How Hard is it to Use a Drain Snake?
May 20, 2006 12:16 PM   Subscribe

ShowerDrainFilter: Every six months or so our shower drain clogs and we have to call a plumber to snake it out. That costs about $125 each time. We asked him the last time if we could buy our own snake and do it ourselves and he strongly cautioned us against that.

Was he telling us that so we would continue to call him or is there a chance we could wreck our pipes by doing it ourselves?

If you think we can do it ourselves what should we know about using the snake to go down our drain? How much does a snake cost?
posted by Taken Outtacontext to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you can buy snakes for between $20-$30 at Home Depot / Lowes.... I'm not aware of the risks of doing it yourself. I know that it's been a godsend with the crappy (heh) plumbing in my apartment.
posted by reverendX at 12:27 PM on May 20, 2006

Try using your toilet plunger on your drain. It can break the gunk up enough to get it flowing and is worth trying before calling a plumber.

Also, there are organic enzyme solutions you can put in your drain that eat up all of the biological leftovers that are probably causing the build up. Or you can you drain-o, but it will eat through your pipes eventually, and probably isn't the best for the environment.

You do need to be careful using a snake on your shower if you have a built-in stopper with a lever because the snake can get caught up in the rods that make it work.
posted by gus at 12:35 PM on May 20, 2006

I would give something like this inexpensive drain cleaner a try first. I'm not sure what type of clogs you get, but maybe this and some liquid drain cleaner might be able to get rid of enough.

Perhaps the plumber is concerned with you damaging your bathtub with your own equipment. The maintenance person for our apartment used the snake on our toilet and scratched the porcelain pretty bad. It now looks old and beat up, which makes me sad.

Or, the plumber could just be saying that because it's $125 he won't be making.
posted by chimmyc at 12:37 PM on May 20, 2006

After googling 'how to use a drain snake' it really doesn't look very hard at all. there are some good guides in that link btw. The plumber was probably just trying to screw you over.
posted by puke & cry at 12:43 PM on May 20, 2006

Try using your toilet plunger on your drain. It can break the gunk up enough to get it flowing and is worth trying before calling a plumber.

This worked for me as well.
posted by vaportrail at 12:43 PM on May 20, 2006

This worked for me as well.

Yup, me too.
posted by ori at 12:45 PM on May 20, 2006

I have never, never, never, never, never, never had Dran-O or anything of its ilk work even once. Waste of money. What's always worked for me is plunging (even on sinks), and if necessary, removing the trap or snaking. Yes, you can snake on your own... the plumber certainly isn't going to lay out what you need to do to avoid calling him. They're just pipes.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:48 PM on May 20, 2006

Also if you plunge the sink, be sure to plug the air hole (usually at the back or front of the basin) otherwise the suction will go in and out that hole, and not on the clog. A wet washcloth and pressure will work fine.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:49 PM on May 20, 2006

We have a snake and it works okay, but not great and it's a really disgusting job. Your landlord sounds like he has fretful landlord syndrome. I suggest you just pat him on the head and quietly go buy a compressed air-blast plunger--like a plunger on steroids. I was really skeptical but a friend tried a on his chronically slow shower drain (that a plummer had given up on) and it worked really well, so I borrowed it for our lousy backed up shower drain and it worked immediately and dramatically.
posted by tula at 12:52 PM on May 20, 2006

and follow rolypolyman's advice on the air holes.
posted by tula at 12:54 PM on May 20, 2006

Maybe putting a better strainer in your shower drain would work?
posted by QIbHom at 12:56 PM on May 20, 2006

I have tried many, many liquid drain cleaners in my day and as rolypolyman says, none worked very well. Until I discovered this treasure. We use it a few times a year in my hairy family...but I'm going to have to look into this "eating through the pipes" thing that gus mentions.
posted by leapingsheep at 12:57 PM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

We've had excellent results unclogging the shower drain with this technique adapted from PBS' Graham Haley: Pack some baking soda into the drain. Pour vingear onto.into it. Enjoy watching the fizzy bubbles! After a few minutes, pour boiling water into it to clear out the baking soda and vinegar. Repeat once or twice.

FWIW, we also have a snake and have used it for this drain, too, but it does involve some disassembly and reassembly. We haven't had to use the snake there since we started the treatment I just described.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:19 PM on May 20, 2006

I would caution you against it too if I was making $125 for ~15 minutes of work. It really is easy and safe to do by yourself. Of course, it's rather disgusting work. What comes out is usually quite gross.

