A drain snake can be a do-it-yourself solution to a professional level problem. Clogged drains inevitably happen in every home, and when they do, you have a few options for clearing them. You can use a plunger (the least expensive option and proper first choice), you can try pouring chemicals down the drain (not good for the environment and potentially dangerous to anyone working on the drain), you can call a plumber (and deal with a bill for a hundred dollars or more), or you can use a drain snake to clear it yourself (at a one-time cost of about $25).
What Is a Drain Snake?
A drain snake (also called a plumbing snake or drain auger) is a long, flexible, metal cable with a cone shaped auger on the end. A home drain snake is small (about 50 feet long) and usually hand-powered, and it’s called a snake because of its obvious resemblance to a real snake. You use a drain snake by feeding the end into the drain and pushing it through the drain line while turning a handle to keep the cable spinning inside the pipe.
Since the snake is flexible it can bend around the twists and turns of the drain pipe without getting stuck, moving forward until it reaches the obstruction in the line. Here, the twisting motion of the auger end hooks onto any clogs so they can be pulled back out of the drain.
There are different versions of home drain snakes for toilets and other drains. Besides the obvious reason why you wouldn't want to use the same snake in both a kitchen sink and a toilet, a toilet snake has a plastic cover to protect the porcelain from being scratched by the metal cable and auger.
Using a Drain Snake
Drain snakes are easy to use and having one (or buying one for the first time) when a plunger can't clear your drain can save you hundreds of dollars over the years.
Start by spreading some old towels around the area. Put on some protective gloves because you will probably be touching the cable after it comes out of the drain and also touching whatever caused the clog. Use work gloves for this, as the coils of the cable can grab onto thin latex gloves and rip them off. Also, have an empty pail close by to discard the debris after you get it out of the drain.
Put the auger end of the snake into the drain and feed the cable in while turning it. Work slowly, and keep twisting the handle on the snake as it works its way along the pipe. If you are snaking out a tub, feed the auger through the overflow drain, not the drain in the floor of the tub. You will probably have to remove the cover to do this, but going through the overflow prevents the snake from traveling up the air vent to the roof rather than following the drain.
When the snake encounters the blockage, you will feel the cable back up. Keep cranking the cable so it catches onto the clog. When you feel resistance against your turning, slowly pull the cable back out and take the clog with it.
Run some water down the drain to flush out anything the snake may have dislodged; then, clean and dry your snake and put it away until the next time.
Murray Anderson is an experienced freelance writer whose work has appeared on numerous web sites, as well as in newspapers and books in both the U.S. and Canada. He is regularly cited as an expert on home related topics and is a regular contributor to DoItYourself.com.