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The Best Way to Clean a Clogged Drain: Part 1

In the Spring of 2019, I wrote an article called “The Truth About Clogged Drains”, where I talked generally about clogged drains in a building, how often they occur, why, etc. A couple of times I’ve been asked to go into the subject of drain cleaning in more depth, so I’ll start with this question we are often asked these days, “What type or method of drain cleaning is the best?”

Often when you have a clogged drain and you start to call around, you get a couple of types recommended. One company will say… “Well, we only clean drains with high-pressure jetting; it’s the only way to really clean a drain.”

And then, another company will say…“We always use a cable to clear a drain -a ‘roto-rooter machine-. Jetting drains with high water-pressure does more damage than good, and often when they do that they flood the room they are working in and make a big mess.”

Which is best? Well, like most things in plumbing, it depends. Both are very good if done correctly, and it depends on the situation…

  • The pipe.
  • The age of the pipe/system.
  • The type of clog; is it completely blocked or is there some drainage?
  • Is there a need to know and/or to be able to prove what caused the blockage?
  • Is this the first time, or has this drain clogged before/often?

The following general guidelines should help you decide what to try. And I do mean ‘try.’ To this day, after almost 40-years of doing this work I only give quotes that say, Attempt to clear main drain in house…” Attempt. Try. There are no ‘givens’ or guarantees with drain cleaning. Some drains need to be repaired or replaced and no amount of Jetting or Cabling will take care of it. Pipes break, slip loose, sink and drop, and no longer are graded properly. Some drains are flat — or almost flat — and will never work right unless changed. As the saying goes….‘You don’t know, what you don’t know.’ Our best educated guess, even if this isn’t the first time for this drain- is still a guess until you start to work with it and actually see what is there and what has happened. The following guidelines should help you decide how to start…


Has this happened before? If so, when and what solved it? If you aren’t familiar with this system and/or have no background info, it’s important that whatever drain cleaning is done, you make sure that the pipe/system is documented with a video (well, we don’t use videos anymore, we use digital recording equipment and put the recording on a thumb drive or disc; but we still call it a video).

A Drain Piping System needs to be in good enough condition structurally to service it and maintain the system. Once you can see inside the system, you know for sure if it needs further work, or if there was a foreign object in it or if the system was just overloaded. But the point is, if you don’t get a recording you’re still guessing. You honestly don’t know, till you know.

Cable Drain Cleaning

It used to be that all drain cleaning was just called having it ‘roto-rootered.’ This generic term developed because at one time, the vast majority of commercial Drain Cleaning companies were a franchise called Roto-Rooter, and all they used to use was a cable to clean drains. These days we also call cable drain cleaning ‘snaking’ or using an ‘auger,’ but it’s all still the same; a simple spring-steel cable from ¼” diameter for small drains, ½” for side drains and ¾” for main drains, packaged in different ways for ease of use.

Cable drain cleaning is a very good, tried and true method of drain cleaning that can be used by both professional Techs, DIY homeowners and Maintenance people. One of the nice things about this method is the variety of sizes of cables, and you can choose from both manual and powered units depending on the worker’s experience and the needs of the system.

Small, handheld units are perfect for tub, shower and sink clogs that are within 10ft to 20ft from the access drain. A favorite of mine that I have on all our Service Trucks looks like this one I saw on Amazon…

plumbing drain snake

These are great little units and they’re cheap, which is good because steel springs don’t last long after using them in water. Most anyone can get the hang of feeding this small ¼” cable slowly into a drain, but do it carefully using gloves and eye protection. Another article would be needed to address the ‘how-to-use’ part of drain cleaning, and you can get lots of free advice on YouTube. However, I will mention that except for the P-traps that are hard to get to below the floor (floor drains, tubs, and showers) or behind walls (washing machine drains), never ‘snake’ through a P-trap; remove it, clean the trap manually and snake the drainpipe with it off.

Kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, tubs, showers, and floor-drains all can be cleared fairly easily with this type of cable tool, as long as the clog is within 10-ft to 20-ft. Clogs further away from your access point need a larger, stronger snake.

Larger ½” and ¾” snakes can be very effective for larger drainpipes, but they are also harder to use and dangerous, very dangerous, especially motorized units. Over the years I’ve heard of and seen many different injuries from bigger snakes; from losing eyes to broken hands and fingers. The ¾” snake pictured below is from the Home Depot rental department. But again, if you haven’t been trained to use it on several drains by an experienced Tech, I would call in a Drain Cleaning company to help.

plumbing drain snake

These larger, stronger, and longer snakes do a good job on larger pipes and can clear almost anything. And if experienced, the tech can attach an end on the snake that will try to capture whatever has caused the clog, which is often handy when there is a question of liability and/or who will pay for the problem. As I’ve mentioned, if you don’t know that your system is in good condition, we always recommend sending a camera down after the pipe is clear to make sure and to make a digital record.

So, what type or method of drain cleaning is the best? In this issue we’ve discussed a few possibilities. Next month I’ll talk about hydro-jetting to clean drains.

Bruce Davis, Sr.
President, Director of Education and Learning, Sales Manager, Licensed Journeyman Plumber, Licensed Electrician,
HVAC/R Electrical Administrator, HVAC/R, Certified WA State C.E.U. Instructor

Bruce Sr is President of Day & Nite Plumbing & Heating, a 67-year-old family owned and operated plumbing and heating business in Lynnwood, Washington. Bruce can be contacted at: Email: Bruce@dayandnite.net

Day & Nite Plumbing & Heating Inc. 16614 13th Ave. W. Lynnwood, WA 98037 800-972-7000

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E. Rubio

I had the privilege to meet Zach on two separate occasions within a two week span. He was upfront and honest about the work that needed to be done. He is a hard-working, dedicated, professional employee of Day and Nite Plumbing. He explained what needed to be done. I asked questions and he was patient and explained things further so that I truly understood.

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Outstanding Service! Scheduler was pleasant and receptive. Technician (Collin) communicated well, arrived in the agreed upon time frame, diagnosed the problem and fixed the issue quickly. Previously, we had two other companies misdiagnose the problem and one company stand us up for a scheduled appointment. If we have plumbing issues in the future, Day & Night Plumbing will be our first call !

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We had a great experience with Day and Nite from start to finish. Chris was great at the no obligation consult. He explained things clearly and covered everything but didn’t waste our time. They also provided lots of options and thoroughly explained them but never tried to push or up-sell us. Installation was fast and very professional. We will definitely be using Day and Nite in the future.

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