How To Snake A Drain


Although modern plumbing is low key one of the greatest innovations of human history, it still can pose problems every now and again. Problems that unfortunately cannot go unsolved.

One of the biggest issues a homeowner will face with his or her plumbing is that, even with the most pristine care possible, clogs are an inevitable part of life.

Even the queen (who poops rose pedals) comes across this issue. She has an army of people at her beck and call when this happens, but for most of us, this is something we have to solve by our lonesome.

So how does one snake a drain? Once the location of the back up is determined, the right snake tool for the job is decided upon. The snake will get fed into an appropriate opening and get cranked around at intervals until the clog has been removed. This process may require drains to be taken apart.

There are many different types of snakes on the market today. No two clogs are created equally, and choosing the right snake is essential for fixing the problem.

This article will dive deeper into what the different types of snakes are and why they are important, as well as the proper use and care of each, so keep reading!

The Different Types Of Drain Snakes

As previously mentioned, there are a whole variety of snakes available on the market today that can handle the same task in various ways.

The importance of knowing what type to use and where to use it can save you from broken fixtures and unnecessary hassle.

The different snakes are:

  • Toilet Auger
  • Flat Tape Auger
  • Drain Snake (hand crank)
  • Drain Snake (hand held and power operated)
  • Sewer Snake (power operated and not hand held)

Toilet Auger

This is a snake that is designed specifically for your toilet, hence the name. This snake features a larger head on the end of it to deal with anything thrown it’s way.

Traditionally a toilet requires larger piping for it’s operation. The drain pipe found underneath your toilet is 3″ in diameter as opposed to the 1 1/2″ standard diameter for your sink drains.

This auger will have a plastic encasing that the snake part fits inside of. This plastic encasing has a bend at the end of it and will prevent your toilet from getting scratched as it’s made of porcelain.

  • Start with the snake retracted fully back into the encasing
  • Place the plastic bend side inside the toilet bowl, so that the bend is facing in an upwards direction – The porcelain portion of your toilet drain is shaped like an “S”, so the snake will have to travel upwards first
  • Keeping the encasing pressed towards the porcelain, push down on the snake until you can either feel the blockage or until the end of it’s length
  • Spin the handle clockwise and counter clockwise a bunch of times, hopefully reaching the clog by this point

When to use:

The toilet auger is used for when your toilet is backing up every time you flush or if flushing is taking longer than usual.

You’ll first want to reach for your plunger and use the suction it creates first before you reach for your toilet auger.

Cost: $5 – $61

Flat Tape Auger

This is a more rigid version of a snake but does the same job none the less. Where your typical snake has a bendable metal, almost rope-like quality to it, this auger is as the name suggests flat.

I have not seen these come in a powered version, as they are an older style of snake. They are still used today, but not nearly as much as there are better options on the table.

How to use:

  • Determine the appropriate location for the auger to enter – Look for a clean out, removable trap or fitting
  • Insert the tape auger into the opening
  • There is a clamp on this tape which you are going to want to hold onto and not fish through the drain – This clamp will allow you to control the auger so as to move it back and forth while in the drain

When to use:

  • This style can be used for a hard to move blockage, as the rigid tape is great for pushing
  • This style does not rotate within the pipe, so it is very limited in it’s use and would not work as a drain cleaner or as a remover of built up clogs along the pipe walls
  • Do not use in a toilet

Cost: $10

Drain Snake (hand crank)

This is the one that I personally recommend for any homeowner to have in their arsenal as it can be used for a wide range of tasks.

These are very affordable snakes to buy and use absolutely zero electricity to operate. Typically you can find these in 25 ft lengths and are found at your local hardware stores and online at Amazon or in the resource pages of this blog!

This style is very similar to the toilet auger, except instead of a straight rod like tool, this looks more like an intergalactic space doohickey. It features a barrel that houses the bendable metal rod, and a handle that allows you to spin it ’round and ’round!

The end of the rod can also take on different bits that will handle different tasks. You simply unscrew a screw on it, take the bit off and replace it with a new one. Some bits include:

  • Spade bit
  • Bulb auger – Most common snake bit and used as a retriever
  • A-13 pin key
  • C-cutter
  • Serrated blade
  • Tri-blade
  • Boring tool

How to use:

  • Find appropriate opening
  • Feed snake into opening and crank as you go
  • Turn the crank at intervals of every 12 feet or so or until you feel a block
  • Making sure to lock the snake in position, pull the snake in and out of the drain at each interval as well
  • Turn the crank as you are pulling in and out
  • Retrieve snake back to original position after you’ve reached the maximum length (you might end up with a surprise!)

When to use:

This can be used for pretty much any clog around the house except the toilet as the metal will damage the porcelain. If you are experiencing slow drains in your sinks and showers or back ups, this can be used.

Note – If your shower backs up, there is a very handy tool you can use that will cost you under a dollar. All you do is insert this flat plastic tool with hooks into the drain and pull back. This tool works great as hair is the leading cause of showers and baths to back up! You can find this tool here (link to Amazon).

