Updated On

April 6, 2024

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    When a plunger doesn’t break a clog free, I’ve been tempted to use every DIY trick in the book to get my sink, toilet, or bathtub draining again. I’ve tried everything from vinegar and baking soda, to boiling water, to dish soap – but the fact is, those methods never truly clear the obstruction. And worse yet, they can cause trouble down the road.

    What does work to fix your plumbing problems fast? A drain snake. You just propel this simple yet brilliant tool through the drain to break down the blockage or pull it out.

    I’ve created this guide on how to use a drain snake and when you shouldn’t. But if you’d rather just let a professional handle your clogged drains, you can find someone we recommend below.

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    What is a Drain Snake?

    A drain snake is an essential plumbing tool featuring a long, flexible coiled wire with a corkscrew end. To use it, you simply feed the end into your sink or bathtub drain and turn the crank to push the wire through the pipe.

    The wire has enough flex to follow the drainpipe curves and even turn corners while still having the strength to push through clogs. When not in use, the coiled wire sits wrapped around an enclosed reel with a handle and crank

    Today’s Homeowner Tips

    If you’re really in a jam, you might consider using a handheld drain auger instead. These tools typically have a ¼-inch wire and hand crank, but you can get heavy-duty models instead for truly stubborn blockages. These models may have an attachment that lets you crank out the wire using your drill or even its own motor.

    Drain snakes work best for sinks and bathtubs. If you have a clogged toilet, you need a closet auger instead. Also known as a toilet auger, this tool has a protective rubber coating over the coiled wire to prevent damage to the porcelain. The coiled wire feeds into a long rigid tube that helps guide the cable into the drain as you turn the crank.    

    How Do Drain Snakes Work?

    A clogged drain occurs when an object or clump of material gets stuck far down in the pipe. In a bathtub or sink, I find that it’s usually hair. 

    Water backs up behind the obstruction, resulting in a slow-draining bathroom sink or overflowing toilet. Unless a plunger does the trick, you need to be able to reach the material and manually remove it.

    With a reach of 25 to 50 feet, a drain snake allows you to do just that. The coiled wire rotates as you move it through the pipe, allowing the corkscrew end to drill through the material or grab onto the object.

    As that happens, the drain snake either breaks up the material enough to flow through the pipe unhindered or drags it up to the surface where you can throw it away. In my experience, clearing the blockage often takes more than one try, but it’s well worth the effort once the water starts to drain again.

    How to Use Unclog a Toilet With a Drain Snake

    A clogged toilet demands a prompt solution, especially if it’s about to overflow or is the only one in the house. When a plunger doesn’t work — or if you need to retrieve an object that got flushed —  you’ll need to use a closet auger, not a drain snake. Here’s how that works.

    Safety Precautions

    • Always wear protective gear, like rubber gloves and safety goggles.
    • Never use drain cleaners and other chemicals while snaking the drain.
    • Hold the curved end of the auger firmly in the bottom of the toilet to remain in control of the coiled wire.

    Tools & Materials Required

    When unclogging a toilet with a closet or toilet auger, you will need:

    • Toilet auger
    • Rubber gloves
    • Safety goggles


    Step 1. Guide the toilet auger cable into position

    Put on your gloves and safety goggles. Fully extend the handle to pull the corkscrew end of the cable up to the mouth of the tube. Then, insert the curved end of the tube into the drain at the bottom of the toilet bowl.

    Step 2. Crank the auger to clear the blockage

    While holding the tube steady, turn the crank while pushing down to work the coiled wire through the toilet drain. Work slowly to keep the wire from twisting or turning back on itself. Crank the opposite way if you feel like it’s stuck, and then go back to cranking the wire out until it’s fully extended.

    Step 3. Pull the coiled wire out of the toilet

    Pull the auger handle straight up to remove the coiled wire from the toilet. Check the coiled end for any objects you need to throw away. Flush to see if the blockage is gone. If not, repeat the process until it is. If the clog is further down the pipe, you may need to go through the cleanout instead to remove it. 

    Today’s Homeowner Tips

    If your toilet starts overflowing, turn off the water immediately. Try turning the knobs at the back of the toilet first. If that doesn’t work, use the main shutoff valve. If you don’t know where that is, locate it ASAP to ensure you’re prepared to respond quickly in an emergency.

    How to Use Unclog a Sink With a Drain Snake

    Sink drain clogs develop slowly, causing the water to drain at a trickle before fully backing up. As soon as you notice the issue, it’s wise to get out the drain snake and clear the obstruction. Here’s how.

