Understanding Drain Blockages: Causes and Solutions

Drain blockages range in severity from slowly draining sinks to complete blockages that resist all attempts at home remedy. The frustration of a partially or completely clogged drain is always a hassle and if left unfixed, or fixed incorrectly, can sometimes lead to costly repairs.

This article outlines the most common causes of clogged drains, how to best avoid them, and the steps to take if you find yourself faced with this problem. Don’t hesitate to contact a professional if you have any concerns – DIY repairs can lead to further damage if done incorrectly!

14 Common Causes of Clogged Drains

1. Food Waste

Dumping leftover food scraps in the sink without proper disposal can easily lead to blockages. Certain types of food waste, like eggshells and coffee grounds can quickly form stubborn drain clogs.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by using a strainer and not dumping large amounts of food into the kitchen sink.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Moderate risk, especially if food disposal practices are neglected.

2. Mineral Buildup

Hard water often leaves mineral deposits that can gradually obstruct the flow.

  • Avoidable? Somewhat, by using water softeners or regularly cleaning deposits.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: High risk in areas with hard water.

3. Hair

Hair, especially in bathroom drains, can clump together, causing a blockage over time. Other hair-like objects, like dental floss, should never be intentionally allowed to enter your drainage system.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by using drain guards in showers and bathroom sinks.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: High risk in bathrooms.

4. Soap Scum

Soap residue combined with minerals in the water can form a hard residue known as soap scum, which can block drains.

  • Avoidable? Somewhat, by using soap that doesn’t react with hard water, using water soften, or routinely performing drain cleanings.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Moderate risk, more in areas with hard water.

5. Debris and Dirt

Accumulation of general debris and dirt can slowly clog drains, particularly in outdoor settings.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by keeping outdoor drains clear and covered.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Moderate risk, especially in exposed outdoor areas.

6. Tree Roots

Tree roots can infiltrate drain pipes, causing significant blockages.

  • Avoidable? Somewhat, by planting trees away from drain lines.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Low to moderate risk, but can be severe if it occurs.

7. Wipes, Paper Towels, and Diapers

Flushing items like wipes, paper towels, and diapers can cause immediate blockages in toilets and sewer lines. This includes facial cleaner wipes, cotton balls, and cotton swabs too!

  • Avoidable? Yes, by never flushing them down toilets – even if they are labeled as flushable.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: High risk if flushed.
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8. Feminine Hygiene Products

Tampons and pads are designed to absorb liquid and never should be flushed down the toilet as they can create significant clogs.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by never flushing them down toilets.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: High risk if flushed.

9. Fat, Oil, and Grease

These substances can solidify in pipes, leading to stubborn blockages.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by never pouring them down sinks. Always pour oils into a disposable container and throw it away in the trash.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: High risk if poured into drains.

10. Cat Litter

While a convenient way to dispose of pet waste, even flushable cat litter can cause blockages over time.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by never flushing it down toilets, even if labeled flushable.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Moderate to high risk if flushed.

11. Small Objects

Accidental dropping of small objects into drains can lead to immediate blockages. Small children are frequent culprits for this clog: curiosity + small toys = big clogs!

  • Avoidable? Often, by being cautious around open drains.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Low to moderate risk, but immediate blockage if it occurs.

12. Offset Pipes

Misaligned or damaged pipes can cause blockages by impeding the flow of water.

  • Avoidable? Somewhat, through proper installation and annual maintenance/inspections.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Low risk, but serious if it occurs.

13. Plants and Leaves

Outdoor drains can become blocked by plant growth or accumulated leaves.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by keeping outdoor drains clear and using drain guards.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Moderate risk, especially in autumn or in very leafy areas.

14. Toilet Paper Buildup

Excessive toilet paper can lead to clogs, especially if the pipes are already partially obstructed.

  • Avoidable? Yes, by not using excessive amounts and ensuring a proper flush.
  • Clog Risk Assessment: Low to moderate risk, depending on use.

What Should I Do If My Drain is Clogged?