Cost: $20 – $35

Drain Snake (power operated)

This is virtually the same exact thing as the hand crank version except it has a motor inside of it which can be powered by an outlet or a battery.

This tool is significantly heavier than the hand crank model and will require two hands by someone with a bit of muscle. This is not recommended for anybody with joint issues as the machine can jolt back upon operation.

This is also not safe to use inside of a toilet, as it could potentially crack the toilet.

Usually this is the type of snake that comes in longer lengths of up to 50 ft.

Cost: $80 – $330

Sewer Snake

This is going to be the heavy duty option, the big boys toy. If all else fails, typically these suckers can do the job.

With significant weight to them, most have the ability to be wheeled around and will sit on a built in stand.

Their reach can span anywhere from 50 ft to up to and even over 150 ft! This is what you will get if you call a plumber over to your house after you have been unsuccessful in your drain clearing attempts.

You can however rent these from bigger box stores like Home Depot, although I wouldn’t recommend ever buying unless you’re going into the plumbing business.

This snake type comes in lengths up to and above 100 ft.

Cost: $250 and up

Common Things Found That Clog Up Drains

Drains are essentially designed to be used strictly for human waste, non toxic liquids, toilet paper and toilet cleaner and that’s about it!

Yet the majority of time a drain is snaked, it is usually uncovered that more than just these things have been dumped down in to the plumbing system.

So what are some things that commonly found in commonly in clogged drains and that you should absolutely refrain from putting down the drain? Here’s a list:

  • Hair – Ok, granted you can’t always control hair going down the drain, but is a very common clog especially for a tub and shower!
  • Grease, oils, fats – These are some of the worst things you can dump down a drain as they stick to most surfaces and allowing particles that would normally not stick, to stick!
  • Toys – Kids love placing toys where they don’t belong. So next time you wonder where your sons Inspector Gadget toy has gone, let’s just say that he could be inspecting where the water goes in the toilet when it’s flushed!
  • Rags
  • Wedding rings
  • Cigarette butts – Someone may be trying to hide a certain habit
  • Tampons – Ladies, this goes in the trash please
  • Condoms – Guys, hiding this down the drain is a no no and could eventually come back to bite you!
  • Paper towels – Ok this one is VERY common. The only type of of paper that should go down a drain is toilet paper. Paper towel is actually designed to withstand liquids to allow you to clean surfaces and will absolutely clog up a drain, no question. Don’t do it!
  • Food
  • Bones – Even something as small as chicken bones can be that thing that does it
  • Tree roots – Can be an indication of a larger problem down the line

If you have a garbage disposal it may also be something that is subject to clogging. You are absolutely going to want to read this article I wrote about how they work to learn more.

Where & How To Snake Your Drain

This will all come down ultimately to where you are experiencing the back or slow drain in your home.

You can tell that if you are running your sink upstairs and it doesn’t want to drain, but when you run the kitchen sink on the main floor it works like a dream, then you know that there is an issue closer to the second floor. Start there.

You may even be experiencing the problem throughout your home. If after running any fixture over an extended period of tim4e it begins to back up, then you know that the problem is likely further along the drain pipes and can actually be quite larger.

As waste flows down pipes, they will only get larger in size (the pipes) or stay the same. You should never have a drain reduce in size further along the way.

Your main building drain is 4″ in diameter, your toilet is 3″, most sinks will be 1 1/2″ as well with most bath tubs and showers.

So where can you snake from?

If your toilet is the only thing backing up

This is where you are going to want to pull out your trusty plunger first (as previously mentioned) to try and force movement within the fixture to clear the blockage. Believe it or not, this works a lot of the time and is the easiest to do, so start here.

If that fails, grab your toilet auger and follow the steps listed above, being careful not to damage the porcelain.

If your sink is backing up

This also could be a very quick and simple fix. The steps are as follows:

  • Start with your p-trap
  • Grab a flashlight and head down below your sink
  • Make sure you have a bucket and paper towels handy as you will need them
  • Place the bucket (or small jar/Tupperware) underneath the trap and unscrew the bottom clean out. There will be water, so be prepared.
  • Poke and prod inside the trap with either your finger or some sort of utensil (spoon, chop sticks, pencil etc) to see if there is any obstruction

If there is an obstruction and you cannot fit it through the clean out plug or you don’t have a clean out plug:

  • Undo the rings around the p-trap (you may need pliers for this)
  • Empty the water out of the p-trap and inspect it for clogs
  • Clean the inside out
  • Inspect the tail piece for gunk as well as this is a common place to clog up as well

If neither of those options have worked:

  • This will be the time you pull out your trusty hand snake
  • Use the entrance to the drain you created by removing the p-trap
  • Insert the snake into that opening
  • Follow the snaking steps listed above under (drain snakes (hand crank))
  • You can also use the powered snake versions as well if you have access to them

I created a post all about how a p-trap works as well as what the different parts are, so if you would like to learn more about them click on the link below! It can definitely help to improve your understanding on how drains in your home work, and will ultimately help with your dilemma!

