What is a Plumbing Snake and How Do You Use It?

What is a Plumbing Snake and How Do You Use It?

Skagit County Plumbers & HVAC Experts

Dealing with clogged drains is a common but frustrating challenge that many homeowners encounter. Whether it’s a blocked kitchen sink or a slow-draining bathtub, the quest for an effective solution can be daunting. Enter the plumbing snake, a tool revered for its ability to tackle those stubborn clogs that just won’t budge with a plunger. 

Here, we’ll demystify the plumbing snake, a tool less talked about but incredibly useful in the world of home plumbing. From understanding what it is to learning how to use it effectively, we’re diving deep into everything you need to know about plumbing snakes.

What is a Plumbing Snake?

A plumbing snake, also referred to as a drain snake or drain auger, is a flexible and slender tool designed to dislodge clogs deep within pipes, particularly those that are out of reach for a plunger. At its core, a plumbing snake consists of a long, coiled wire with a handle on one end and a specialized head on the other, designed to push through and break up obstructions in pipes.

The beauty of a plumbing snake lies in its simplicity and effectiveness. The flexible coil is manually inserted into the drain until it reaches the obstruction. The head of the snake is then used to either break up the clog, hook it, or twist it so that it can be pulled out or flushed away. This process can be repeated as necessary until the blockage is cleared.

In contrast to chemical drain cleaners, which can be harsh on your pipes and the environment, plumbing snakes provide a mechanical approach to clearing clogs. This makes them a preferred choice for environmentally conscious homeowners and for those dealing with pipes that may not withstand harsh chemicals.

Plumbing snakes are available in a variety of sizes and styles, each designed to address different drain types and clogs. From hand-cranked models ideal for minor clogs in sinks or bathtubs to motorized versions designed for more significant blockages in main pipes, there’s a snake for almost every kind of clog.

In summary, a plumbing snake is a versatile, eco-friendly, and effective tool for tackling a wide range of clogging issues in home plumbing systems. As we delve deeper into the types and uses of plumbing snakes, you’ll gain a clearer understanding of how this tool can be a game-changer in your home maintenance toolkit.

Drain Augers vs. Drain Snakes

Having introduced the concept of the plumbing snake, it’s important to delve into a common area of confusion: the difference between drain augers and drain snakes. Though these terms are frequently used interchangeably, there are nuanced differences that set one apart from the other, particularly concerning their intended purpose and design.

Drain Snakes: Typically, when we refer to a drain snake, we’re talking about a simpler, more slender tool designed for household use. Ideal for addressing minor clogs situated near the drain opening, drain snakes usually feature a flexible metal wire that can navigate the twists and turns of residential pipes. At the end of this wire is a small auger or a coiled hook, which is used to dislodge or retrieve the clogging material. The operation of a drain snake is often manual, involving turning a handle to extend and retract the wire.

Drain Augers: A drain auger, on the other hand, is generally more robust and is used for more significant blockages that are tougher to reach and clear. Drain augers come with a longer and thicker cable, making them suitable for deeper and more challenging clogs, such as those found in main sewer lines. The auger part of this tool is a spiral-shaped cone at the end of the cable, designed to break through tough clogs with greater force. Many drain augers are hand-cranked, though some models are motorized, providing extra power and efficiency for tough jobs.

The choice between a drain snake and a drain auger depends largely on the nature and location of the clog. For everyday clogs in sinks, showers, and bathtubs, a standard drain snake is usually sufficient. However, for deeper, more stubborn clogs in main pipes, a drain auger is the more appropriate tool.

Recognizing this difference is essential when choosing the appropriate tool for your particular plumbing problem. Both drain snakes and augers are invaluable tools in the arsenal of home plumbing solutions, each serving a unique purpose in keeping your drains flowing freely. As we explore further, we’ll look at the different types of drain augers available, enhancing your knowledge and ability to tackle various plumbing challenges.

The Different Types of Drain Augers

Building on our understanding of drain augers and how they differ from the more basic drain snakes, let’s explore the various types of drain augers available. Each type is designed to tackle specific kinds of clogging issues, making it crucial to choose the right one for your needs.

