Home Plumbing How to Use a Plumbing Snake: Your Step-by-Step Guide

How to Use a Plumbing Snake: Your Step-by-Step Guide

by Michael Blount

A clogged drain is one of the most frustrating household plumbing issues. Dirty water backs up, sinks don’t drain properly, and nasty odors permeate your home. Before you reach for harsh chemical drain cleaners, consider using a simple plumbing snake. This inexpensive, easy-to-use tool can clear clogs in sinks, tubs, and other drains. With just a few steps, you can get your water flowing freely again.

What is a Plumbing Snake?

A plumbing snake, also called a drain auger or drain snake, is a coiled metal cable with a twisting handle on one end. The cable is fed into a clogged drain and rotated to grab and break up debris. The snake coils back out, pulling the clog with it.

Plumbing snakes come in different sizes:

  • Sink plumbing snakes are 12 to 25 feet long and 1/4 to 3/8 inches wide. They’re ideal for bathroom and kitchen sink drains.
  • Tub plumbing snakes are 25 to 50 feet long and can handle the longer distance from the drain to the main pipe.
  • Main sewer snakes are 50 to 100 feet long and 3/8 to 1/2 inches wide. They’re designed for basement floor drains tied to the main sewer line.

Benefits of Using a Plumbing Snake

Plumbing snakes offer many benefits over liquid drain cleaners:

  • Safer. Snakes are safer for pipes than chemicals that can corrode pipes.
  • More effective. Snakes can physically remove clogs while cleaners only dissolve some debris.
  • Environmentally friendly. No harsh chemicals poured down drains into waterways.
  • Inexpensive. A plumbing snake costs just $10 to $30 and lasts for years.
  • Easy to use. With a few turns of the handle, anyone can operate a plumbing snake.

Step-by-Step Guide to Using a Plumbing Snake

Using a plumbing snake to clear a clogged drain is straightforward. Follow these steps:

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Before starting, assemble the following:

  • Plumbing snake. Choose the right size for your drain.
  • Gloves. Wear waterproof gloves to protect your hands.
  • Safety glasses. For eye protection from splashing water.
  • Bucket. For catching dirty drain water.
  • Rag. For wiping up messes.
  • Flashlight. To see down the drain.

Step 2: Prepare the Drain

Begin your plumbing snake procedure by preparing the drain:

  • Remove drain cover. Take off any decorative sink drain cover.
  • Check for standing water. Use a cup to remove any standing water in the sink or tub.
  • Inspect the drain. Flashlight down the drain to see if you can spot the clog.
  • Clear away items. Remove everything from under the sink or around the tub drain.

Step 3: Insert the Plumbing Snake

With the drain ready, it’s time to insert the plumbing snake:

  • Lubricate the snake. Coat the first few inches of the snake cable with petroleum jelly or liquid soap. This helps it slide past the drain sides.
  • Feed in the snake. Holding the end of the cable, turn the handle clockwise to feed the snake down into the drain opening. Go slowly to avoid scratching the drain walls.
  • Advance towards clog. Keep turning the handle until you meet resistance. That likely indicates you’ve reached the clog.

Step 4: Loosen the Clog

Once the snake contacts the clog, it’s time to start breaking it up:

  • Turn counterclockwise. With the snake held steady, turn the handle counterclockwise. This will cause the snake coils to scrape against the clog and grab debris.
  • Work the clog loose. Keep turning counterclockwise to agitate and loosen the clog so it can be pulled out.
  • Retract the snake. Pull the snake back towards you, while still turning counterclockwise. The clog debris should get carried back with the cable.

Step 5: Remove the Clog

Almost done! Now, retract the plumbing snake to remove the clog:

  • Withdraw slowly. Continue rotating the handle counterclockwise as you slowly pull the snake out of the drain. Go slowly so debris comes out with it.
  • Check for clog remains. Peer down the drain with a flashlight to see if any pieces of the clog remain stuck. Re-insert the snake if needed.
  • Catch the dirty water. Place the bucket under the drain to collect the dirty water that will flow out along with the clog.

Step 6: Clean Up

You’re finished! Just some final steps to complete the plumbing snake process:

  • Clean the snake. Thoroughly rinse the snake cable with soap and water. Coil it up neatly for next time.
  • Wipe up the area. Use old towels or rags to dry up any water splashed on the floor.
  • Run hot water. Let hot water flow down the drain for a minute to rinse away any remaining gunk.
  • Test the drain. Allow sinks or tubs to fill with water and then drain them completely to confirm the clog is cleared.

