A plugged-up sink, shower or tub drain sends most people running for either a bottle of caustic drain cleaner or a plumber's phone number. But wait. This could be a job you can do yourself successfully without chemicals or a big bill.
ASSESS THE SITUATION
Turn on other taps to allow water down other drains in the house. If everything else is flowing freely, you can be fairly certain you have a localized clog — and probably near the drain opening. If this involves other drains, you could have a bigger problem that may require a professional. Assuming it's only the one drain, let's move on.
Get a large pot, and boil up as much water as it will hold. (If you are dealing with a porcelain sink and/or PVC pipes, use your hottest tap water, as boiling water could cause damage.) Carefully pour boiling water down the drain slowly, in two to three stages, so the hot water can work for a few minutes in between each pour. This is the easiest and quickest way to unclog a drain, and it usually works with a satisfying swoosh.
Pour 1/2 cup of Dawn detergent into the drain. For tough clogs, use a full cup of detergent.
While that sits, bring a half pot of water (about 4 cups) to boil. Pour this into the drain slowly but steadily to avoid getting burned by splashing water. Run water down the drain to check how freely water flows through.
If the clog remains or seems to be clearing but the drain is still running slowly, repeat until the drain runs free.
BAKING SODA AND VINEGAR
Measure 1/3 cup baking soda, and get as much of it down the drain as you can. Follow with 1/3 cup white vinegar. It will fizz up and make quite a show. Allow it to sit for at least an hour, or overnight if possible. In the morning, follow with a quart or 2 of boiling water. You will be tempted to overdo it with the baking soda and vinegar. Don't.
Remove the strainer that is part of the drain plug, and then reach into the drain with your fingers (latex gloves would be a good idea here) and pull out any solids. As gross as this might be, it is often all that's needed to clear a slow-moving or clogged drain.
If you have one of these, it just might help you clear the drain without having to get your hands dirty. First, set it to "wet" so it vacuums liquids. Cover or close the drain vent. Make the tightest seal you can with the hose end of the vacuum over the drain. Get creative with duct tape or the like. The vacuum set to its most powerful setting can be powerful enough to pull that clog right out of the drain.
No guarantees here, but clearing a clogged drain yourself first is certainly worth a shot!
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.