How to unclog a pipe without breaking the bank

Is your bathtub drain all clogged up? You may not have to call the plumber and spend a fortune to repair it. Hamm walks readers through DIY repair.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Plumber Daniel Bordwell installs a kitchen faucet on a home under construction in Sacramento, Calif. in June. Clogged drain? Don't fear: You might be able to fix it on your own, Hamm says.

I have children who get into all sorts of messy situations. They’ll get all muddy and pet the neighbor’s dog. They’ll roll around in the grass and get all sorts of dried grass on themselves. My daughter has long, thick, wavy hair, too.

The end result? Our bathtub drain gets clogged on a fairly regular basis. The weird things they get themselves into coupled with my daughter’s long hairs means that every few months, the water stops draining very quickly out of the bathtub in the children’s bathroom. Every year or so, the same thing happens with the sink in there.

This means that Dad has a fair amount of experience when it comes to clearing out clogged pipes.

Of course, the first response a person might have would be to get a giant bottle of drain cleaning goop from the hardware store, dump it in there, and see if that works, but I’ve never had strong success with that stuff and, frankly, it’s pretty expensive. Instead, I rely on a repertoire of other tactics.

Boiling Water This is my first line of defense for a clogged drain. I’ll go get a kettle of water boiling on the stove, then take it straight to the drain and dump it in there. The rushing action of the boiling water along with the heat will dislodge some smaller clogs pretty effectively. Cost: A penny or so.

Baking Soda and Vinegar My next tactic is to use baking soda and vinegar. I’ve found that this doesn’t usually clear a drain by itself, but it usually does a good job of loosening stuff so that the later tactics work really well.

I just take a cup and a half of baking soda and pack it into the drain. I try to get as much to fall down to the clog as I can. I let that sit for a minute or two, then I add about four cups of white vinegar on top.

Usually, you’ll see quite a lot of foam come up out of the drain when you do this. That’s completely normal. Usually, any liquid that comes up will smell fairly bad, then it will run back down the drain very slowly. That’s also normal.

Once in a while, this clears the drain, but most of the time it just seems to make the other tactics more efficient. In fact, I’m usually prepping for the next step while the baking soda and vinegar are doing their thing. Cost: About a dime.

Coat Hanger I take a wire coat hanger, straighten it out, then make a little hook on the end – a very little hook, about an eighth of an inch across. I then stick the coat hanger down the drain very slowly, hook first.

When I feel some resistance, I stop and then I spin the hanger around several times. I then pull the hanger back out slowly.

Be prepared – the end of the hook is usually foul beyond words. That’s because it’s gathered up a bunch of the hair and other foul things that have sat in your drain for months. Be prepared to hold your breath and to quickly dispose of what’s on the end of the hook.

You’ll want to repeat this a few times. This clears out the drains for me most of the time. If it’s still not clear after four or five rounds with the coat hanger, we move on to harder tactics. Cost: A few cents.

ZIP-IT This works almost exactly like a coat hanger, except that you generally only need to run it down your drain once and you just throw away the whole thing when you’re done. It’s also a bit more expensive.

This is essentially a long, straight plastic strip with dozens of little “teeth” or hooks on it. As you run it down your drain, the hooks slide right past the gunk, but when you pull it back up, the hooks set into the hair and other materials and it all comes back up when you pull it out. When this comes out of the drain, you’re going to want to dispose of it very quickly as it will smell very badly.

Either the coat hanger or a ZIP-IT has cleared almost every drain I’ve had to clear over the last few years. It is just brutally effective at clearing out clogs, especially ones involving hair. Cost: $2.30.

Drain Auger or Snake I recommend this one. I turn to a drain auger when the coat hanger or the ZIP-IT doesn’t work.

My experience has been that the drain auger is the tool that succeeds when there is gunk on the insides of the pipe without much hair or other material for the teeth of the coat hanger or the ZIP-IT to grab onto. It can also sometimes dislodge larger things that get stuck in there. Cost: About $20, but infinitely reusable.

Honestly, if these five tools haven’t cleared the drain, then I’m either borrowing a shop vac or calling a plumber. Thankfully, these tactics have cleared every drain I’ve faced in the last five years or so without requiring me to buy endless bottles of drain cleaner, engage in a pipe removal project, or call a pricy plumber.

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