Handheld Drain Augers: These are the most common type of augers used in residential settings. Handheld augers are relatively lightweight and are operated manually. They typically feature a drum containing a cable that can be fed into the drain, with a handle or a crank to rotate the cable. Handheld augers are ideal for medium-level clogs that are not too far from the drain opening, such as those in kitchen sinks or bathroom drains.

Closet Augers: Specifically designed for toilets, closet augers (also known as toilet augers) have a long, rigid shaft with a special bend near the auger end to navigate the toilet’s S-bend. This design helps prevent scratching the porcelain of the toilet while effectively reaching and clearing clogs within the toilet drain.

Electric Drain Augers: For more challenging clogs, especially those located further down the pipe, electric drain augers are a powerful option. These augers come with a motorized mechanism that drives the cable and auger into the pipe, providing more force to break through tough blockages. Electric augers are often used for larger pipes and main sewer lines, making them a common choice for professional plumbers.

Sectional Cable Machines: These are heavy-duty drain cleaning machines used primarily by professional plumbers. Sectional cable machines use a series of interlocking cable sections, each of which can be added or removed depending on the length needed to reach and clear the clog. These machines are powerful and versatile, suitable for clearing severe blockages in larger and longer pipe systems.

Water Jet Augers: Another professional-grade option is the water jet auger, which uses high-pressure water to blast through blockages in pipes. These are particularly effective for clearing out build-ups of grease, sediment, and debris in larger pipes. Water jet augers not only eliminate clogs but also cleanse the inner walls of the pipes.

Each type of drain auger has its specific use case and effectiveness. For most homeowners, a handheld or closet auger should suffice for routine clogs. However, for deeper and more stubborn blockages, or for larger pipes, electric augers and professional-grade equipment like sectional cable machines or water jet augers may be necessary. Understanding these different types of drain augers will empower you to make informed decisions about which tool is best suited for your particular plumbing issue.

Selecting the Right Plumbing Snake for Your Needs

Transitioning from the diverse world of drain augers, it’s essential to focus on how to choose the appropriate plumbing snake, a decision that hinges on understanding the specific requirements of your plumbing issue. The right tool can make all the difference in effectively resolving a clog, so here’s a guide to help you select the most suitable plumbing snake.

Consider the Clog Location and Severity: Begin by assessing where the clog is and how severe it seems. For superficial clogs in sinks, bathtubs, or showers, a standard hand-cranked drain snake is usually sufficient. These are designed to navigate the relatively short and narrow pipes found in these fixtures.

Toilet Clogs: If you’re dealing with a toilet clog, a closet auger is your best bet. Its design is specifically tailored for toilets, allowing you to address the clog without damaging the delicate porcelain.

Pipe Size and Length: The choice of plumbing snake depends on factors such as the size and length of your pipes. For larger and longer pipes, especially in cases of deep clogs or mainline issues, a longer and more robust snake like an electric drain auger might be necessary. These are more powerful and can reach further into the plumbing system.

Type of Clog: Take into account the nature of the clog. For instance, if you’re dealing with a grease or soap buildup, a cable with a smaller diameter might be more effective. For more solid obstructions, a thicker cable with a larger auger head might be required to break through the blockage.

Ease of Use and Comfort: Especially for DIY enthusiasts, it’s important to choose a plumbing snake that you feel comfortable and safe using. Handheld models are generally user-friendly and suitable for minor issues. However, for more challenging tasks, you might prefer an electric model that requires less manual effort.

Budget Considerations: Lastly, consider your budget. While professional-grade tools like electric augers and sectional cable machines offer more power, they also come with a higher price tag. For occasional home use, a simple handheld snake or closet auger might be a more cost-effective choice.

Selecting the right plumbing snake is a balance of understanding your plumbing system, the nature of the clog, and your own capability in handling plumbing tools. By carefully considering these factors, you can choose a tool that not only clears the current clog but also serves as a reliable resource for future plumbing maintenance.