    Safety Precautions

    • Wear your safety goggles and rubber gloves to stay clean and avoid injuries.
    • Bring your patience and go slowly to avoid causing the auger cable to turn back on itself.
    • Skip the drain cleaners and other chemicals if you’re going to be snaking the drain.  

    Tools & Materials Required

    When clearing a sink blockage, you will need:

    • Handheld or heavy-duty drain snake
    • Tongue-and-groove pliers 
    • Safety goggles
    • Rubber gloves
    • Basin


    Step 1. Plan your approach

    When clearing clogs in the sink, either go directly through the drain or work from the bottom by removing the P-trap. Although it’s an extra step, removing the P-trap eliminates the need to guide the coiled wire through its tight twists and turns. Either way, be sure to put on your gloves and safety goggles before getting started.

    Step 2. Remove the sink stopper

    If you’re working from above, remove the sink stopper by gently twisting it out. On some sinks, you may need to remove the horizontal rod holding the stopper in place. If that’s the case, go straight to removing the P-trap located below the sink.

    Step 3. Consider disconnecting the P-trap

    Before disconnecting the P-trap, put a basin underneath to catch any water that comes out. After that, turn the slip-nut joints at either side of the sink trap counterclockwise. You may be able to do this by hand, but if it’s stuck, use tongue-and-groove pliers to break the nut loose. 

    Step 4. Snake the sink drain  

    Insert the auger head into the pipe or drain opening. Firmly push the coiled wire into the pipe to get it started. While holding the wire in place, pull the reel about six inches away from the opening. Lock the wire and turn the crank while applying firm pressure to feed the cable into the pipe. Unlock the wire, pull back about six inches again, lock, and crank until you reach the end of the cable. Repeat until you’ve fully extended the wire. 

    Step 5. Remove the drain snake and repeat

    Gently pull the plumbing snake backward out of the pipe while cranking the coiled wire back onto the reel. Remove any debris that comes up with the cable and corkscrew end. If you think the blockage remains, repeat the snaking process until it’s clear. Then, reassemble your sink and pour water down the drain to confirm you cleared the blockage. 

    Today’s Homeowner Tips

    Basic handheld drain snakes can effectively clear most clogs about 20 feet down the pipe or less. If you have a blockage any further than that, the heavy-duty drain cleaning machine with a 50-foot cable is the way to go. Although a motorized drain-clearing machine is much more expensive, it can save you in the long run if your home frequently develops stubborn clogs.

    What Are the Different Types of Drain Snakes?

    You have three different types of drain snakes to consider when unclogging the sinks and toilets in your home. Selecting the right one for the job is key to clearing the pipes fast and without causing damage.  

    Handheld Drain Snake

    The handheld auger is a must-have tool to have in your household. Usually under $25, this budget-friendly tool helps you quickly eliminate minor clogs, especially if you get the drill attachment model. As an added bonus, it stores away easily without taking up much space.

    Image Source: Canva

    Closet Auger or Toilet Auger

    Drain snakes are much too abrasive to use in toilets. That’s why you need a closet auger. This specialized tool does the same job as a regular plumber’s snake but without scratching or chipping the porcelain. It’s also the tool of choice when you need to grab an object out of the toilet’s drain pipes, not push the clog through. 

    Image Source: Home Depot

    Heavy-Duty Drain Cleaning Machine

    The heavy-duty drain cleaning machine is not necessary for every household, but it’s been a lifesaver in my mid-century home. At 50 feet long, the ½-inch coiled wire can reach clogs that form deep in all types of plumbing pipes. And its powerful motor makes quick work of even the most stubborn clogs. Unlike the handheld model, this tool takes up a lot of room, but the wheeled cart allows me to move it around with ease.

    Image Source: Adobe Images

    Which Types of Clogs Require Drain Snakes?

    With a drain snake in hand, you have the power to eliminate all the most common types of clogs, such as:  

    • Hair: Strands and clumps of hair tangle together in the bathroom drain and slow or completely block the flow of water.
    • Food debris: Leftover pieces of food rinsed down the drain accumulate and create a clog.
    • Cooking grease: Solidified fats, like bacon grease, narrow pipes and eventually block the entire passageway.   
    • Soap scum: Soap leaves behind a thick residue on the inner drainpipe surfaces, creating a blockage.
    • Objects: Toys flushed down the toilet, butter knives dropped down the kitchen sink drain, and other objects can all clog the pipes.

