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Knowing how to unclog a shower drain is a skill that is sure to come in handy again and again, so learning the proper techniques to get rid of mineral buildup and clogs—without making a bigger mess—is a wise undertaking for any homeowner. Sure, it’s a job you could call in a plumber to fix for you, but opting to clear the blockage yourself can save you hundreds of dollars. Plus, who wants to shower in standing water for days until the plumber shows up. No two clogs are the same, so it’s important to assess each shower’s unique situation before you get started.
Professional plumbers know all the tricks for how to unclog a shower drain, and many of these tricks are easy enough for DIY’ers to take on. Here, John Tavanian—master plumber, pipefitter, and assistant professor at the New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich, Rhode Island—reveals the tricks of the trade he uses to train wannabe plumbers.
Soap scum, skin, and long hair are the main culprits that lead to a slow or clogged shower drain. These substances naturally build up over time, eventually coagulating and sticking to the walls of the pipes until a blockage gets so large that it impacts the flow of water. When this happens, water drains slower than usual and may eventually lead to pooling or standing water on the floor of your shower.
Hair is one of the most common causes of a clogged shower drain. And although some cleaners contain harsh chemicals that can help dissolve long hair or help push it through the plumbing system, removing it by hand is often an easy, safe, and effective way to get your drain flowing again.
To do this job yourself, you likely only need one or two tools, Tavanian says. If you notice that your drain opening—also called a drain strainer or drain cover—has screws, grab a screwdriver and remove it. If you don’t see screws, you should be able to gently pry the strainer off. Once removed, examine the area to see what’s causing the obstruction. If it’s a tangled mess of hair, you may choose to don a pair of rubber gloves and simply reach in and pull it out. Or you can use the end of a wire hanger to get a little further down in the pipe to dislodge and remove the hair that is causing the clog. Once complete, replace the drain strainer and run the water to see if drainage has improved. If removing the hair doesn’t improve water flow, there is likely a different or larger blockage further down the pipe that may require additional tools.
The plunger method is ideal for standing water. You can also buy a dedicated drain plunger as not to contaminate the shower from anything that was in the toilet. Place the plunger over the drain, making sure that it is flush against the floor. Move it up and down, allowing the suction to pull out the hair clog or other blockage. This should remove at least a portion of the gunk in your pipes. “Drain cleaners are worth trying as a short-term fix,” Tavanian advises. “Store-bought cleaners should be safe and regulated, so they should be safe for your plumbing.” Follow the directions on the product you choose, making sure to give it ample time to work. If you don’t see an improvement in water flow after trying these two methods, grab a drain snake or a drain auger to get the job done.
Many people turn to natural solutions like white vinegar and baking soda to unclog a shower drain, but Tavanian admits that the fizzing you hear soon after pouring them down the drain probably isn’t doing much. “They may help to keep a clear drain clear, if used regularly before a clog happens,” he says. “But they are not effective in clearing a clogged drain.”
Instead, he recommends that homeowners use the same tools professionals do. You may have experience using a drain snake (also called a plumber’s snake) to clear clogs from your sink or toilet, but it’s not always long enough to tackle the mess lurking beneath your shower floor. For this, you’ll need a drain auger, which can have a cable as long as 25 feet.
Augers are readily available at home improvement and hardware stores, and you can usually get a good one for less than $50. Tavanian suggests opting for a hand-operated drain auger with a 1/4-inch cable as a manageable and safe option for most clogged drains. If you’re looking to add an auger to your tool box, Tavanian recommends the Rigid Kwik-Spin drain cleaning snake auger with auto feed trigger. There are drain cleaning machines, but those are quite expensive. Before using an auger for the first time, Tavanian suggests watching a few how-to videos. “The technique is very difficult to explain yet simple to do,” he admits. DIY’ers should also familiarize themselves with the instructions that came with the auger they purchased, as there might be slight variations in techniques used to dislodge a clog.
Once you have an auger, follow this step-by-step guide to unclog a shower drain:
Step 1: Gather the supplies. In addition to the auger, you’ll need a screwdriver, rubber gloves, safety glasses, and a drop cloth.
Step 2: If your drain screen has screws, use a screwdriver to remove them, and then lift the screen off. If not, you should be able to gently pry it off.
Step 3: Feed the coiled end of the auger down the drain until you feel some resistance on the other end.
Step 4: Hold the handle of the auger with one hand, and use your other hand to turn the drum clockwise. As the coil works its way down the drain, adjust the thumb screw or trigger as needed to allow more of the coil to be released so you can work it down the drain.
Step 5: Keep turning until you feel the resistance lessen, which likely means you’ve dislodged the clog.
Step 6: Turn the handle counter-clockwise to slowly draw the coil (and hopefully the hair clog) out of the drain. Don’t rush this step or pull too hard, as both can damage your pipes.
Step 7: Run warm or hot water, and see if drainage has improved. If not, repeat the steps above.
Prep work is essential for preventing a clogged drain from turning into a big mess. When gathering your supplies, Tavanian suggests grabbing a few extra rags, a drop cloth to keep your shower floor protected, and a bucket to carry dirty tools in. As for the work itself, he tells DIY’ers to “go slow and proceed cautiously.” No one wants a hair clog flung around (then you’ll have to clean a glass shower door too). Take your time so you can be neat and focused on what you are doing, he urges.
Even though clearing a clogged shower drain is a job that many homeowners can safely take on, it’s important to assess your situation before you put on the rubber gloves. Tavanian recommends that you visually inspect the area before diving into the project. If you know that your pipes are so old that they may be galvanized, then the clog is probably from the pipe flaking off and not necessarily hair or gunk. Rust debris is another sign to call in a professional. Likewise, if you are unable to dislodge a clog after a few tries with an auger, there may be a larger issue like tree roots or other small objects blocking your drain, in which case professional help is also advised.
Although you can’t prevent your shower from ever clogging again, there are some DIY steps homeowners can take to prevent gunk and other buildup from causing frequent clogs. Here’s how to tackle the biggest causes behind a clogged shower drain.
Yes. You can use the techniques outlined above, including using an auger to clean blocked drains in other areas of your house, Tavanian says. That U-shaped curve of the sink pipe, also known as a drain trap, is a perfect place for a clog to linger, making bathroom sinks and kitchen sinks fair game. Keep in mind, it might be trickier to unclog a kitchen sink if there is a garbage disposal, so gaining access to the pipes and clog will require a bit of maneuvering. Bathtubs, another favorite spot for hair clogs, will definitely benefit with a regular cleaning with an auger.
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