Unclogging a drain can be a messy and frustrating task. Fortunately, using a plumbing snake is an effective way to clear out blockages and get your drains flowing freely again. A plumbing snake, also known as an auger or drain snake, is a coiled metal wire that can dislodge debris, break up buildup, and clear out clogs deep within your pipes. With the right technique and safety precautions, you can use this handy tool to tackle minor drain clogging jobs yourself.

Selecting the Proper Plumbing Snake

The first step is choosing the right plumbing snake for the job. Here are the main options:

Handheld Snake

A handheld drain snake is a lightweight, basic version ideal for clearing clogs in bathroom and kitchen sink drains. It ranges from 3 to 6 feet long and manually cranks the wire to push through blockages.

Electric Powered Snake

For longer pipes and stubborn clogs, an electric drain auger uses a motor to rotate the cable and break up jams. Powered versions can be over 20 feet long to access main sewer lines. Look for models with adjustable Feeder guides.

Drum Snake

A heavy-duty drum auger machine mounts a coil of wire on a rotating drum for feeding larger lines over long distances. Drum snakes are used by professionals and can be over 100 feet long.

Closet Auger

A specialized toilet auger has a corkscrew-style end designed to plunge into toilets to clear obstructions without scratching the porcelain. Look for a closet snake with a flexible neck.

Safety Tips

When using any plumbing snake, keep these safety precautions in mind:

  • Wear protective gloves to avoid contact with sewage water. Eye protection is also a good idea.
  • Never reach into a backed-up drain with your hands to clear a clog.
  • Don’t use a plumbing snake in cast iron pipes, as it can scratch and damage the surface.
  • If working with an electric snake, be cautious of the spinning auger and avoid touching it when powered on.
  • Never leave a plumbing snake unattended in a pipe or drain.
  • Rinse the snake with clean running water after each use.

How to Use a Handheld Plumbing Snake

Follow these steps to effectively use a hand crank plumbing snake:

1. Start with the Simple Solutions

First try removing the clog using a plunger, hot water, or drain cleaner. A plumbing snake should be a last resort.

2. Protect Yourself

Put on protective gloves and eye gear. Place a bucket or towels beneath the pipe to catch drips.

3. Disassemble the Pipes

Take apart any P-traps or slip joints to fully expose the drain. This allows direct access.

4. Feed in the Snake

Insert 6-12 inches of cable into the drain opening and crank the handle clockwise, pushing gently.

5. Clear the Clog

Once resistance is felt, rotate the snake in short bursts to break up the clog, then retrack to pull out debris.

6. Repeat as Needed

Repeat pushing and cranking until the cable moves freely for several feet to clear the full pipe.

7. Finish up

Once water flows freely, remove the snake and reassemble any pipes. Run hot water to rinse away residues.

Troubleshooting Tips

Having trouble getting your drain clear? Try these tips:

  • Pour hot water down the drain while using the snake to help dissolve buildups.
  • Alternate between pushing and cranking if you encounter a stubborn clog.
  • Use an electric snake for long blockages; hand cranks work best for sink drains.
  • If clogs reoccur, inspect your pipes for issues like cracks, offsets, or excessive sediment.
  • Hire a professional plumber for fully blocked main sewer lines. Avoid electric snakes here.
  • Low gurgling noises indicate the clog is further down the pipes. Keep feeding the snake.
  • Leaking sewage suggests you punctured the pipe. Stop immediately and call a plumber.

Preventing Future Clogs

Clogs aren’t just a nuisance; they can also lead to pipe damage over time. Practice these habits to avoid clogged drains:

  • Use drain catchers and screens to stop hair from going down pipes.
  • Limit grease poured down sinks. Scrape plates and wipe out pans first.
  • Dispose of coffee grounds, produce pulp, and other solids in the trash.
  • Pour a kettle of hot water weekly down seldom used drains to keep them clear.
  • Avoid using harsh chemical drain cleaners which can corrode pipes.
  • Have older pipes regularly inspected and cleaned by a professional plumber.

With the proper snake for the job, appropriate safety measures, and some technique, you can successfully clear out many common clogs yourself. But if Drain cleaning issues persist or you can’t clear a stubborn blockage, call a plumber to inspect the pipes and diagnose any underlying problems. Investing in professional drain maintenance can prevent severe pipe damage and expensive repairs down the road.

Frequently Asked Questions About Using Plumbing Snakes

How do I know what size plumbing snake to use?

Use a 3-6 foot handheld snake for bathroom and kitchen sink drains. For main sewer lines, use an electric powered auger at least 20 feet long. Measure the length you need to reach clogs.

Can plumbing snakes damage pipes?

Yes, snakes can scratch plastic and enamel pipes. Use caution and avoid turning on full power. Never use a snake in cast iron pipes.

What if my kitchen sink has a garbage disposal?

Feed the snake into the opposite drain opening that doesn’t have the disposal. Or remove and disassemble the disposal unit first.

How far down should I insert the plumbing snake?

Feed at least 12-18 inches down before cranking to ensure you reach the clog fully. Never forcefully jam the cable.

Why won’t my plumbing snake go down?

If encountering immediate resistance, the clog is likely very close to the drain opening. Try using hot water to loosen it first.

Can I rent a plumbing snake?

Yes, many home improvement stores like Home Depot rent handheld and electric powered drain augers for reasonable rates if you only need one occasionally.

What should I do after using a plumbing snake?

After clearing a clog, run hot water for a few minutes to rinse away any loosened gunk. Disinfect sinks and tubs thoroughly since you contacted sewage.

When to Call a Professional

While handy for minor clogs, plumbing snakes do have limitations. Contact a professional plumber if:

  • You can’t clear stubborn clogs in main sewer branch lines
  • Drain problems persist despite using a plumbing snake
  • You experience sewer backups or water pooling around drains
  • Drain pipes are leaking or damaged
  • Unique sinks like vessel bowls need cleaning

Hiring a pro drain cleaning service can quickly clear tough clogs using high-powered equipment and hydro jetting. They can also inspect pipes to identify underlying issues and suggest permanent solutions. Professionals have specialized tools to clear floor drains as well.

For severe sewer line clogs, persistent drainage issues, or complex plumbing repairs, call a licensed plumber right away to prevent extensive water damage. Investing in professional drain cleaning and maintenance can save you money and hassle in the long run.