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Drain Snakes Demystified: A Complete Guide

Few household headaches are as frustrating as a clogged drain. Whether it’s a backed-up kitchen sink, a sluggish shower drain, or a stubborn toilet refusing to clear, dealing with blocked pipes is never a fun experience. While sink plungers and chemical drain cleaners sometimes provide a quick fix, for really tough, firmly stuck clogs, you need to bring out the big guns – the drain snake.

Also called plumber’s augers or snakes, these long, flexible steel cable tools allow you to mechanically power through and dislodge even the most obstinate drain blockages. By carefully feeding the snake cable down the pipe, you can use the coiled auger head to hook, grab, and retrieve whatever is causing the clog – hair clumps, congealed grease and gunk, stuck objects, and more.

This guide is your complete resource for understanding and effectively using drain snakes. You’ll learn the mechanics of how they work, when snaking is the right solution, step-by-step techniques for safe and successful operation, common mistakes to avoid, complementary methods to try, tips for maintaining drains, and advice on when to call in a professional. Whether you’re a seasoned DIYer or using a drain snake for the first time, this guide will equip you to clear clogs like an expert.

Drain Snake

Understanding Drain Snakes 

At their core, drain snakes (also called plumber’s snakes or augers) are specialized tools designed to dislodge clogs and obstructions in plumbing pipes. A drain snake consists of a long, flexible steel cable that can be manually fed down into clogged drain lines. At the end of this cable is an auger head – a coiled wire tip shaped like a corkscrew that allows it to bore into and latch onto whatever is causing the blockage.

While the terms “drain snake” and “drain auger” are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to understand the distinction. A drain auger refers to the heavy-duty, truck-mounted machine used by professional plumbers. These high-powered auger devices have extremely thick cables, up to 100 feet long, that are mechanically rotated to cut through severe main sewer line clogs.

A drain snake, on the other hand, is a much smaller, manually-operated tool used by homeowners and plumbers for clearing clogs in sinks, showers, tubs, and smaller branch drain lines. The specific component at the end of a drain snake cable is called the auger head, which gives the snake its drilling capability.

There are several different types of drain snakes designed for various plumbing needs:

Toilet Closet Augers:

These snakes have short, 2-4 foot cables optimized just for use through a toilet bowl to dislodge clogs in the unique toilet drain trap and angle. The auger heads are purpose-built for navigating toilet plumbing.

Flat Tape Augers:

Featuring a flat, wide metal tape rather than a coiled cable, these snakes are used for smaller diameter sink drain lines. The flat tape can more easily grab hair and objects while being less likely to get stuck in tight bends.

Power Augers:

While most are hand-cranked, power augers utilize an electric drill or motor to rapidly spin and feed the cable into pipes. This rotational force increase helps bore through tougher clogs.

Rocket Nozzle Augers:

These snakes use high-pressure water jets firing from the auger head’s end to help blast through and dislodge stubborn, solidified drain blockages that cables alone can’t penetrate.

In addition to these specialty types, there are also general-purpose drain snakes that come in a variety of cable lengths, from 25-100 feet, to reach obstructions at different depths throughout drain systems.

Knowing the type of drain snake required is important, as using the wrong tool increases the risk of getting stuck, causing pipe damage, or failing to thoroughly eliminate a clog. With the right drain snake matched to the job, you’ll be armed with the ideal tool for mechanically boring through and retrieving those pesky clogs.

The Mechanism of Drain Snakes

While plungers create bursts of air pressure and chemical cleaners use caustic substances to dissolve clogs, drain snakes take a more mechanical approach. Their core components and mechanism allow them to physically bore into and retrieve whatever is causing a stubborn drain blockage.

The key parts that make up a typical drain snake are:

Metal Cable:

This is the long, flexible steel cable that allows the snake to reach deep into drain pipes. The inner cable provides length, while an outer wound cabling gives it strength and rigidity.

Auger Head:

At the very end of the cable is the auger – a curved, corkscrew-shaped attachment designed to thread itself directly into obstructions. As you crank the snake, this auger head spins and winds its way through clogs.


Most drain snakes either have a simple hand crank or an enclosed drum for manually cranking and feeding the cable down the line into pipes.

As you feed the cable down the drain, that spinning auger head functions like a drill bit – allowing it to bore into and latch onto whatever is causing the clog. Hair clumps, grease buildup, objects, and debris can all become firmly snagged in the auger’s threads.

