Do's and Don'ts for a Clogged Drain

It was the end of our last perfect day in France. A ride on the navettes to St. Tropez, a hike to the top of the citadel, a charming naval museum both husband and wife could enjoy, a front-row seat at the café to watch the racing sailboats dock. Et puis, an exhilarating drive home on the single-lane itinerie touristique, a dinner of poulet, baguette, fromage. Et maintenant, curled up in bed, the Mediterranean wind blowing gently, reading a novel, finishing the rosé

Wompf-WHOMPH, wompf-WHOMPH, wompf-WHOMPH, wompf-WHOMPH. "Come on you bastard!"

Zut alors. Le Handy Maniac…il plonge! (Oh my. The Handy Maniac…he is plunging!)

Friends and family have been known to invite us to stay in their homes, knowing full well that HM cannot leave a problem unfixed. Be forewarned: What you think needs fixing and what he decides needs fixing are seldom the same. Try as you might to convince him that your deck railing should be rebuilt, you are likely to find him lying on your kitchen floor defrosting your freezer to fix the ice maker, or wainscotting your powder room because the floral wallpaper is too overpowering.
I highly doubted that the friend who had loaned us her villa in the south of France did so because her tub needed plunging. But here he was at midnight on our last night, pulling up hairballs.
I wasn’t quite ready to go back to work, but when an opportunity like this presents itself, I have to take advantage. And so, from the comfort of bed, rosé in hand, I posed the important questions to HM:

"What do you do for a clogged drain?"


According to HM, most clogs are within the first foot of a drain. You can easily dislodge them with a plunger.  If you use Drano first and it doesn’t work, then you can’t plunge because you’ll splash chemicals all over yourself. For instance, if your clog is from a plastic razor cover or toothpaste cap, chemicals won’t help. So always start with the old fashioned plunger.

"SOFT DOWN. HARD UP! SOFT DOWN. HARD UP!" he instructs. I giggle. I will not, will not, will NOT make a sex joke. He explains: "Even though you’re plunging, you’re trying to pull the stuff UP. Except for the toilet, where you’re trying to push it down, obviously."

I try not to think about what you are pushing down a toilet as I sip. After all, HM does this at work, and then comes home to me. "What if plunging doesn’t work?"

But we are not done with the plunging portion of the lesson. He emerges from the bathroom, plunger in hand. Is that un peu de frustration on his visage?

"The key to plunging is you have to cover up the vent holes on a sink and the spill-over hole on the drain lever of the tub (the thing that you flip to fill or empty a bath). Otherwise, you’re not doing anything. You need to stick a wet rag in those to block the air holes and increase suction. Also, try to get the stopper out on a bathroom sink – it’s hard to keep it up when you’re plunging. Physically remove it or try to force it open while plunging."

Proper sink plunging technique: Remove stopper, plug vent hole with rag, plunge.

Proper sink plunging technique: Remove stopper, plug vent hole with rag, plunge.

"The biggest challenge is the tub. You have to remove the trip lever with two screws, pull it out, stuff a wet rag inside." According to HM, people don’t realize the trip lever is another drain. So if the tub overfilled, it would go down that trip lever trap. "You better let me see how you write that part," he says.

We decided it warranted some illustration. See below.

I nibble at a piece of fromage. It is very French to eat fromage after dinner.

"Say the plunging doesn’t work. How does the average Joe snake a drain?"

But there is one more thing he wants understood about plunging: "When you start to get all that crud up, be careful not to grind it into the porcelain with your plunging and scratch your surfaces."

Finally: Snaking & Chemicals

If plunging doesn’t work, you can buy a sink or toilet snake at your local hardware joint or big box home improvement store. The instructions are pretty straightforward, but HM laments you will probably get frustrated and scratch the porcelain: "I get called a lot to find a filthy snake on a bathroom floor and a homeowner who has run out of gas."

He pauses. Takes a deep breath. Unsure if he wants to offer this next tidbit. Finally he says, reluctantly: "I’d almost recommend taking a sink trap apart before snaking." Our eyes lock in fear. That sounds advanced to me. So I would suggest you only take that route if you know what "sink trap" and "take apart" mean.

Example of a typical vanity sink trap that can be removed. A.P. level. 

Example of a typical vanity sink trap that can be removed. A.P. level. 

If all else fails, there are chemicals for clogs that are too gnarly or too far down the drain.
Here is the "teach a man to fish" portion of the lesson. HM knows that even if you have read all of his advice about plunging, you are going to reach for that can of Drano at the first sign of a clog.

Here’s why you shouldn’t:

  • Chemicals should be a last resort. NOT THE FIRST THING YOU TRY. I know we already said that, but HM cannot emphasize this enough. A can of chemicals on top of a stubborn clog sits, eating away at your porcelain with nowhere to go.
  • Chemicals work best on slow drains, not clogged drains. A product like Drano can help disintegrate organic material and flush out a slow clog as long as the water is still draining to some degree.
  • Know it’s organic. The clog has to be hair, soap - or food in the kitchen sink. Chemicals will not dissolve chopsticks that have fallen down the kitchen sink.
  • Never use chemicals down the toilet. Plunge, then snake. "That clog will be solid, and sometimes a child’s toy or a bottle of makeup." [sic] ("Bottle of makeup" is HM’s term. I do not use makeup by the bottle. HM’s beauty product vocabulary is as limited as his French. Also, in spite of his claims, do not believe that I have "left eye cream and right eye cream.")

Clog Prevention

We know by now that HM preaches prevention. So what can one do to avoid clogs?
"Seventy-five percent of all clogs are long hair." (According to the National Association of Handy Maniacs.) This is why HM is a big fan of what he calls hair baskets. These catch the offending hairs before they go down the drain and become big gross wads of hair.

Suddenly there is a gurgle and a WHOOSH. The clog has been dislodged. HM turns on the water, rinsing away the dirty water that now flows freely down the drain.

As I drift off to sleep, I have a moment of clarity when HM’s lessons fall into place: Plunge, plunge, plunge. It’s a cleaner way to clear a clog. Snaking and trap deconstruction are advanced and you may want to call in your HM if it comes to that. And don’t use chemicals unless you’ve got a slow-moving drain. (Hee, hee.)

Originally published on,  Friday, October 10th 2014