Sewer snake, plumber's snake, or drain auger? You must be looking to unclog or clear a drain and wondering, how do you snake a drain? A sewer snake is the tool most commonly reached for when the plunger doesn't get the job done. But is it the best tool for the job?

Why do you need a sewer snake?

The plunger didn't work and the bent metal clothes hanger didn't either. Did you drop something down a drain? Tangled hair in a shower drain? Paper towels or cigarette butts in a toilet? Some kind of globule of cigarette ash, hair, and hair product in a bathroom sink?

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So maybe a friend or neighbor is recommending a hand auger or hand-cranked drain snake from your local home improvement super store. Okay, but the question you must know the answer to is this:

What is blocking the flow of water?

Hair and paper is one thing, but tree roots and calcium deposits are something else entirely. You don't want the sewer snake to do damage, and you want to make sure the complete problem is addressed. By design, a sewer snake may only scrape away enough of the obstruction to allow water to pass through; such as a small whole that will get blocked up again.

A professional plumber will know which tool is the best option for your exact situation- beyond plungers and hand augers. Just some of the tools at a plumber's disposal include:

  • Sewer camera inspections
  • Bio-safe drain cleaners
  • Motorized sewer snakes
  • High-pressure drain cleaners
  • Hydro-jetting machines

Bottom line: a local plumber is the most effective way to find out what is blocking the flow of water, what tool should be used, and if the blockage is completely cleared.

What is a Sewer Snake?

A sewer snake goes by many names, including: drain snake, plumber's snake, drain auger, and hand auger among others. Regardless of the name, it is a long, flexible metal cable with a corkscrew-like drilling device (an auger) at its end that is used for unclogging drains.

NEVER use a sewer snake in a toilet unless it is specifically designed for toilets. The sewer snake you use for a sink or drain will damage the porcelain.

Heavy-Duty Sewer Snakes

Professional drain cleaners, plumbers, and perhaps property managers and some commercial businesses, may have access to heavy-duty sewer snakes, or drum augers. These motorized sewer snakes have various blades for different pipe sizes and can cut through blockages a hand auger cannot, such as tree roots.

How to Use a Sewer Snake

How you snake a drain will depend on the drain. For example, toilets require a specific toilet-designated sewer snake and showers drains should be snaked from the overflow drain, not the floor drain.

In addition to your store-bought sewer snake, you may also want some towels to protect the surrounding area, a bucket for whatever you pull out, and some work gloves to protect your hands from the cable and any waste the cable comes in contact with.

The auger is meant to drill through the blockage or retrieve it- depending on what's actually clogging the drain:

  • Hair
  • Combs
  • Toys
  • Paper
  • Cloth
  • Grease
  • Tree roots
  • Calcium deposits

The key to snaking a drain is to work slowly! With the auger in the drain you will crank the sewer snake's handle, allowing it to work its way through the pipe. When resistance is met, slowly pull the sewer snake back out, removing the clog.

If all goes well, the auger will retrieve the blockage or scrape away and break up the blockage so that it can continue along the pipe through your plumbing system.

Note: In many cases the sewer snake only creates a hole just big enough to allow water to pass through- your unclogged drain will clog again.

Run water through the drain to flush out any of the remaining blockage and to verify the clog is clear.

How to Avoid Needing a Sewer Snake

Maybe the best way to snake a drain is to never need one in the first place. Or maybe once your drain is clear follow these steps to keep from needing one again.

Avoid needing to snake drains and prevent clogged kitchen sinks, bathroom drains, and toilets with these simple tips:

  • Try a plunger first
  • Get routine drain cleaning (every 3, 6, or 12 months depending on household or business) or hydro-jetting from a local plumber
  • Clean bathroom sink drain stoppers often and before they get too clogged up with hair.
  • Don't flush paper towels, or any heavy paper, down the toilet
  • Don't dump grease, oils, and fats in kitchen sinks- pour them in empty coffee cans
  • Speaking of coffee, don't put coffee grounds down your kitchen drain
  • Garbage disposals are not the be-all and end-all solution. Use sparingly and run plenty of cold water when using them
  • About once a week, pour boiling water down the kitchen sink to melt and break up any grease build up
  • If you have septic system, only use chemical drain cleaners that will not kill the bacteria necessary for a properly working septic tank.