Safety Precautions When Using a Plumbing Snake

After selecting the right plumbing snake for your needs, it’s crucial to prioritize safety while using this tool. Plumbing snakes, though incredibly useful, can pose risks if not handled correctly. 

Here are safety measures to guarantee a secure and efficient plumbing experience.

Wear Protective Gear: Before you begin, equip yourself with appropriate protective gear. This includes wearing gloves, ideally heavy-duty ones, to protect your hands from dirt and potential injury. It is advisable to wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from any debris that may become dislodged during the procedure.

Read Instructions Carefully: If you’re using a plumbing snake for the first time, or if it’s a new model, take the time to read the manufacturer’s instructions thoroughly. Mastering the mechanics and operation of the tool is crucial for its safe and effective use.

Inspect the Tool Before Use: Check the plumbing snake for any signs of damage, such as kinks or breaks in the cable, before using it. A damaged tool can be less effective and more dangerous to use.

Be Mindful of Electricity: If you’re using an electric drain auger, be particularly cautious of electrical safety. Ensure your hands are dry and that the tool is properly grounded to avoid electric shocks.

Use the Tool Correctly: When feeding the snake into the drain, do so gently and avoid forcing it. Forcing the snake can cause the tool to loop back and potentially cause injury. Be especially cautious when retracting the cable, as it may carry debris and be more prone to whipping movements.

Avoid Chemicals: If you’ve used chemical drain cleaners prior to using the snake, be extremely careful. These substances can pose risks to your skin and eyes. It’s generally advisable to avoid mixing chemical usage with mechanical clearing methods.

Know When to Stop: If the snake gets stuck or if you feel you’re not making progress, don’t force the tool. Continuously forcing the tool can damage your pipes and the snake itself. In such situations, seeking the assistance of a professional plumber might be a safer and more effective option.

Clean Up After Use: Once you’ve completed the task, clean the plumbing snake thoroughly. This practice not only prevents the spread of bacteria or debris but also extends the lifespan of the tool.

By adhering to these safety precautions, you can not only ensure the longevity of your plumbing snake but also prioritize your personal safety. Remember, while DIY plumbing can be rewarding, it’s crucial to approach it with caution and respect for the tools and tasks involved.

How Do I Use a Plumbing Snake?

After understanding the safety precautions, let’s dive into the practical aspects of using a plumbing snake. This tool can be a game-changer for clearing clogs, but it’s important to use it correctly to achieve the best results. Here’s a comprehensive walkthrough on the proper utilization of a plumbing snake:

  • Prepare the Area: Ensure the space around the drain is clear, providing sufficient room for your work. If you’re working on a sink, it might be helpful to remove the trap (the U-shaped pipe under the sink) to provide direct access to the drainpipe.
  • Insert the Snake: Gradually insert the tip of the snake into the drain or pipe opening. For manual snakes, you’ll typically crank the handle to extend the cable. For motorized models, start the device at its lowest speed setting.
  • Advance the Snake: As you guide the snake into the pipe, you’ll encounter resistance once it reaches the blockage. Continue to advance the snake gently. Forcing it can damage the pipe or the snake. The objective is to either disintegrate the clog or latch onto it.
  • Work on the Clog: After reaching the clog, rotate the snake against it. This action can help break up the blockage or entangle it in the snake’s coil. With motorized models, let the rotation and movement of the snake do the work rather than applying excessive force.
  • Retrieve the Snake: Once you are confident that the blockage has been cleared, slowly retract the snake from the pipe. Be prepared for some debris or water to follow as you pull it out.
  • Test the Drain: Following the removal of the snake, run water down the drain to assess whether the clog has been successfully cleared. If the water still drains slowly or if the clog persists, you may need to repeat the process.
  • Clean the Snake: After usage, ensure to thoroughly clean the snake to eliminate any debris clinging to it. Proper cleaning is essential to prevent the spread of bacteria and to extend the life of the tool.

While using a plumbing snake can be a straightforward process, it requires patience and a gentle touch. If you find that the clog is too persistent or if you’re uncomfortable using the snake, it’s advisable to seek professional help. Remember, the goal is to clear your pipes, not to cause more damage, so proceed with care.

