Clearing Blocked Drains
Sooner or later, everyone has to tackle the dreaded blocked drain. It's tempting to chuck a chemical solution down there, but not only is that bad for the environment, it can degrade rubber gaskets in your plumbing and even some plastic piping. Try the easiest fix first: a plunger.
Always wear rubber or latex gloves when working with wastewater, and avoid splashing. A mask and safety goggles will protect your mouth, nose, and eyes from stray splashes. This is especially important if you've attempted to unclog the drain with any chemical solution.
Taking the Plunge
Plungers work best if they can seal around the drain properly. First, choose the right plunger. A toilet plunger has an inner lip that improves the seal. Lining the plunger with a little petroleum jelly will also help the seal.
Plug any overflow hole in the sink or tub with a clean rag, and if you're dealing with a double sink, seal the drain that you're not plunging with a plug or wet cloth. To create the seal, insert the plunger at an angle to reduce the air it traps inside it, and bring the water level up to at least 2 to 3 inches around the plunger.
Pump the plunger fifteen to twenty times without breaking the seal. If this loosens the clog, run water down the drain for several minutes to continue pushing the clog through your pipes. If it doesn't, bend a coat hanger into a long wire with a hook on the end and feed it through the drain to pull out the blockage.
Snakes and Augers
If you're still clogged, use a hand auger (sometimes called a drain-and-trap auger or plumber's snake) for most drains; use a closet auger for toilets. You operate the auger by feeding the flexible tube into the drain and cranking the handle to extend the tube. (For a tub, unscrew the overflow plate and insert the auger through the overflow hole, rather than the drain.)
Go gently, because these tools can scratch sinks, tubs, and toilets, and can damage pipes. When you feel a blockage, crank the coil back a little, then forward again, trying to break up the clog.
Keep a bucket or heavy-duty plastic bag handy, because the auger will be wet and mucky when it reappears. The worst of the water can be soaked up with a rag held around the auger tube as you crank it back out of the drain, but you'll need to wash and disinfect it before storing it.
Traps and Drain Clean-Outs
If the plunger or auger doesn't work, you may need to take the drain apart. A sink trap often has a clean-out plug at the bottom of its bend. Place a bucket under the trap, and unscrew the plug. Push a hooked wire up into the pipe in both directions of the bend to dislodge the clog. If this doesn't work, or if your trap doesn't have a clean-out plug, take apart the trap itself.
This is a straightforward job. Loosen the two nuts on either side of the trap (these connect the trap to the sink pipe and to the house's plumbing system). The trap should then come off, allowing you to clean it out and to insert an auger directly into the pipes if necessary.
Unfortunately, the trap's nuts can seize, and the trap itself can corrode, forcing you to cut the pipe with a hacksaw and replace the trap. This is still a relatively quick fix. Cut off the old drain trap, leaving as much straight pipe as possible running down from the sink and out from the wall or the floor. Measure the length and diameter of the pipe that's left, and take photos or make sketches if necessary.
Take the old drain trap and the photos/sketches to the home center, and have the staff help you find the right compression fittings and trap pieces to create a new drain trap bend and attach it to the old pipes. With most of these fittings, you'll simply slide a slip nut and then a slip washer onto the old pipe, and then push the new drain trap pipe over the old pipe so that it sits over the washer. Tighten the nut with groove-joint pliers approximately a quarter-turn past hand-tight against the washer to create a snug seal. Run water through the sink. If the drain trap leaks, tighten the nut a little more.
To clear a blocked toilet drain, you may have to take the entire toilet off the floor (see Chapter 18, under Reseating a Toilet). For other drains, look for the sewer line clean-out that's closest to the problem. Open it, and try again with the auger-but be aware that this is beyond a “quick and easy” fix. If in doubt, or this doesn't work, it's time to call the professionals.
Eliminating Odors from Drains
Most drains, including floor drains, incorporate some sort of bend, or trap, directly below where the water enters the pipe, in a U-, P-, or S-shape. These retain a small amount of water that forms a barrier against gases and odors from further down the pipe. If the drain isn't used much, the water in the trap can dry out, allowing sewer gases into the house. This is a common cause of basement sewer odors, especially in older homes. Solve this by pouring a bucket of water into the drain each month to keep the trap full.