If your tub is backed up

Overflow cover located underneath the pink loofah

As I said before, the easiest place to start will be with that plastic zip it hand tool that features spikes along the side that will allow you to grab hair along the way, by simply putting it down the drain opening.

If that fails on you, this is where you will be able to grab your trusty drain snake and a screw driver or allan key set.

The “overflow” of your tub is usually the best place to insert your drain snake and there will be a decorative cover that goes over top of the hole.

This cover will come either screwed in, where you are visually able to see the screws holding it in place, or in the higher end ones will come get screwed in via a smaller set screw located on either the top or bottom of the cover.

  • Cover your drain hole for step 1 – Set screws, screws, wedding rings and anything small have the ability to fall down this hole, leaving you with more pain and suffering
  • Remove the cover by unscrewing the cover plate with either a screw driver or an allen key set (you can find these tools over at my recommended hand tools page here)
  • Insert snake down drain and follow the steps above for (drain snake (hand crank))

If all the fixtures in your house are having drainage issues

This will be the least common thing to happen in your home as it involves the clogging of the largest drain pipes but none the less important to know.

My opinion for the best spot to snake would be to either find the clean out on the main building drain which for most people will be located in the basement or by removing the lowest toilet in the house and using that hole as the entrance to fit your drain snake.

My recommendation for a drain snake for this job is to use one of the power snakes as you are going to be dealing with a bigger clog. By all means though, if you have the time, patience and energy, than you can certainly go for the hand crank one as well.

Clean out

  • Locate the clean out plug
  • Using pliers or an adjustable wrench, twist the cap off in a counter clockwise direction
  • Insert the snake and have at ‘er

Toilet

  • Remove the white caps located on either side of the toilet at floor level
  • Using pliers or an adjustable wrench, remove the bolts that are holding the toilet down to the floor
  • Shut the water supply off to the toilet
  • Flush – Ensure that there is no water seeping into the toilet and there’s no failure in your shut off valve
  • Remove the hose from the shutoff by turning the nut in a counter clockwise direction – slowly, while still ensuring the shut off valve is holding
  • Once you get as much water out of your toilet as possible, you can use a substance which you can find on my resource page here called Liquilock – This will turn your water into gel in less than a minute, and allow you to move your toilet without making a mess everywhere. You are also able to flush this gel down the drain when you are done
  • Insert snake and get to work
  • A wax gasket acts as a seal from toilet to ground so water doesn’t spill out all over your bathroom floor. If after removing your toilet you find that you have a wax gasket as opposed to a rubber one, you will need to replace it as it will no longer be good to use

When To Call A Plumber For Drain Snaking

You may be able to clear the blockage yourself and be done with the issue, and if this is the case, crack open a brewski and enjoy yourself. There are however situations where you can’t simply just call it a day and you will need professional assistance.

Tree Roots

If you discover that you have pulled tree roots up with you from the drain, this could be a good time to call a plumber. Tree roots are an indication that the roots of a tree have actually pierced the drainage pipes and are now starting to get in the way.

You might just think snaking the drain every time it begins to clog will save you a bit of money, but this is an uphill battle. The tree will still continue to grow out and cause issues for some time to come as well as the fact that the drainage pipe has now been punctured.

This is an issue for a few different reasons:

  1. Soil and dirt amongst other things now have direct passage into your plumbing pipes causing more potential for back ups
  2. Waste now has a secondary exit into the soil under neath the ground which is potential for environmental contamination

A plumber will effectively be able to mark the exact location of where the puncture is and how bad it is using a camera snake.

From there he or she will need to gain access under ground which could mean digging up your yard and even breaking concrete.

Utility locates are always required prior to digging to ensure not wires, pipes or gas lines are ruptured during the dig.

Whole House Back Up

As previously mentioned, if everything in your house is backing up it could mean the main building drain has a blockage somewhere in it. This can be done by the average homeowner with the correct tools, however there is no guarantee you will be able to reach this.

I once worked on a drain in a commercial building where my boss and I were snaking the drain until midnight. We started with a 50 ft snake as we thought that would effectively be able to clear the blockage and we could move on. Nothing.

We moved up in size to the 75 ft snake, which we had to travel to Home Depot to rent and then head back to try it out. Nothing.

Finally, after a second trip to the Home Depot, and a 100 ft snake later we managed to get the block cleared.

My personal recommendation if you don’t have much plumbing experience is to always just call a plumber to assist you. The amount of hassle it will save you is worth it, and as you can see from my experience you may actually save yourself a bunch of money.

Tyler Takacs

My name is Tyler, I live in Ontario Canada and enjoy learning about common plumbing issues in the household. I have spent just over three years in the trades as a plumbers apprentice, but am now onto a less physical job. I still enjoy studying and learning about my own house's plumbing as well as finding ways to help others with their issues.

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