    When Should You Not Use a Drain Snake?

    Despite the sheer utility of a drain snake, it’s not for every scenario. You may need more extensive repairs or professional help when:  

    • Trying to unclog side sewer pipes blocked by tree roots
    • Working with old, fragile pipes prone to breakage
    • You’ve used chemical drain cleaners recently
    • You cannot push the coiled wire through the clog
    • Repeated attempts to remove the blockage don’t work
    • You’re not comfortable attempting to clear the drain yourself

    How Can You Be Careful When Using a Drain Snake?

    Although a drain snake is a relatively safe tool, you should still take the proper precautions to avoid injuries and damage to your home. For starters, wear protective gear like rubber gloves and safety glasses, even when using handheld plumber’s snakes. Also, choose the right tool for the job instead of using one auger for every clog type and location.

    Beyond that, work slowly and use gentle pressure to prevent the coiled wire from snapping back at you. Take breaks to assess your progress and see if you need to revise your approach. Don’t be afraid to call a plumber for help as soon as you feel it’s time to throw in the towel.

    7 Tips to Prevent Clogged Drains

    You cannot prevent all clogs, but there are some things you can do to make them less likely to happen, like:  

    • Avoid letting any grease, fats, or oils wash down the drain or install a grease trap.
    • Throw away big food scraps instead of letting the garbage disposal handle them.
    • Put strainers and screens in all your sinks and bathtubs to catch big particles before they wash down the drain.
    • Run water for a minute or so after finishing dishes or getting out of the shower.
    • Only flush waste and toilet paper down into the sewer line or septic tank
    • Keep the bathroom door closed to prevent kids from flushing toys and other items.
    • Snake your drains when water flow starts to slow instead of waiting until the buildup creates a full blockage.  

    When Should You Call a Plumber for Clogged Drains?

    Now that you know how to use a drain snake, you can expertly deploy this tool whenever your drains slow to a crawl. Well, almost anytime, that is. Keep in mind the scenarios in which it’s best to avoid snaking the drain as you encounter each clog, like when tree roots block drainage. That way, you’re prepared to call a professional plumber when necessary.

    As with any home improvement project, remember to get multiple quotes to save money on plumbing services without compromising on quality. Although it might take a little extra time, it’ll help you hire an experienced plumber with confidence that you’ll get the highest quality of service at an affordable price.

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    Match with a plumbing expert to help you with installation or repair.

    FAQs about Drain Snakes

    How long should a drain snake be?

    A handheld snake has a 25-foot-long coiled wire, which is plenty long enough for most household clogs. A heavy-duty drain cleaning machine has a 50-foot reach if you need to go even further down the pipe to clear the blockage.

    Can I use a drain snake with a drill?

    You can use a drain snake with a drill if you buy one with a power drill attachment. The small rod on the back of the tool fits into the chuck and turns the reel. You can then use the drill instead of the hand crank to feed the coiled wire into the pipe.

    How do I clean a drain snake after use?

    After every use, you should clean the drain auger by completely unwinding the coiled wire and wiping it down with a wet rag. If that doesn’t get it clean, soak the snake cable in hot water for 10 minutes and scrub it until all the dirt and grime comes off. After that, thoroughly dry the cable before winding it back up.

    Are drain snakes safe?

    When appropriately used, drain snakes are very safe. There is a risk of the cable twisting back on itself and snapping back at you. Work slowly to keep that from happening, and make sure you’re always wearing your rubber gloves and safety goggles.

    Editorial Contributors
    avatar for Marie Abendroth

    Marie Abendroth

    Marie Abendroth is a former home improvement professional who now focuses on writing articles that help people care for their homes like a boss. Her maintenance must-dos, DIY tricks, and other insider info promise to help make your home the envy of the neighborhood. Whenever she gets a free moment, she loves frolicking with her farm dogs, playing with RC cars, and relaxing in the garden.

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    photo of Andrew Dunn

    Andrew Dunn

    Senior Editor

    Andrew Dunn is a veteran journalist with more than 15 years of experience reporting and editing for local and national publications, including The Charlotte Observer and Business North Carolina magazine. His work has been recognized numerous times by the N.C. Press Association and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He is also a former general contractor with experience with cabinetry, finish carpentry and general home improvement and repair. Andrew earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as a certificate in business journalism. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.

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