Cure a blocked drain
A savvy DIY’er should easily be able to cure a blocked drain with a little plumbing know-how
By Gina Hartoog
Identify the blockage
Before you can solve the blockage problem, you will need to identify the cause. Most sink, bath or basin blockages build up over time. The water drains away slowly, and you may not notice it immediately, but trouble is brewing! Take notice of sinks and basins when they drain. You may hear a strange gurgling sound as the water empties. As the blockage worsens, the water will take longer and longer to drain away. Another indication of a pending drain problem is a nasty smell emanating from the drain. These are common in outdoor drains, especially a drain handling waste water from the kitchen. If left unchecked, a blocked drain may overflow, causing water damage.
Before tackling the problem, consider your safety. Wear gloves and eye goggles. All sorts of objects can cause a blocked brain – too much toilet paper, bits of plastic, food, hair, fat that builds up inside the pipes, women’s sanitary products and disposable nappies. Outdoor drains should be covered with a grid to prevent sand, leaves and other garden debris from clogging the drain. Tree roots too close to pipes can cause cracks and blockages.
Bath, basin and sink blockages
Problem: The water takes time to drain away or won’t drain at all
1. If the basin or sink is full of water, bail some out using a bucket. Then try a simple rubber plunger to dislodge the blockage. Place the rubber suction cap over the drain trap and force down to create a vacuum. Pull up sharply. Repeat a few times, then check to see if the water is running freeing. Small blockages should be resolved. If this doesn’t solve the problem, move on to the next step.
2. Remove the trap and clean the underside – it may look clean from the top, but a horrible mess may be clinging to the bottom of the trap. Remove all solid debris. Rinse well with hot water and anti-bacterial cleaner before replacing.
3. You can also try a commercial drain cleaner. The products contain strong chemicals designed to dissolve messy blockages and flush them down. Always use these products with extreme caution. Some are very corrosive and may be harmful to the environment. A mixture of bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar and boiling water is an environmentally-friendly alternative to a chemical drain cleaner.
4. Blockages are sometimes compacted or located in the u-bend of the pipe. Place a bucket under the pipe and loosen the u-bend joint. Tip any waste water from the pipe into the bucket. Use a length of wire to feel around the pipe and dislodge any blockages. Once the blockage is removed, rinse the u-bend, replace the pipe and tighten the joint. Flush the system with warm water and detergent for a final check.
5. If none of the above steps have solved the problem, the blockage may be further along the system and you will need to feed a plumber’s auger (snake) through the trap and down the pipe. In the bath you can push the auger through the overflow trap. If you feel an obstruction, pull the auger back. The cable tip may hook any material it comes across in the pipe, so have an old cloth or bucket ready to catch the blockage as it comes out. Always extend your auger fully and rinse it off after use – a job best done in the garden with the hosepipe.
Problem: Toilet waste does not flush away or the water gurgles up towards the seat, possibly even overflowing
Emergency note - you’re in someone else’s bathroom and the water is rising… fast… look for a tap next to the toilet. If you find one, turn it off. If there isn’t a tap, open the tank and lift the toilet ball. This stops water from running from the tank into the bowl and can buy you some time.
1. Most toilet blockages are found in the u-bend of the toilet pipe. The simplest method (for smaller blockages, like too much toilet paper) is hot water and dishwashing detergent. Fill a bucket with hot water and add few teaspoons of dishwasher. Pour into the toilet bowl and leave for about 20 minutes or so, then flush.
2. If this doesn’t work, reach for the plunger. Special plungers for toilets have a flange below the suction cap, which assists in sealing the base of the toilet bowl. Any plunger can be used if the suction cap is large enough to fit over the hole. Make sure the bowl contains some water, but not too much. Use a bucket to remove water if the level is high. Push the plunger in gently at first, then maintain the suction and give it a give few good thrusts.
3. Plunge about 10 to 15 times. If this doesn’t clear the blockage, you’ll need to use a toilet auger. Once the tool is down the pipe, feel for any tightness or obstructions. If the tool is able to dislodge the obstruction, the water will drain out of the toilet bowl. Pull the auger back out, but be ready with a bucket to catch any waste that may have snagged onto the cable tip. Flush the toilet to check that the blockage is dislodged. You may have to repeat a few times to completely clear the blockage. If the blockage still persists, it is probably further along the sewer line and you will need to call a plumber with long drain rods.
4. If you have a sewer manhole on your property or pavement and you notice a bad smell or effluent pooling around it, call your local municipality for assistance.
Open drain blockages
Problem: An outdoor drain is clogged, causing waste water to overflow. You may also notice a bad smell coming from the drain
1. The problem could be a simple one – leaves and other debris may have clogged the grate cover. Remove any noticeable debris and flush with boiling water. You can use a commercial drain cleaner, but read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully as they can be dangerous. If there is no debris on the top of the grate, lift it up and check below. A thick, compacted blockage may be found on the underside of the grate. Clean with bleach and warm water. Always wear gloves when working with an outdoor drain.
2. If the grate looks clean, the blockage is further along the pipe. Insert an auger into the drain and move it along the pipe. It may be enough to push the blockage along, or snag it so you can remove it. If the blockage is much further along the pipe, you will probably have to hire a plumber with drain rods to prod further along the pipe. Drain rods are flexible so they are able to bend and twist along the pipe.
3. If none of these solutions work, the pipe itself may be broken and you will need to dig up the area surrounding the drain to identify the problem. If pipes have perished or cracked and you are not able to replace them yourself, hire a plumber to replace them.
10 tips to prevent blockages
1. Never pour hot fat or oil down the drain. When the fat congeals it can cause a solid blockage that can be tough to remove. Rather allow the fat time to solidify and dispose of it in your household waste.
2. Never flush foreign objects down the toilet. Place sanitary products and nappies in the household waste.
3. Don’t allow children to place large wads of toilet paper in the bowl. Flush the toilet regularly.
4. Regularly clean out baths, basins and sink traps – do not allow hair or food to build up in the trap. If you have a pop-up plug in your bath or basin, check and clean them regularly. They clog easily with a build-up of soap scum and hair.
5. If you have a septic tank, monitor it carefully and keep up with any required maintenance.
6. Scrape leftover food into the dustbin before placing dishes into the dishwasher. Food can clog the pipes and the drain that handles the waste water.
7. Flush basins and sink drains at least once per week with bleach and hot water.
8. Use drain covers on outside drains to prevent leaves and other debris from clogging the drain.
9. Never dump mineral turpentine, lacquer thinners, paint, oil and medicine down the drain.
10. If you have a manhole on your property or pavement, ensure that it is free of sand and debris.