By continuing to crank and apply force, you can use the snake’s auger to either break apart the clog into smaller pieces to be flushed away or firmly secure the entire mass for complete removal when retrieving the cable.

This mechanical auger mechanism is what allows drain snakes to tackle obstructions that sink plungers and drain cleaners can’t effectively eliminate alone. While those other tools rely on air bursts and chemical reactions, snakes utilize a physical drilling approach to directly latch onto the source of a clog.

The degree of manual control, adjustability of the cable angle, and the unique auger shape make drain snakes incredibly versatile tools. As you’ll see, proper snaking techniques allow you to methodically work through and retrieve even the most stubborn clogs that other methods can’t resolve.

When to Use a Drain Snake 

Not every clogged drain requires breaking out the plumbing snake. For minor backups caused by light buildup or small obstructions, simple tools like plungers or basic drain cleaners may be enough to get things flowing again.

However, there are certain scenarios where a drain snake is the most effective solution for dislodging stubborn clogs:

Sinks With Trapped Objects:

Whether it’s a utensil, piece of jewelry, or child’s toy, drain snakes excel at retrieving objects that have become firmly stuck in sink pipes and P-traps.

Showers/Tubs With Heavy Hair Buildup:

The auger heads on shower snakes can easily bore through and latch onto thick clumps of hair that accumulate over time and obstruct shower drainage.

Clogged Main Sewer Lines:

For deeply rooted clogs in your home’s main sewer pipe, longer, 50-100 foot drum auger snakes provide the reach needed to dislodge those blockages.

Stubborn Toilet Stoppages:

Toilet snakes are designed to navigate the unique bends in toilet drain traps to push through compacted clogs that a plunger alone can’t clear.

Outdoor Drain Backups:

Snaking is often required for driveway, patio, and other outdoor drain clogs caused by leaves, dirt, and debris that a hose can’t easily flush out.

In general, if you’ve attempted plunging and found the clog is extremely stubborn, or your drains are experiencing severe backup, it’s time to break out the drain snake. Its mechanical auger mechanism provides unmatched capability to bore into and physically retrieve stuck obstructions.

While they require more effort than simply plunging, drain snakes are remarkably effective tools for homeowners to have in their arsenal. With the right snake matched to the situation, you can quickly get kitchen, bathroom, and outdoor drains flowing smoothly again.

Step-by-Step Guide to Using a Drain Snake

With the right drain snake selected for your clogged drain, it’s time to put it into action. Following the proper technique is crucial for safely and successfully unclogging that pesky blockage. Here are the steps to snake a drain like a pro:

Prep the Area

Clear out any vanity cabinets, storage, or other items surrounding the fixture to allow for easy drain access and snake maneuvering space. Lay down old towels to catch any backsplash water/debris.

Locate the Entry Point

Most sinks have a u-shaped drain pipe trap directly underneath that unscrews, revealing the horizontal drain opening. For tubs/showers, remove the cover plate to access the drain. Toilet snaking is done directly through the bowl.

Remove Any Free Debris

Use a zip-it tool or bent wire to pull out any visible hair clumps, objects, or buildup around the drain opening before inserting the snake. This prevents it from snagging.

Lubricate the Snake

Run the auger cable through a rag with drain lubricant, soap, or oil to prevent binding on pipe corners and improve feeding.

Feed Slowly and Carefully

Insert the auger end into the drain and begin slowly, carefully feeding the cable downline while cranking the drum handle to spin the auger. Never force it if you feel a significant obstruction.

Advance Through the Trap

For sinks/tubs, feed the snake through the p-trap first, which often contains clogs. Go slowly around all bends, adjusting the angle as needed.

Monitor the Tension

As you feed more cable in, pay attention to the tension and resistance felt from the suspected clog area. Stop advancing if tension dramatically increases.

Work Through the Clog

Once you’ve met the obstruction, keep the auger spinning and use a gentle back-and-forth motion to slowly work and bore into the clog. Let the auger do the work – don’t force it.

Grab and Retrieve

Once through the obstruction, rapidly turn and retract the cable to wind and grab as much of the clog as possible around the auger for removal.

Flush with Water

After dislodging the clog, flush the pipes thoroughly with water to rinse out any remaining debris. Run the sink/shower to confirm free-flowing drainage.

