Dealing with clogs in small-diameter drains

WHEN I WAS a young lad first entering the trades, we had no power tools for cleaning small-diameter drain lines. We used hand-tops, which could give a man biceps to rival Popeye's! A wide variety of these man-powered augers-in-a-drum stood sentry by the backdoor of the shop. Cleaning drains by hand power alone gave us ample opportunity to examine why drains clogged. Small hand-tops were used for tub

WHEN I WAS a young lad first entering the trades, we had no power tools for cleaning small-diameter drain lines. We used hand-tops, which could give a man biceps to rival Popeye's! A wide variety of these man-powered augers-in-a-drum stood sentry by the backdoor of the shop. Cleaning drains by hand power alone gave us ample opportunity to examine why drains clogged.

Small hand-tops were used for tub drains with thin, flexible wound steel cables that incorporated a corkscrew bulb at the tip. Hair was the most likely culprit, and you could anticipate the type of clog by looking at the occupants' hair length. As an apprentice, you learned quickly that any obstacle along the drain's path that presented an opportunity for hair to tangle was the clog's point of origin. For tub-on-feet clogs, it was the cross hair in the outlet that started trouble. When a trip-lever waste and overflow was present, the hair clog could sometimes be retrieved by removing the faceplate screws (be sure to cover the drain outlet before removing the screws) and gently pulling/ removing the connected linkage rods and plunger.

Tub wastes that incorporated a wound spring instead of a plunger would routinely have long tangled masses of hair snared that made loud sucking noises as they were drawn backwards through the drain and up out of the overflow. Old-style anti-siphon drum traps, usually located in the hardest-to-get-to spot, presented a roadblock and once their lid was removed, it became a contortionist's job to clean the drain. Naturally, the drum trap's gasket would be destroyed and that new gaskets were not available: wick yarn and heatproof grease to the rescue! Wind it on the wrong way and you were treated to watching the wick yarn escape as you tightened the lid.

A vanity is a place where 10 lb. of stuff fit in a 5-lb. space!

Our first powered auger was nothing more than a drill with a drum affixed to its business end. Additional machines were added to accommodate a wide variety of small-diameter drains. Customers occasionally expressed concerns that we'd drill right through the drain lines! Manufacturers of motorized drain-cleaning equipment took that into consideration, however, and I've never seen a line be damaged unless it was in poor condition.

Lavatory sinks gave us our first encounters where augers wound themselves up into vents, rather than heading-down to chew through the clog. You quickly learned that reversing the direction caused the cable to turn down inside the throat of a tee. Unlike TV commercials depicting drain cleaners at work, the majority of clogs were not in the trap! If the pop-up and/ or its assembly hadn't snagged a hairball, and there wasn't a toothbrush, bobby pin(s), comb or other hard object caught in the trap to snare hair, you were bound to end up removing the trap for a direct shot at the drain. Auger down through the sink's drain and you risked damaging the outlet's finish, trap or both.

You also quickly learned that a vanity is a place where 10 lb. of stuff fit in a 5-lb. space! Unlike tub drains, lavatory drains often clogged with goo that defied description. Back-to-back sinks connected by a cross-fitting can lead to your auger finding the neighbors' throw-rug and becoming so entangled, you must wait for the neighbors to come home and let you in to untangle the mess while offering them a new rug.

Kitchen sink drains are in a class of their own! While an unlikely spot for a hair clog, just about anything else in the home is suspect. Add a disposal and all bets are off. Blacker than night itself, the goo associated with kitchen drain lines can stain anything it touches — pretty much permanently. Grease is often the guiltiest of offenders and that's where we began understanding why drains clog. Tees present a new challenge in kitchen drains because they're often well out of sight to accommodate the offset caused by windows. As you "feel" the bump of a tee, reversing the motor's direction helps turn the auger's bulb downward. There's nothing quite like the frustration encountered when you see your cable flopping across a shingled roof!

Anytime there's debris in the drain-line highway, it acts just like a speed bump and slows the upstream flow of gray water. Gray water carries everything by gravity and requires we provide pitch to induce flow. Too much pitch and you'll outpace larger solids and/or eliminate the laminar ( stream-like) flow in favor of a spiraling turbulent flow that thins out and won't serve as transport for solids. As speed bumps form, they create a back-up behind them where fluid flow slows and puddles form, which permits suspended solids to settle and collect. Another particle gets caught in the sticky goo and accumulation builds. We've seen this evidence in drain lines that were cut apart or removed for replacement. Where we were once told to advise our customers to use hot water with greasy clean-ups, we're now told the opposite — cold water is said to keep the grease congealed so that it will roll along and be sent off to the main sewer line.

Chemical cleaners add dangers for homeowners and plumbers. Mix the wrong chemicals together and the results can be explosive, or worse, deadly. Soft tissue — especially eyes — must be protected. Adequate ventilation is required. It's not unusual for the reaction between drain-cleaning chemicals and organic materials to generate heat and/or blow-out of the liquids and/or overflow onto surrounding products causing damage. Accidentally placing a drain cleaner bottle cap on a counter top can leave a permanent ring. Both liquids and fumes can damage fixture finishes.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler Inc., a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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