What do you do when you've got a plumbing clog?

We live in an older house and the plumbing clogs up frequently (usually an hour before a dinner party). I rarely get good results from Draino or other lye-based clog dissolvers. I end up with a sink full of caustic swill that splashes on me when I vigorously agitate it with a plunger. A Drain Weasel works well for bathroom sinks, provided the clog is near the drain opening. The clog problem I had this morning, though, required more powerful clog-busting technology.

I was taking a shower and I noticed the water was backing up. I finished quickly, and grabbed the bathroom plunger and pumped it over the drain opening. I was hoping to suck out a massive ball of hair and gunk, but the only thing that came out was gray water and a bad sulfur smell.


I went into the garage and got my hand-cranked 25-foot plumber's snake (photo above). These cost about $(removed) on Amazon. I have a 25-year love/hate relationship with my plumber's snake. Under certain conditions, it's a terrific tool that breaks up clogs and pulls up hair like nobody's business. I've used it with great success on a dozen occasions. But in this case my snake gave me no joy. The drain pipe had a sharp turn about three feet down and the snake was not flexible enough to go any farther, no matter how hard I turned the crank. The clog was obviously farther downstream. This is one of the things I hate about the snake: in many instances it can't navigate through the plumbing to reach a clog. I also hate the snake because it is messy, slow, and hell on my wrist. I really need to put an end to my dysfunctional romance with this tool.


I wasn't ready to give up and call a plumber yet. I had one other clog-busting tool in my arsenal: a war-torn water bladder. This $(removed) thing screws onto a garden hose. You shove it down a drain pipe or clean out as far as it will go and turn the water on. The bladder expands like a balloon, forming a blockage in the pipe, and a jet of water squirts out the other side in an attempt to push the clog away. It's like a battle of the blockages. Which clog will win – the artificial one created by the bladder, or the natural one made of hair and other coagulated grime? I've had spectacular results with water bladders, but like the snake, it only works under certain conditions and it has problems of its own. It doesn't fit in small drains like bathroom sinks, and it has a tendency to burst under pressure. I've bought about five of them. I keep buying them, though, because they work.

The bladder I own burst on a previous clog-busting adventure, so I wrapped duct tape over the broken part. I had no idea if it would work or not. I went outside and screwed it on to the garden hose. As I was was doing that, I noticed water leaking from a clean-out connected to the kitchen plumbing. That meant water from the kitchen sink or dishwasher was backing up, which meant the clog was far enough down the line that it was causing the shower and the kitchen plumbing to back up. I had been planning to put the water bladder in the shower drain, but I decided to stick it in the clean out instead. (The image here shows a clean out. It's a pipe that gives you access to a waste line for the express purpose of cleaning out clogs. Clean outs are very good things to have, because it means you don't have to stick snakes and bladders through sink and shower drains to get to a big clog.)

I pushed the bladder several feet into the clean out and slowly turned on the water. At first a bunch of dirty water gushed out of the clean out, but I pushed on the hose and drove the bladder deeper. Suddenly the water stopped coming out. I hoped that meant that the clog had been broken up (the other scenario meant that the hose water was going up into the house somewhere through another waste pipe). I ran into the bathroom and was dismayed to see that the backed up water was still standing. I wasn't sure what was going on.

I went back outside, turned off the water, and pulled out the bladder. Then I headed back into the bathroom. My plan was to put the bladder in the shower drain and see what happened. Maybe it had a separate clog? I wasn't sure what was going on at this point. To my surprise, the water was gone. How did that happen? My guess is that when the bladder was in the clean out, it was preventing the water in the shower from draining. I was happy that the problem had been solved, but I was sorry that I missed the money shot: the sight of a powerful whirlpool of water disappearing down the drain, accompanied by that glorious sucking sound of a clear drain.

Over at Ask Cool Tools, there's a good discussion about the different tools people use to unclog their plumbing.