Drain Snaking Tips

Having gone through the basics of how to use a plumbing snake, let’s enhance your drain snaking skills with some valuable tips. These pointers will help you use the tool more effectively, increasing your chances of successfully clearing clogs without causing damage to your plumbing.

Start Gently: When you begin snaking, do so gently. Exerting excessive force can lead to the snake coiling back or causing damage to the pipe. Allow the tool to perform the work while you guide it.

Maintain the Right Angle: Try to keep the snake as straight as possible when entering the drain. Twisting the cable excessively can impede its mobility and diminish its efficacy.

Rotate Properly: As you feed the snake into the drain, rotate it slowly. This rotation helps the head of the snake to navigate through bends in the pipe and aids in breaking up or hooking the clog.

Avoid Force on Resistance: If you encounter resistance, don’t force the snake. This could be the clog, a bend in the pipe, or a junction. Apply gentle pressure and slow rotation to work through the blockage.

Know Your Pipes: Be aware of the type of pipes you have. Older, fragile pipes may require a softer approach to avoid damage, while more robust piping can handle a bit more force.

Use Water to Help: After partially clearing the clog, running water can help break it down further. The water flow can assist in moving the dislodged clog material along the pipe.

Regular Checks: Periodically withdraw the snake to check the progress and remove any debris attached to it. Additionally, this precaution can aid in avoiding the inadvertent pushing of the clog deeper into the pipe.

Patience is Key: Exercise patience throughout the process. Effective snaking can take time, especially if the clog is stubborn. Avoid rushing, as it may result in mistakes and potential damage.

Clean Up Afterward: Once the clog is cleared, thoroughly clean the area and disinfect if necessary, as the process can sometimes be messy and spread bacteria.

Assess the Situation: If multiple attempts with the snake don’t clear the clog, or if you notice any abnormalities like water backing up in other places, it might be time to call a professional.

These tips will help you maximize the effectiveness of your plumbing snake and handle clogs more efficiently. Remember, while DIY methods are effective for minor issues, don’t hesitate to seek professional help for more complex plumbing problems.

Troubleshooting Common Issues with Plumbing Snakes

Even with careful use and adherence to best practices, you might encounter some challenges while using a plumbing snake. Troubleshooting these common issues can enhance your ability to effectively use this tool and ensure your plumbing remains in good working order. Here are some typical problems and how to address them:

  • Snake Won’t Go Down the Drain: If you find the snake isn’t progressing down the drain, it could be hitting a tight bend or blockage. Rather than applying force, attempt to rotate the handle slowly while gently applying forward pressure. This can help the snake navigate bends and obstacles.
  • Snake Gets Stuck: If the snake becomes stuck, don’t yank or pull it forcefully. This action may potentially harm either the pipes or the snake. Instead, try to rotate it in both directions to loosen it, and gently pull it back. If it remains stuck, you may need professional help.
  • Ineffective at Clearing Clog: Sometimes, the snake might pass through the clog without clearing it, especially if it’s dense or greasy. In this case, pull it out, clean off any debris, and try again. Repeated attempts, sometimes with different snake head attachments, can be more successful.
  • Cable Coiling Back on Itself: This usually happens if too much of the snake is uncoiled before it’s fed into the drain. To avoid this, only uncoil a small amount of the snake at a time, ensuring it enters the drain before you release more.
  • Damaging Pipes: Using a snake with too much force can damage pipes, especially older or weaker ones. To avoid such risks, use the snake with care and refrain from applying too much force. If you are uncertain about the condition of your pipes, it’s advisable to seek guidance from a plumber.
  • Cleaning the Snake is Difficult: Cleaning the snake after use is crucial but can be challenging. Wearing gloves, gently straighten the snake and rinse it with a hose or in a bucket of water. You can use a rag or a brush to remove stubborn debris.
  • Tool Deterioration: Over time, the snake might show signs of wear, like kinks or rust. Regular maintenance, proper cleaning, and storage can prolong its life. However, if it’s significantly damaged, replacing it is the best option.
  • Inadequate Size or Type: If you consistently face issues, it might be due to using the wrong size or type of snake for your specific needs. Reassess the nature of your clogs and plumbing system, and consider if a different type of snake or auger would be more appropriate.

