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The Art of Unclogging a Sink

Aug 27, 2014 | How-To, Plumbing Advice

This is painful for us to admit, but not every plumbing-related problem you encounter in the home requires the adventure of calling in a plumber. In fact — and again we’re shooting ourselves in the foot — in 90 percent of the times a drain gets clogged, homeowners could have avoided a plumbing bill by handling the problem themselves.

Take the bathroom sink drain line, for example. That pipe is prone to punishments that would make a masochist smile, submitting to a daily barrage of toothpaste, facial hair, shaving cream, scummy soap and make-up products.

And we’re talking about a tiny inch-and-a-quarter-diameter pipe here. Other things that can quickly prevent an open drain from remaining open are toothpaste caps, hair bands, bobby pins, Q-tips, disposable razor covers — and, of course, wedding rings — can wreak havoc on your plumbing.

The DYI approach

When you experience a stopped up bathroom sink, a plunger rarely works because there’s an air gap inside of the sink within the overflow port that doesn’t allow for suction. The best way to remedy the situation is to:

  1. Remove the trap
  2. Clear out any foreign contents inside the tailpiece
  3. Rinse and reassemble the trap

An even easier solution is to take out the pop-up arm from below, removing the pop-up, and looking down the drain with a flashlight. You’ll most likely see all sorts of foreign objects mixed in with usual concoction of hair and soap scum. Take a long, narrow cleaning brush and push it into the drain tailpiece to clear the obstructions.

After reinstalling the pop-up assembly, test it to make sure you don’t flood the sink basin or the floor below. If the problem still persists and the stoppage comes back immediately, you’ll have to decide between using a chemical-based drain opener, or a drain cleaning cable accessed through the trap arm in order to remedy the clog.

About those liquid drain cleaners

As an American, you always have the right to use a liquid drain cleaner. But while this method is cost effective, it rarely works. And there is the potential for some negative consequences, in addition to wasting your valuable time.

For instance:

  • If the chemicals don’t free up the clog in rapid fashion, chemical exposure beyond the recommended time frame can fully corrode the drainpipe inside the wall and beyond. To prevent this from happening, add water — if you can — to dilute the acid that remains in the drain.
  • Great care should be taken to avoid injury — things like using proper gloves and eye protection. And, of course, always read the entire safety precautions when using acid products.

If the brush-through-the-top exercise produces no results, it’s time to remove the trap in order to access the bathroom sink drain line and clear it with a drain cleaning cable. After the line has been cleared and the drainpipe put back together, test the line by filling the basin up with water and draining it all in one shot.

If you find you can’t clear the line and you used acid in your failed attempt, please make sure you advise the plumber (that’s us) of the existence of acid so we can take the proper safety measures.

Kitchen sink clogs and ‘drain diagnosis’

A kitchen sink clog almost always has its origins in an accumulation of solids in the drain. This can easily be avoided by making sure you put most of the food solids and all of the grease you produce while cooking into a trash can instead of down the drain or through the garbage disposer.

Here’s the deal on a clogged kitchen sink: You’re going to have to explore several possible drain line configurations that depend on when the drains were installed, the number of basins and whether or not a garbage disposal/dishwasher is present. We call this a drain diagnosis, and we do so because it makes us sound like a bunch of doctors conferring on a patient. “Do you concur on my diagnosis? Yes, doctor, we concur.”

  1. First thing, take off the doctor’s smock and take a look under the sink to see how the drain lines connect to the wall.
  2. If you have a two-compartment sink with a garbage disposal installed, the sink drains together into one trap using a tee fitting.
  3. If there is standing water in the garbage disposal side of the sink, while the other sink basin flows, then you have an obstruction in the tee upstream of the disposal. Or there’s a good chance the disposal is clogged.Note:Please refer to our garbage disposal tips to clear your disposal. If this doesn’t work, the tee will need to be removed, cleaned and reinstalled.
  4. If you have standing water in both sinks, then you’re a double winner! Not really, but that scenario generally means you have a stoppage starting from the bottom of the tee forward to the point where the kitchen drain line branch ties into the main house sewer line.Note: The same holds true for a single sink arrangement, except you don’t have to determine if the problem is in one sink or the other. Running the garbage disposer often does the trick, or even the aggressive use of a toilet plunger can create enough suction to dislodge the obstruction.
  5. If there are two basins, you need to have the stopper in place on the other basin when you fire up the disposal. If you use the plunger — which can be accomplished from either basin — you still need one basin with the stopper installed and depressed.
  6. If this doesn’t work, check to see if you have a sink clean-out access somewhere downstream. If you do, open it. But make sure to remove the water from the basins and have a bucket below to catch any holding water. Check to see if any water comes out.
  7. If the drain is full of water at the clean-out access, then the line can be cleared from this point forward. However, if no water comes out, then the problem is between the kitchen sink and the clean-out access you just opened.
  8. In that case, you’ll need a pair of large channel locks to remove the trap from underneath the sink.
  9. When the trap is removed, verify the water flows from the sink basin before running a cable down the drain outlet.
  10. After the line has been cleared, put the drain back together and run plenty of water to verify it is running.

To check your work, fill both sinks and allow the water to flow all at once for a capacity test and to eyeball any signs of leakage.

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