Hmmm, that gives me an idea. Somebody neets to setup ""... the antithesis of
posted by formless at 1:21 PM on May 20, 2006

A metal coat hanger usually does the job for me.
posted by Aghast. at 1:51 PM on May 20, 2006

How old is the house? They snaked a drain on Ask This Old House a few weeks ago, and the plumbing expert said that certain types of old traps in your plumbing could result in big problems if you try to snake it yourself. He said you could actually punch a hole in a lead trap with the snake if you aren't careful.

It's a long shot that your house was built 100 years ago and uses a drum trap, but that could be the answer.
posted by MegoSteve at 2:01 PM on May 20, 2006

To add on to Robert Angelo's advice: I've found that pouring a whole bunch of boiling water (an entire large soup pot's worth) in a strong stream directly into the drain works the best. Just dribbling a tiny stream from a teapot doesn't seem to work as well. YMMV.

Also, I've heard that a regular, once a month routine of the baking soda/vinegar/boiling water tip is good preventative maintenance.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:08 PM on May 20, 2006

Is Gunk a descriptive term?
posted by A189Nut at 2:24 PM on May 20, 2006

I second the baking soda/vinegar/boiling water approach. Just don't breathe the fumes.
posted by theredpen at 2:54 PM on May 20, 2006

As a plumber I recommend not using a plunger. Plungers can compress a clog and make it worse. But yeah, barring a popup in the drain there's no reason why you couldn't do it yourself. There's no piping so weak that a snake could potentially ruin it.

The only danger of a snake is it could break off in the line and get stuck. Just use a small snake and don't push it down past the clog or force it hard.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:59 PM on May 20, 2006

Something I've found works, if you throw a little down the drain every week or so, is plain old chlorine bleach.
posted by zadcat at 3:40 PM on May 20, 2006

I second QIbHom's advice on adding a good strainer to avoid clogs to begin with.
posted by JJ86 at 5:14 PM on May 20, 2006

I always cringe when I hear people suggesting plumbers tell people not to do things themselves so they can make money.*Newsflash* most plumbers are telling you this for your own good and most have very high ethics regarding billing as they get taught to do the right thing during their apprenticeships(5 years plus college here),not to mention they have 6 other calls that day so they simply want to finish your job properly and go to the next so they don't work till 10 pm etc( many probably do not know that if a plumber does a service call and has to go back due to poor workmanship ,they do not get paid for the recall!!! This is common in Ontario/Alberta at least).People balk at the charges for drain snaking but don't realise that on many a mundane call the cable breaks (at $200 to $500 a piece) which does not get charged off.The price reflects this and the skill to read a drain by feel through the snake.

If you are proficient at mechanical things and have a decent understanding of drainage configurations then certainly attempt to clear the drain with a hand powered snake as electric snakes can wind up on the uninitiated and break fingers/damage the porcelain/acrylic.*Hint* take off the overflow cover and remove any mechanical pop up device (if any) and snake through there (direct to the p trap unless it is a saddled / running trap ) . The main plug usually will be hair but soaps are made with animal fats which break down and coat drain interiors.You need to properly scrape the walls to prevent simply poking a hole in the blockage,only to have it return.You should also flush with hot water the entire time and for a bit after to flush the debris downstream well enough so as to not create future downstream blockage.

If the p trap has a cleanout plug in the bottom,do you know how to get the snake past?

Is the house old enought to have a drum trap? Which you will not get the snake through for the most part.

If you break the cable do you know what to do?

If you cut your hand etc do have the hepatitis a/c etc inocculations? some questions to ask yourself

Home plumbing is okay if one is honest with themselves with their true skill level and will stop before things get out of hand.Otherwise you will pay 3 times what the original bill would have been for repairs.

The only thing Drain cleaners are good for is burning plumbers skin and at best eliminating the symptom (ie poke a hole instead of properly scraping the drain clean) thus not properly addressing the situation. Drain cleaners SHOULD NOT be used on septic systems as it messes up the aerobic and aneroebic bacteria.The only drain cleaner that is worth while IMHO is called Oakite and it is a severe industrial product not for home use.If a person buys a cheap crumb cup/ hair cup strainer insert for their bath drain a lot of problems can be nipped in the bud.

All drains will potentially plug eventually due to use but with proper maitenance and installation it will be a long time before it perhaps happens.