Repeat If Needed

For tough clogs, repeated feeding and retrieval passes with the snake may be required. Make use of the full cable length as needed.

With some patience, careful technique, and a keen awareness of cable tension, you’ll be snaking like a professional plumber in no time. Don’t get discouraged – clogs can often be stubborn to fully eliminate on the first pass.

Common Mistakes and Tips for Effective Usage

While incredibly handy for clearing clogs, drain snakes aren’t exactly the most tame tools in the plumbing shed. Those coiled metal cables pack some serious potential for injury or property damage if you don’t respect them properly. Avoiding some common snaking pitfalls and employing the right techniques is key to efficient, safe unclogging.

Common Snaking Mistakes:

Muscling Through Obstructions:

Encountering resistance is inevitable with clogged drains. But if you start meeting excessive force that just won’t budge, don’t get stubborn about forcing the snake cable. That’s a surefire way to kink or potentially damage piping through sheer torque. When it stalls out, retract and reposition from a new angle.

Failing to Navigate Bends:

When snaking drain arms, use slow, deliberate cable feeds combined with angled adjustments to properly navigate around those pipe corners and bends. Trying to muscle straight through those curves leads to annoying binds and snags.

Losing Cable Control:

As you’re feeding snake cable, keep a keen eye out for any slack that leads to excessive buckling, loops arcing out. Not only does this inhibit a smooth feed, but losing control of those looped bends poses a serious whiplash hazard as it uncoils under tension.

Not Fully Removing the Clog:

Don’t assume the clog is cleared just because you retrieved some gunk. Repeat the feeding and retrieval process, feeling for any lingering tension indicating blockages remain. Confirm drainage is free-flowing before calling it good.

Key Tips for Effective Snaking:

Take It Slow:

Don’t rush the cable feed or retrieval. Proceed slowly and carefully, adjusting the angle as needed to properly negotiate pipe paths. Pulling too rapidly increases binding risks.

Use Proper Leverage:

Brace the snake drum against your body for stability when cranking. Wedge yourself against cabinets or walls if needed for extra leverage to muscle through tough clogs.

Listen and Feel:

Pay close attention to how the cable tension and resistance changes as you’re feeding down the drain. This sensory feedback is how you detect clogs and clearance.

Check Drainage Flow:

After snaking, always flush the drain lines thoroughly with water from a bucket or running tap and ensure it’s draining smoothly. If slow drainage persists, the clog isn’t fully eliminated.

Have Patience:

Some clogs are just plain stubborn and may require multiple passes with the snake before they finally break loose. Don’t get discouraged – persistent snaking is often the key.

By avoiding common mistakes like excessive force and lack of control while employing a meticulous, patient technique, you’ll be a clog-busting master with the drain snake. Listen to the cable, adapt to the pipe paths, and have confidence in the snake’s mechanical prowess.

Alternatives and Complementary Methods

While drain snakes are incredibly versatile tools, there are certain situations where other unclogging methods may be better suited. If snaking isn’t cutting it or isn’t an option, consider these alternative clog-clearing approaches:

Wire Coat Hanger Method:

In a pinch, you can attempt to dislodge minor clogs by straightening out a wire coat hanger and carefully feeding it down the drain to try hooking and pulling out the obstruction. This MacGyver method requires patience but can sometimes work for sink clogs.

Baking Soda and Vinegar:

This two-ingredient combo creates a fizzy reaction that can help dissolve lighter organic gunk like hair and soap scum from coating pipes. It’s an environmentally safer option before harsher chemical cleaners.

Drain Bladders:

When snakes fail to clear solidified blockages, a drain bladder may be able to muscle through where cables can’t. This inflatable rubber device is threaded into the pipe and expanded with water to forcibly break up the clog.

Enzyme/Bio Drain Cleaners:

Enzyme-based bio drain cleaners utilize active cultures of bacteria and enzymes to literally consume and break down hair, soap, food, and other organic obstructions over an extended period.

Acidic Chemical Cleaners

As a last resort, strong acidic or caustic chemical drain openers like sulfuric acid can dissolve through solid clogs, but require extreme safety precautions and run risks of pipe damage if overused.

While each of these methods can potentially provide a stand-alone solution, they’re often most effective when combined with drain snaking for a complete clog-busting attack.

For instance, first attempt snaking to mechanically break up and grab as much of the clog as possible. Follow up with drain cleaners or baking soda/vinegar to help dissolve and flush away any remaining gunk and buildup left behind.

