When you need to clear a drain, a drain auger, or snake, comes in as handy as a plunger, and it can handle impacted clogs that a plunger can't. Your house has many types of drains, and to clean them, you need more than one type of plunger and more than one type of snake. A small snake is safe for sink pipes, while long, powerful augers are for sewer and vent blockages.
Choose Your Snake
Whether you need to clear a toilet, sink or even a urinal, there's a snake for the job. Sink auger cables are small enough to fit through a sink P-trap, while toilet auger cables can reach through the convolutions of a toilet trap and clear a clog in the waste opening. Heavy-duty, electric snakes or sewer augers have cables that can reach up to 100 feet. To make snaking faster and more efficient, you can use a model designed to fit a drill. Operating the drill turns the head so you don't have to manually operate a crank.
Clearing a Toilet
When plunging a toilet fails to remove a blockage, reach for a toilet snake, also called a closet auger. Feed the end into the toilet and keep pushing the cable until it won't go any farther, then crank the handle. Avoid forcing the auger -- you could crack the toilet. The cranking action rotates the head, which has blades that eat their way through the obstruction. Pull the auger out periodically to clear debris from the head and continue cranking until water starts to flow. At this point, you can usually finish the job with a plunger.
Clearing a Sink, Shower or Bathtub Drain
Use a sink auger to clear any drain with a P-trap, which means pretty much any drain in the house except your basement floor drains. Use more care than you would when snaking a toilet, because P-traps can break, and you especially don't want that to happen to one under your bathtub or shower. Remove the strainer or pop-up stopper and feed the auger head gently, cranking as you go. Because obstructions in sink drains usually consist mostly of hair, it's important to pull the auger out of the drain often and clean it. To reach deep blockages, remove the P-trap -- if it's accessible -- and feed the auger directly into the waste opening.
The Taipan of Plumbing Snakes
When the blockage is deep in the sewers -- typically involving invading roots -- you need the striking power of a sewer auger, also known as a cable auger. Although you can buy or rent units with cables as long as 100 feet, you probably won't need one longer than 25 feet. You can feed the cable into a sewer cleanout, or you can remove the plug from a floor drain -- which lets you bypass the P-trap -- and insert it through the floor drain opening. Gently advance the augur by shuffling it through your hands -- protected by heavy gloves -- into the cleanout and letting the cutting head work slowly through roots.
Feeding a sewer auger through the vent opening in the roof is the best way to clear vent obstructions that cause gurgling toilets and other problems.