Mr.Encyclopedia: You are confident home plumbers would not poke holes in fragile lead and galvanized drainage?I am not

And finally while something on the outside may appear easy(hell I changed a HD and put cards in my tower so I can fix computers anaology) sometimes people don't know what they need to know and this illusion can create expense.As for the plumbers price which we get many complaints ,Imagine how much your mechanic would be if he came to your place to fix the problem.Trucks/fuel/insurance/overhead etc are tremendous tolls on the plumbing business.Yes there are some bandits so shop around but the price reflects a lot of skill and overhead.BEWARE of a lot of the fly by night sewer cleaning companies though as they will have 1 licensed plumber for a lot of simple labourers ,being charged off at plumber rates.ASK for credentials.

Long winded but I loathe people being misinformed and causing excess cost injury to themselves.Nor do I like blanket statments about overcharging by tradespeople.Most are extremely ethical.
posted by plumberonkarst at 5:21 PM on May 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

On re read: Your plumber is doing something wrong if he is coming back every six months ,unless there is a drainage defect or your a family of Wookies.Do you have old galvanized drainage?Is it properly vented?Has he made any comments about the drain condition? Is he going in with multiple heads increasing up to the largest possible size that will got through while flushing with water.What sixw does the drain appear to be?is this a bathtub with a shower drain or shower pan only?
posted by plumberonkarst at 5:27 PM on May 20, 2006

Buy a hair trap to PREVENT the stoppage, get a new plumber.
posted by hatsix at 6:01 PM on May 20, 2006

Most grocery stores/pharmacies sell metal or plastic mesh domes you can put over the drain in your sink to keep contact lenses from going down the drain- these also seem to work well for keeping potential cloggers out of a shower drain.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 8:03 PM on May 20, 2006

The problem with snakes are this:

the ones that are cheap are underpowered or too short.

you can rent more powerful ones but they cost like $100 a day so it's not far from getting a plumber.

You also need some skills in naviagating the snake so it does not go up to the roof or something ...

regular drano/liquid plumber does NOT work - you want more industrial stuff & probably a root cleaner. You also need to find the main drain out - pour it in there.

I'm too lazy to go out in the yard and look for the brand but send me an email and I'll go look at it next time.

The advantage to a plumber (we've had good luck with RESCUE ROOTER - I think they are a franchisee) is that if they break the snake, not your fault.
posted by jbelkin at 9:51 PM on May 20, 2006

A metal coat hanger usually does the job for me.

Same here (drano is a joke).

Couldn't imagine paying someone to do it.
posted by justgary at 2:30 AM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, what great advice from a lot of different perspectives. Thx.

I didn't mean to disparage plumbers. I didn't think having to come every six months was the final answer. I think a good plumber would also know some of the points all of you have made and given us some longer term suggestions (like getting a better cover to the drain). In other words, if a professional instills a sense of confidence in the professional/client relationship, then trust develops.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:22 AM on May 21, 2006

yeah, get a hair trap -- it means you will have to occasionally clean some disgusting hair off of it, but it also (in my anecdotal experience) means you will _never_ have to worry about unclogging the drain.
posted by advil at 1:18 PM on May 21, 2006

A metal coat hanger usually does the job for me.

Same here (drano is a joke).

If your pipes are old and thinned from corrosion, or if cheap replacement fixtures have been installed, coat hangers are a bad idea. I tried this once on a bathroom sink in our first house and poked a hole right through the bottom of the P-trap (now I know how to replace one.)

The compressed air devices scare me for the same reason: who knows where you might burst an old joint along the line?

Try a rubber plunger, but get a flange plunger that seals better on toilets and kitchen disposal sinks (the extendable cup collapses for use on flat drains.) When you take the plunge, the idea is to rhythmically push mostly water and some air through the drain on the downstroke, then suck it back up a little on the upstroke. Short, quick plunging movements work best, and it may take a few minutes of them to unclog the drain.
posted by cenoxo at 8:42 PM on May 21, 2006

Do you know how deep your clogs typically are? If, like at my house, the drains are clogged within a foot or two with hair and stuff, I highly recommend this product: the Zip-it. It's a plastic strip with one-way barbs, so that after pushing it down the drain, you pull out the hair and crap. I have used it for a few years now, and it works great. No chemicals, no metal scraping in the pipes, and it only cost a few dollars.
posted by dammitjim at 12:14 PM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: The plunger worked! Will be buying a nice hair trap.

posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:57 PM on May 22, 2006

« Older What's this cable? Does it have any value?   |   Looking for information about bicycle touring in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.