sure you're home during the maintenance call so you can ask the plumber questions about the issue you're experiencing. Until they come by, try to shelve the anxiety/theorizing; plumbing can be weird and complicated and sometimes you have to stumble through troubleshooting before things get fixed.
posted by phatkitten at 4:31 PM on January 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have seen a pipe broken by a short manual drain snake. Yay, cheap 1970s-vintage student housing.
posted by yarntheory at 4:38 PM on January 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

Have you ever tried a Zip-It Bath and Sink Hair Snare. My mother got one for me as we both have old houses with slow drains. What it pulls up is GROSS, but it does pull up a bunch of stuff, it's cheap and it's quick. I use a plumber less that half as much as I used to .
posted by readery at 4:46 PM on January 19, 2016 [18 favorites]

Hi, I literally just did all this too with (but my landlord is great) and it sounds like we have the same amount of knowledge re "what happens past the bathtub drain/where do the pipes go etc?"

So, I also heard re the short snake from the super and calling the plumber. So the plumber was called and the problem was solved. Why drag it out? Say 'do you have a number for a plumber or should I call one and bill it to you"? But be clear it needs to be done NOW- ie not "at some point" or "whenever".

See phatkitten's response above, that covers it! And definitely have some kind of stopper/sieve thing in drain for sure.
posted by bquarters at 4:54 PM on January 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

unless the pipe is so corroded that just using it puts it in danger.

This is a real risk. I just had a u-bend replaced that crumbled in the plumber's hand as he was removing it -- got it just in time.
posted by amtho at 5:35 PM on January 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would consider using Drano or Liquid Plumber; both will melt hair clogs. Also possibly bad for the pipes, but you're beyond what's fair already, so screw 'em. The mesh drain screen is a great idea, and I use a zip-it, too, a mesh screen won't fit my tub drain fixture. I would also duct tape the overflow and use a plunger vigorously, just not in conjunction with drano, which is caustic.
posted by theora55 at 6:07 PM on January 19, 2016

Drano or Liquid Plumber only really take care of a little accreted sludge, and can be a hazard for the actual plumber when they snake. I've had more than one plumber tell me they wouldn't snake a drain if I'd put Drano in it. It's useful in some situations, but can be more trouble than it's worth in others.
posted by klangklangston at 6:48 PM on January 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've had a slow situation clear up by:

1.) back it up with water.
2.) Pour in a little liquid plumber
3.) Repeat the next day.

And do it each day after a shower. I also snaked out a great swath of hairballs (roommates had long, thick hair) right at the entrance of the drain. After a week of a bit of this, the drain was going swimmingly.
posted by nickggully at 7:12 PM on January 19, 2016

My advice is to just accept whatever they say and explain that it didn't solve the problem yet. It's their job to figure this out. If they want to skip the easy option and fix their pipes the hard way, more power to 'em. They probably should anyway. That your pipes need snaked at this frequency suggests to me that there is probably a lot of internal scaling and that they'd be well served by installing new drain pipes. That's what we did (our house was built in 1890), and it was incredible; the 2-3" pipe was 97% clogged shut with what appeared to be a mix of rust and mud.

If the clog were so far down the plumbing, wouldn't my other drains (kitchen, bathroom sink, and toilet) also be having drain problems? And wouldn't the tenants on the first and second floors also be having drain problems?

This really depends on the setup of the building. Our shower drain, for instance, leaves the building and travels completely independently to the ground floor, merging with other drain pipes right before going underground. You could try walking around the outside of the building looking for clues in the form of drain pipes and vent pipes.

does this timing tell you anything about where the clog is located?

I'm no plumber, but I'd guess that what it actually tells you is the amount of water accumulated in the tub itself, divided by the flow rate through the clog. A more meaningful number might be calculated using the time until water backs up into the tub (if you also knew the showerhead flow rate and your drain pipe's radius).

Reason: The handyman broke a pipe during a snaking a few years ago, or so I'm told.

I've also heard of this happening.

during the baking soda and vinegar portion of the third time, I got a little backflow from my overflow valve...Could there exist a universe in which this meant that the clog was moving down the pipe due to the baking soda etc, and could this also mean that the clog is not so very far down the plumbing.

If it overflowed on the third time, it'd mean the bubbles were higher the third time, which would have to mean the clog was moving up the pipe, which seems incredibly unlikely. I'd guess that either vinegar mix #1 and 2 had started to back up the pipe, leaving mix #3 landing close enough to the top to overflow, or that you used more in mix #3. To me it does imply the clog is likely higher up. Then again, the pipes make a U under your tub, so I don't know whether the vinegar mix might simply bubble up from there. I sometimes get visible frothing in only-barely-clogged pipes.

it sounds to me like the plumber has said "you need all new plumbing" and the landlord is stalling.

My guess as well. Either that or they did in fact snake it, to almost zero effect, for that same reason. Are your downstairs neighbors perhaps planning to move or take a long trip some time soon? That would give the landlord a huge incentive to wait, to avoid tearing up the ceiling of an occupied unit. Regardless, he could be doing more to improve the situation in the interim.
posted by slidell at 7:38 PM on January 19, 2016

From the way you've worded things, it sounds like your landlord and/or the handyman are in your apartment for critical issues when you aren't present.