By utilizing a strategic combination of snaking and complementary chemical, natural and even bladder-based methods as needed, you’ll ensure no clog stands a chance in your pipes. Persistent, multi-faceted approaches are key to eliminating even the most stubborn drain blockages.

Understanding and Maintaining Your Plumbing System

While drain snakes are incredibly effective at dislodging clogs once they’ve formed, properly understanding and maintaining your home’s plumbing system is the best way to prevent those pesky backups in the first place.

Most residential plumbing networks consist of a series of branched drain lines tied into a main sewer stack that exits the home. Fixtures like sinks, showers, bathtubs, and toilets each have a trap – a U-shaped pipe section that holds a water barrier to prevent sewer gases from entering.

These P-traps play a crucial role not just in blocking foul odors, but in catching heavier debris and objects before they descend further into the plumbing system. Without traps, anything you drop down a sink or shower would have a free path directly into your home’s main drain lines.

Despite their clog-catching intentions, P-traps remain a common buildup point for hair clumps, solidified grease/soap scum, food particles, and other gunk that doesn’t fully flush through. This is why bathroom tub and sink drains often back up first compared to other lines.

For kitchen sinks, food debris and oil/grease poured down drains are the biggest culprits for clogs forming in those traps and branch drain pipes under sinks. Regular drain cleaning and snaking provides a deep cleaning that basic sink strainers can’t match.

Sewer line blockages typically occur due to tree root intrusions, accumulation of hygiene products, and foreign objects being flushed over time. Flushing your plumbing system regularly with a drain snake or professional jetting can help prevent these tough main line backups.

By understanding your home’s drain routes, taking proper precautions about what goes down pipes, and routinely snaking out those inevitable buildups, you’ll keep plumbing systems flowing smoothly and avoid major clogs from forming in the first place. An ounce of prevention through maintenance beats battling stubborn blockages any day.

When to Call a Professional

While handy homeowners can often successfully snake and unclog drains themselves, there are certain scenarios where professional plumbing assistance is required. Knowing when to call in the experts can save you considerable time, effort, and potential for mishaps.

Signs it’s Time for Professional Drain Service:

  • Recurrent, stubborn clogs that household snakes can’t fully eliminate
  • Blockages in main sewer lines requiring extra-long cable reach
  • Collapsed, broken, or damaged pipes needing repair/replacement
  • Older homes with drainage systems in poor condition
  • Unfamiliar pipe layouts and routings you can’t easily access

The benefits of utilizing professional drain cleaning and maintenance services go beyond just their high-powered equipment like motorized augers and hydro-jetters. Experienced plumbers bring extensive knowledge of plumbing system designs, leak diagnostics, proper venting, and the ability to fully inspect pipes with camera scopes.

Rather than just snaking out a single clog, professionals can thoroughly scour entire drain networks and implement preventative measures to keep your home’s plumbing functioning optimally long-term. Their drain cleaning services get deeper into pipelines than any household snake could reach.

While DIY snaking remains an effective tool for basic clogs, there’s no replacement for a professional plumber’s expertise when faced with major blockages, damaged plumbing, or the need for comprehensive system maintenance. Know when to make the call for fast, reliable service.

Keep Your Drains Flowing Freely with Bassett Services

Whether you’re a passionate DIYer tackling clogged drains yourself or in need of professional plumbing assistance, having the right knowledge and tools is crucial. This comprehensive guide has armed you with an in-depth understanding of drain snakes – from how they work and when to use them, to step-by-step usage techniques, tips for avoiding common snaking mistakes, alternative methods, and proper plumbing system maintenance.

While handy drain snakes allow homeowners to frequently dislodge clogs themselves, there are certain situations where professional expertise is invaluable. Severely stubborn blockages, main sewer line clogs, damaged pipes, and the need for comprehensive preventative drain cleaning all warrant calling in the pros.

That’s where the trusted plumbers at Bassett Services come in. Our team utilizes the latest drain cleaning equipment like motorized augers and hydro-jetters to pulverize through any obstruction. We offer complete drain inspection, repair and maintenance services to ensure your home’s plumbing system keeps flowing smoothly year-round.

Don’t struggle with clogged drains any longer! Call Bassett Services at (317) 360-0054 to schedule prompt plumbing service in the greater Indianapolis area. We’ll have your drains cleared and functioning like new again in no time.

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