Tips for Using a Plumbing Snake

Follow these tips and tricks for the most effective plumbing snake use:

  • Protect floors. Place a towel under sinks and buckets under tub drains to catch drips.
  • Lubricate drains first. Try flushing with hot soapy water or baking soda and vinegar before snaking.
  • Work slowly. Make gentle turns of the handle to avoid scratching pipes or getting the snake cable stuck.
  • Be patient. It can take several minutes of turning to fully dislodge a stubborn clog.
  • Try a back-and-forth technique. Push the snake forward and then pull back to help work through tough clogs.
  • Rest periodically. Give your arm a break if cranking gets tiring. Just don’t leave the snake unattended.
  • Call a professional for basement cleanouts. Only attempt main sewer clogs if you have sink/tub cleaning experience.

Why Choose a Professional Plumber?

While plumbing snakes are safe and easy to operate, some drain clogs require a professional plumber:

  • Multiple clogs. If you clear one clog only to find another farther down the line, it’s time to call a plumber.
  • Frequent clogs. If a drain keeps getting clogged, there’s likely a bigger issue needing repair.
  • Sewer main clogs. Only a professional should snake exterior sewer pipes.
  • No cleanout access. Plumbers have equipment to snake drains through vents on the roof if cleanouts aren’t accessible.
  • Pipe damage. A severe clog may have caused pipes to crack and require replacement.
  • Failure to clear clog. If a stubborn clog beats your DIY efforts, avoid making it worse.

FAQs About Plumbing Snakes

Here are answers to some common questions about using plumbing snakes:

Are plumbing snakes safe for garbage disposals?

Yes, snakes won’t damage the components inside disposals. Just be sure to only insert the snake into the drain port, not down through the disposal unit itself.

What if my drain doesn’t have a removable cover?

You can insert the plumbing snake directly into the drain hole. Be extra careful feeding it through standing water.

Can plumbing snakes get stuck in pipes?

It’s rare but possible. Go slowly and don’t force the snake if you meet a lot of resistance. If it does get stuck, call a plumber to retrieve it.

What causes drain clogs that need a plumbing snake?

Common causes include grease/oil buildup, soap scum, hair, food waste, and tree roots invading exterior pipes.

How can I prevent clogged drains?

  • Use drain screens to catch hair and food particles.
  • Flush drains weekly with boiling water.
  • Limit grease/oil poured down sinks.
  • Use a drain maintainer product monthly.
  • Have pipes inspected for root intrusion or damage.

Can I use a plumbing snake in a toilet?

No, you should not use a standard sink plumbing snake in a toilet drain. Toilets have a wider, curved drain pipe that requires a special closet auger with a straight end. Regular snakes can get tangled in the toilet trap.

What should I do if the plumbing snake gets tangled in the drain?

Don’t pull or force the snake if it gets tangled or stuck. This can damage pipes. Try gently rotating the handle clockwise and counterclockwise to loosen it. If that doesn’t work, call a plumber to safely retrieve the stuck snake.

Why does my plumbing snake keep spinning inside the drain without grabbing the clog?

Most likely there is too much standing water or slippery residue inside the drain. Use a cup to remove excess water before snaking. You can also try lubricating the snake cable so it has better friction against the pipe walls.

Can I use a plumbing snake as a preventive measure if my drain is just running slowly?

Yes, snaking a drain periodically can remove small accumulations of hair and gunk before they form a full clog. It’s quicker and safer than using harsh chemical drain cleaners. Just be careful not to over-snake and damage pipes.

Should I get a hand-crank or electric-powered plumbing snake?

For most residential sinks, a hand-crank snake is sufficient and cheaper. Electric-powered snakes have more torque for handling longer pipes. Buy based on your drain size—bigger drains need more power.


Unclogging a drain with a plumbing snake is an easy, inexpensive DIY task. By following the proper techniques and safety tips, you can clear clogs and get your sinks and tubs draining freely again. Just be ready to call in professional help for severe clogs or complex drain problems. Investing just a few minutes into routine drain maintenance can also prevent annoying clogs from developing in the first place.

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