By understanding and addressing these common issues, you can become more adept at using a plumbing snake and handling a variety of plumbing situations. Remember, while these tools are effective for many clogs, they are not a cure-all. Some situations may require professional assessment and intervention.

Drain Snake Alternatives

While plumbing snakes are a popular and effective tool for unclogging drains, there are situations where an alternative solution might be more suitable or necessary. Knowing these alternatives provides you with a wider array of choices to address different plumbing issues. Here are some effective drain snake alternatives:

  • Plungers: Often the first line of defense against clogs, plungers can be surprisingly effective, especially for minor blockages in toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. The crucial aspect is to establish a tight seal around the drain and employ a vigorous up-and-down motion to free the clog.
  • Chemical Drain Cleaners: For certain types of clogs, particularly those composed of organic material like hair or grease, chemical drain cleaners can be effective. However, it’s important to exercise caution when using them since they can be abrasive to your plumbing and detrimental to the environment. Always adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions and safety guidelines when utilizing these products.
  • Enzyme-Based Cleaners: As a more environmentally friendly alternative to chemical cleaners, enzyme-based cleaners use natural bacteria to break down organic material in your pipes. They are safer for your plumbing and the environment but may take longer to work and are less effective on severe clogs.
  • Boiling Water: At times, a simple technique involving pouring boiling water down the drain can help eliminate grease and soap buildup. This method is easy and cost-effective, though it’s not suitable for all types of pipes, particularly PVC, as the heat can damage them.
  • Vinegar and Baking Soda: A fizzy reaction, created by combining vinegar and baking soda, can be effective in breaking down minor clogs. Pour baking soda first, followed by vinegar down the drain, wait for a few minutes, and then flush with hot water.
  • Wet/Dry Vacuum: Utilizing a wet/dry vacuum in wet mode allows for efficient removal of clogs from drains. This method can be messy, so it’s important to create a tight seal around the drain and be prepared for splashes.
  • Professional Drain Cleaning Services: Persistent or severe clogs, or situations where the cause of the blockage is unclear, may warrant the expertise of professional drain cleaning services. Plumbers possess powerful tools and techniques, including hydro jetting, to effectively clear most clogs.
  • Drain Maintenance Products: To prevent clogs from occurring in the first place, consider using drain maintenance products that are designed to keep pipes clear. Enzyme-based drain cleaners are often employed for regular use to keep drains clear. 

Each of these alternatives comes with its own set of benefits and limitations. The choice depends on the nature of the clog, the type of pipes you have, and your comfort level with DIY methods. Sometimes, a combination of these methods can prove effective. However, for intricate or stubborn issues, seeking professional assistance is often the safest and most effective approach.

Your Plumbing Solutions with CPI Plumbing: Expertise at Your Service

As we conclude our comprehensive exploration into the world of plumbing snakes and their alternatives, it’s clear that a well-maintained plumbing system is pivotal for the smooth operation of any household. Whether it’s tackling simple clogs with DIY methods or facing more complex plumbing challenges, understanding and addressing these issues is essential for the health and functionality of your plumbing.

When plumbing perplexities arise, or when you require expert guidance and services, CPI Plumbing is your go-to solution. Our team of experienced professionals is adept in a wide array of services, from routine maintenance to intricate troubleshooting and crucial repairs. At CPI Plumbing, our commitment to providing exceptional service and ensuring complete customer satisfaction sets us apart. We are dedicated to maintaining the smooth operation of your home’s plumbing system. 

Don’t let plumbing issues disrupt your daily life; take proactive steps to ensure the integrity of your home’s plumbing. For inquiries, expert consultations, or to schedule a service, reach out to CPI Plumbing at (360) 822-9306. Our team of experts is ready and eager to assist you, ensuring your home remains comfortable, safe, and well-maintained.

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