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How To Use a Drain Snake

Updated Dec 28, 2022

Updated Dec 28, 2022

Home > Maintenance & Renovation > How To Use a Drain Snake

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A drain snake is a plumbing tool designed to unclog sinks and shower drains. These devices, also called drain augers or plumbing snakes, work by loosening blockages with a metal cable that “snakes” into the drain and twists via a manual hand crank.

You may need to use an auger if you notice slow-draining water or cannot fix a clog with drain cleaners or plungers. There are various types of plumbing snakes, including closet augers, cable augers, and plastic snakes. This guide will discuss manually operated drain augers, which are excellent for DIY plumbing repairs.

manual drain auger
Image Source: Instagram, Yoodlize

How to Snake a Drain in Eight Steps

If you’ve never used a drain snake before or need tips on operating one of these handy devices, we’ve got you covered. We’ve compiled step-by-step instructions to unclog a pipe with a drain snake.

Before diving in, make sure you have the following tools and materials:

Tools and Materials Needed

infographic showing the steps to snaking a drain
Image Source: House Method Team / Elisabeth Beauchamp

Step One: Access the Drain

You can place a drain snake directly down your sink, shower, or toilet drain after removing any traps or stoppers at the top.

However, if you think the blockage is deeper in the pipe, you’ll likely need to access the system behind the P-trap, the curved pipe that sits beneath the sink. In this case, the first step in snaking a drain is removing this section of piping for better drain access. Before removing the P-trap, place old towels and a bucket underneath the area to catch any water that drains out of the pipe. Using a rag for grip, unscrew the plastic screws holding the pipe in place. Then, remove the section of piping and pour excess water into the bucket.

person removing a P-trap (right) and someone removing a shower plug (left)
Image Source: Canva

This video from eHow at Home demonstrates how to remove a sink’s P-trap by hand:

The process is slightly different if you’re unclogging a shower or bathtub drain. This tutorial from DrainFunnel explains how to remove several different types of shower drain stoppers:

Step Two: Insert the Cable

After accessing the drain, you’re ready to tackle the clog. Turn the lock at the end of the drum to release the metal cable. Extend the cable and push it down the drain. You’ll pull the cable out of the drum by hand, pushing it further down the drain opening as you go. Continue feeding the snake into the drain until you hit resistance.

Step Three: Rotate the Cable

Stop extending the snake when it encounters the clog. Turn the lock to prevent the snake from lengthening but leave several inches of cable outside the drain. This allows you to push through the blockage while adding tension.

person cleaning a drain with an electric drain snake
Image Credit/attribution: Instagram, Milwaukee Tool

Rotate the drum’s handle clockwise to spin the snake. If you have a power auger, you’ll push a button or hold down on a handle to rotate the cable. Twisting the cable allows the corkscrew auger head to break up soft blockages and push them down the drain. If a solid object clogs the drain, the twisting motion can catch it and pull it out.

Continue turning the hand crank clockwise while applying slight forward pressure. When you run out of cable, unlock the screw to extend it further. Repeat rotating the snake and pushing it further into the drain until the blockage breaks free.

Pro Tip: If you’re accessing the drain through the top of the sink instead of the P-trap, you can run hot water during this step to flush the blockage and keep your cable cleaner.

man feeding an auger down a drain
Image Source: Instagram, Argyle Drains

Step Four: Retract the Cable

Once you’ve worked through the blockage or captured a solid obstruction with the snake, it’s time to remove the cable. Carefully pull the cable from the drain, turning the handle counterclockwise to pull out any trapped debris. Wear rubber gloves or washable work gloves for this step to avoid touching sharp or bacteria-covered debris.

Keep the cable locked to prevent it from retracting; it’ll need a good cleaning before returning into the drum. As you remove the taut snake from the drain, dry it with an old rag or paper towel. This will keep it from dripping dirty water everywhere while you clear debris from the coil.

Step Five: Remove Debris From the Snake

Use a paper towel to remove debris from the cable, twisting your hand counterclockwise until the waste breaks free. Pay special attention to the auger head, which likely picked up the most gunk and grime.

drain auger pulling a clump of hair from the drain
Image Source: Instagram, Expert Plumbing and Drains

Step Six: Repeat the Process

Repeat the snaking process if you believe there are more blockages. You may want to do another pass regardless to ensure the drain is free of obstructions before reassembling the drainpipe. When you’ve snaked the drain a couple of times and believe it to be clear, you’re ready to test it.

Step Seven: Test the Drainpipe

Reassemble the piping for your sink or bathtub, ensuring all parts are tightly secured. Turn on the faucet to run water down the freshly snaked drain, confirming the blockage is gone. If the sink drains without issue, you successfully cleared the clog.

hand turning on a faucet with running water
Image Source: Canva

Step Eight: Clean the Drain Snake

You might’ve cured the drain clog, but your work still isn’t done. Now it’s time for some cleanup.

Cleaning your drain snake is crucial in preserving the tool for future use and ensuring your home’s sanitation. Not only will a wet, dirty drain snake invite potentially dangerous germs into your home, but it can also rust over time, leaving the tool weak and useless.

To clean your drain snake, put it in a bucket of warm water and antibacterial soap. Put only the cable into the water, keeping the drum outside the bucket. Using gloved hands, swish the cable around to loosen any leftover debris. Then, use a handled brush to scrub the coil’s crevices. Again, pay special attention to the end of the snake where the most buildup likely accumulated.

Thoroughly rinse the cable with warm water and set the snake on a towel to dry. When the tool is completely dry, retract the coil and return the drain auger to its storage space.

How To Prevent Clogs in the First Place

The best way to keep your home’s plumbing in top condition is to keep it from clogging in the first place. You can take simple, everyday steps to ensure water flows freely through your kitchen and bathroom pipes.

American Home Shield provides the following tips for preventing drain clogs:

  • Keep food, grease, and coffee grounds out of kitchen sink drains.
  • Dispose of food waste in the trash can or compost pile – not the garbage disposal.
  • Use a mesh shower drain screen to prevent hair and soap from entering the drain.
  • Place a washrag over the shower drain before bathing your dog in the tub.
  • Avoid flushing anything but human waste and toilet paper down your toilets.

When To Hire a Professional Plumber

No matter what, some stubborn clogs require professional drain cleaning. If the clogged drain persists after several passes with the snake, or if the snake can’t reach the clog, you should hire a professional plumber to assess the issue.

Professional plumbers’ snakes reach further and work through clogs with heavy-duty augers. Plumbers can use power drums to drill through solid debris for incredibly stubborn blockages.

You might also consider hiring a professional plumber if you don’t want to deal with soggy grime and germs. A pro plumber will handle the setup and cleanup of the process, leaving you to enjoy your freely draining sink without getting your hands dirty.

plumber using a long drain snake in a kitchen sink drain
Image Source: Canva

Learn more about when to hire a pro in our guide to finding professional plumbing services. Then, review our maintenance guides for more information on keeping your home in tip-top shape.

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