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Plumbing woes

Sam Bauman
Appeal Staff Writer
Photos by Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal Water is drained from the pipes to allow the plumber easier access to the drain and to check for clogs.
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Got a sink that’s plugged up?

You’ve got some options, try to clear it yourself or call a plumber. Here’s a recent episode that called for both the try-it-yourselfer and finally the plumber.

What you can do first is take a drain snake – there are many at modest prices on the market – and remove the cleaning stuff stored under that sink and unscrew the plug that closes the drain line that goes to the main line.

That may be a problem as wrenches often don’t fit in the confined space. One tool that seems to work well is a pair of pliers that expand to the size of the plug. Be prepared for a gush of water from the plugged line; keep a bucket close at hand.

Then run the wire snake into the pipe. You’ll have to twist and turn the long, flexible wire to get it around bends. Finally, you may bump up against the obstruction – grease, a rag, whatever. Or you may not bump up against anything. Or you may not have gone deep enough.

So pull out the snake, screw the plug back in and turn on the water. If the water gurgles away happily, congratulations.

Run the dishwasher and make sure it drains as well. Then congratulate yourself. You’ve probably saved $300 or more.

If the drain still backs up, you’ve obviously still got a problem, so you repair to the Yellow Pages and blindly pick a plumber.

Here’s a case history of a plugged sink in Carson City – mine.

On Monday, the homeowner tried the first step with a 15-foot snake after the dishwasher gushed dirty water into the sink, which didn’t drain.

I got the plug unscrewed after many tries. I ran in the snake and twisted the cable, closed it up and ran water into the sink. Water spouted up and didn’t drain.

On Tuesday, I tried again with a snake that attached to an electric drill. Got all 25 feet into the pipe, but same result as Monday.

On Wednesday and Thursday lived with the plugged sink drain which did empty overnight, but the dishwasher still created a geyser.

On Friday, I called a plumbing firm. Two plumbers showed up. First thing they did was run a 50-foot snake tied to an electric motor into the drain. Lots of thrashing around, but the sink didn’t drain. Plastic pipes connected to sink drain were taken apart, nothing there. The garbage disposal was removed and examined.

“There’s the problem,” one said. “Get a new one.” The two packed up and left with the disposal dangling, the drain unconnected. Homeowner got a new, matching disposal, $72. Having been told it was easy to replace the old disposal I tried, but didn’t have the skills.

I called the company again and another man came that evening. He hooked up the disposal, charge was $150. However, shortly after he left, the sink bubbled up again. But it did drain overnight.

One week later, with the dishwasher spewing water all over the kitchen, I called the company again.

On Friday a plumber arrived. He warned that no plumbing company will guarantee that a cleaned drain will stay open.

He opened the pipe under the sink and ran the snake in again – all 50 feet of it. He did find a piece of plastic that could be the problem – but wasn’t.

Sink still didn’t drain.

He climbed on the roof, ran the snake into the drain from a pipe there. He then turned on the hot water and let it run for 30 minutes as the sink seemed to drain well. The he tried the dishwasher; no Old Faithful this time.

“Problem was grease had built up in the pipes,” said the plumber. “It may clog up again.”

Homeowner protested that he didn’t put grease in the drain.

“Everything has grease in it,” said the plumber. “Food, vegetables. Soap doesn’t always emulsify the grease. So a problem can come again tomorrow. I’ve found everything from diapers to paper money in drains. People don’t seem to care.”

His bill: $121.50. Total for job, $370, plus $72 for an unneeded new disposal.

“No more of anything other than soap and water in this drain,” vowed this poorer homeowner.

How to keep a drain open:

Taking a few precautions when using sinks or tubs can keep the problem from re-occurring.

• Keep the perforated cup in the sink drain to catch small debris.

• Occasionally pour baking soda and vinegar into the drain. It keeps odors down and helps clear the pipes.

• Try to avoid using the disposal as much as possible. Sluggish drains can be an agitating problem.

• To keep kitchen drains clear, flush daily with scalding water. For grease buildup, dissolve one pound washing soda in three gallons of boiling water and pour down the drain. To avoid burns from boiling water, hold water container close to drain and pour slowly and directly into drain. For heavy buildup, use a commercial drain opener – carefully.

• In sinks or tubs where hair is washed, use a plastic or metal “hair catcher” or screen to catch hair before it gets into the drain.

• Do not pour grease down kitchen drains; pour liquid grease from cooking into empty tin cans and set in refrigerator until solidified; put can into tightly closed plastic bag, wrap in newspapers, and put into trash bag.

If you have a slow emptying drain problem, many times the problem is hair and soap curds caught in the pipes. Check first to be sure all the other drains in the house are working.

• If a regular stopper is used, the hair is probably caught in the drain pipe just below the stopper. Take the stopper out and clean it.

• Use a plunger which applies pressure first and then suction to the plugged drain. To provide the suction and pressure, smear a good layer of petroleum jelly on the edge of the rubber stopper. Then plug the overflow with a wet rag so the air will not short circuit through the overflow pipe. Pump the plunger to loosen the stoppage. If this loosens the plug, rinse the drain with hot soapy water

• Take a piece of wire (a regular hair pin, bobby pin, or thin coat hanger), put a very short bend on one end, maybe 1/4″ or less. If the piece of wire is very short, bend the other end so you can hold onto the wire and turn it without dropping it. Work the hair back out of the drain. This may take patience until it is all out.

• After all the hair has been removed, flush several cups of hot water down the drain.

• And pray.