For many reasons, I would find this scenario highly problematic.

Is there any way you can make sure that they aren't there without you?
posted by yesster at 8:17 PM on January 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've heard to always, always try a plunger before resorting to the snake. I've never had to use a snake in my house, the plunger always works. But maybe I've been lucky. You do have to block the other drains to the same place to make it work, though - tub overflow and maybe the sink and sink overflow.

Just in case you haven't tried that.

If the landlord is going to hire 'a professional,' would he reimburse you for hiring your own, saving him the trouble? You might get more trustworthy answers that way.
posted by ctmf at 9:08 PM on January 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agree with Theora and ctmf. Plunge it:
  1. Block drain as if taking a bath. Fill tub several inches.
  2. Open drain.
  3. Plunge drain with toilet plunger.
A couple rounds clears blockages for me.
posted by sarah_pdx at 9:23 PM on January 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

If the drain pipes are really old and gunked up the snaking may only provide temporary relief. It may just carve a narrow channnel through the stuff and that will fill up again quickly. I just had all the old cast iron pipes ripped out and replaced with ABS pipes for that very reason. Despite frequent emergency snaking during the last half year the buildup inside the pipes was rather substantial and how any, um, deposits made their way through them at all is beyond me.

As an aside, another possible cause for slow draining water can be if the vent pipe got clogged, disconnected or closed off somehow. Like a dead squirrel stuck in them or something.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:37 AM on January 20, 2016

I can't seem to remember the name or find it on the Internet right now, but I use a tool a lot like the Zip-It mentioned above; the main difference is that it has a small head of short rubber bristles at the end. It's super-flexible, so you just ease it in, twist it around to let all the hair and stuff catch on the bristles and teeth, and pull it out. I didn't even try the landlord, because I had a blind cat at the time and didn't want to risk her running out if the landlord or plumber came in when I wasn't there. I still use it once a month along with a baking soda volcano for maintenance.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:52 AM on January 20, 2016

Response by poster: Update: I've ordered a zip-it, which will arrive tomorrow so I'll give that a try shortly.

My landlord ignored my email from yesterday, in which I offered to repair and deduct. For clarity, the person who has been doing the snaking all this time isn't a plumber, he's my landlord's all-purpose handyman. Yes, they are there when I am not, in large part because they are incredibly unreliable when it comes to planning. I have considered taking a day off when they are scheduled to be in my apartment, but since at least 50 percent of the time I get a last-minute notice that the maintenance has to be rescheduled, it wouldn't be feasible for me to do this (I can't work at home).

I use mesh screens in my kitchen and bathroom sinks, but they don't fit in my bathtub.

Thanks all! As you can tell, this has been making me crazy for a long time (let's not even talk about the three days last week when they were working in my bathroom on other matters and removed the toilet and didn't replace it until three days later).
posted by janey47 at 8:16 AM on January 20, 2016

Also? Take a video of filling the tub and it not draining, and email it to them should they tell you they fixed the problem. No possible argument about the continuing presence of a problem.
posted by k8oglyph at 10:08 AM on January 20, 2016

Response by poster: Final resolution:

The zip-it didn't work, largely because the plumbing turns almost immediately (maybe 1.5 inches below the drain) and because of reasons, the zip it wouldn't go into the tub shoe.

My landlord told me that he couldn't get a plumber because they were all too busy so the handyman would come by on the following Saturday. I know that arguing with the landlord is fruitless so I didn't ask why he thought that would be an appropriate solution when, according to earlier emails from him, the handyman needed a longer snake.

When the handyman arrived, I stood over him and said, "Put the snake down the drain, not down the overflow." He said yeah yeah uh huh and didn't do it. The handyman then told me he needed to come back because he needed a longer snake.

After the handyman left there was about 1 - 2 inches of filthy water in the tub. It took an hour to drain.

All day Saturday it was horrible. When it finally drained, the tub was black with sludge. Cats running in and out, etc. Cleaning it was a nightmare because it wouldn't drain etc.

Sunday I showered because I figured it would have 24 hours to drain. I was all set to take pictures with a ruler, a clock, and a camera to document how slowly it was draining, and then, all of a sudden, I heard something swoosh and suddenly the bathtub started draining quickly. It was fantastic. The clog obviously moved out of the place I said it was all along and they never once did what I told them to do (snake from the drain at the bottom of the tub, not the overflow). When my landlord mentioned the snaking that was scheduled for later in the week, I told him what happened and said "Had Antonio ever snaked the drain through the bottom drain rather than the overflow drain, this would have been resolved."

My landlord later sent me the following email. I chose not to respond because it once again looks as though the landlord is deliberately trying to obfuscate. Anyway, it's fixed and I hope it won't happen again.

They ran the longer snake and found some blockage. They couldn't go as deep as we'd like but the water was draining well. I asked about whether putting the snake in the drain or the overflow and he said they connect after 6 inches so , unless there was a blockage in the overflow, it wouldn't make a difference. Please let me know if it starts to drain slowly again.
posted by janey47 at 10:55 AM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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