Check the Garbage Disposal:

First and foremost, ensure that your disposal system is not jammed or clogged. Sometimes, small objects like utensils or hard food particles can obstruct the mechanism. Turn off the disposal system, then carefully check for foreign objects, using a flashlight if necessary. Most garbage disposals can be manually spun by attaching an Allen-wrench to their base. The wrench is normally included with the disposal at time of purchase, but if it has been lost they are typically sized for standard ¼-inch Allen wrenches. Rotate the disposal back and forth to clear any blockages.

If your disposal does not run, its thermal protection may have tripped. Look for a small button at the base of your disposal and press it to reset it. If your disposal still does not work, you may need a replacement.

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Get Out the Plunger:

A plunger can be used to loosen minor clogs. Place the plunger over the drain and press down firmly to create a tight seal. By rapidly pressing and pulling the plunger, you can often dislodge any blockages, such as soap scum or food deposits. It may take several attempts, but this is a quick and environmentally friendly way to address minor blockages.

We recommend getting a dedicated plunger for sinks and tubs for two reasons:

  1. Toilet plungers actually have a different design than sink plungers. Toilet plungers have a flange which helps them get a better seal against the bottom of your toilet bowl, while sink drain plungers have flat bases.
  2. Your toilet plunger comes into contact with human waste and is best kept far from your kitchen and bathroom sink!

Clear the Trap:

Check and clean the trap under the sink for blockages. The trap is the U-shaped pipe that holds a small amount of water to prevent sewer gasses and foul odors from entering your home. Over time, debris and clogs can build up here.

Drain traps are often designed in such a way that removal can be done without any tools. Simply place a bucket under the trap to catch any spillage, then unscrew the trap and remove the obstruction. Make sure to replace the trap carefully, using caution to avoid cross-threading. To ensure re-installation was successful, let water flow through your sink for several seconds while watching for any drips.

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Use a Drain Snake:

A drain snake, also known as a drain auger, is helpful for breaking through more stubborn clogs. This hand-held tool consists of a drum which contains a long, flexible cable that can navigate the twists and turns of a drain.

Note: We do not recommend powered drain augers for DIY repairs. Used improperly, these tools will damage your pipes!

By manually turning the handle on the drum the cable is extended into your drain. This helps you break through clogs that are further down the line, like deep accumulations of grease or other sticky substances. It’s more effective than a plunger, but also requires more care in use to avoid potential damage to the pipes.

Skip the Liquid Drain Cleaner

In our experience, liquid drain cleaners have caused more problems than they’ve fixed and we always advise our customers to avoid them. These clog-busting chemicals are extremely corrosive, with the intention being that they will dissolve the clog. However, this only works on certain types of clogs! Many common clogs will be left completely unaffected by liquid drain cleaner – except now your pipe is filled with dangerous chemicals!

If the only problem with liquid drain cleaners was that they are ineffective, it wouldn’t be a problem to use them. However, they can damage pipes and lead to far greater plumbing issues than the original problem. Not only that, but the solutions are dangerous and can cause severe chemical burns and respiratory problems. Your best bet is to just avoid them!

Call a Professional:

For persistent or severe blockages, it’s often wise to call a professional plumber. They have the expertise, tools, and knowledge to diagnose and fix the problem without risking further damage to your plumbing system. While it may seem more expensive than handling the issue yourself, a professional will ensure the job is done right and will probably save you money and frustration in the long run.

Even if you’ve taken preliminary steps, a plumber can provide a thorough inspection to make sure that no underlying issues remain unaddressed.

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Navigating the Murky Waters of Drain Blockages

Understanding the causes of drain blockages and knowing the appropriate solutions can significantly reduce the stress and costs associated with this common issue. By being mindful of what goes down the drain and knowing how to handle minor blockages, you can keep your drains flowing freely.

For more serious issues, don’t hesitate to call a professional. Remember, prevention is often the best remedy, so be aware of what you put down your drains to avoid these plumbing problems in the first place.