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How to Clean Buildup From Drain Pipes

Updated February 21, 2017

An accumulation of gunk and waste in drain pipes cripples a plumbing system and renders sinks, toilets and tubs useless. When faced with build-up in drain pipes, many homeowners panic, call a plumber and fork over substantial amounts of cash to clear up the problems. The truth is that there is no reason to panic--most build-up can be removed from drain pipes using simple methods and basic tools. If you're willing to do the work yourself, you can save money and keep your drain pipes healthy.

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Find the "clean-out" nearest to the build-up. A clean-out is a drain pipe fitting that features a threaded, removable plug. Clean-outs branch away from main drain lines. Their plugs, once removed, allow access to the interior of the drain system. Plumbers install clean-outs around the exterior of a building's perimeter, in basements or behind access panels. To locate the clean-out, look behind access panels on your home's interior and exterior or look for pipes protruding from the structure's walls. Clean-out plugs typically feature protruding, square knobs for tightening and loosening using a wrench.

Remove the clean-out's plug. Attach a wrench to the clean-out plug's knob and twist counterclockwise to loosen.

Feed a sewer snake through the clean-out and into the drain pipe. A sewer snake is a length of flexible, coiled metal contained inside a drum that is rotated using a handle. A thick, metal corkscrew at the end of the coil pierces, twists into and removes build-up from a pipe's interior. To feed the snake's coil into a pipe, simply pull the coiled metal from the drum and push it into the clean-out's opening. Continue to pull the line from the drum and force it into the clean-out's opening until you encounter the blockage or build-up.

Hold the line as you force it forward to determine whether you are encountering a turn or build-up. A pipe stops the line abruptly, whereas build-up yields slightly to the line. If the snake snags on a tight twist or turn in the drain pipe, pull the line back, twist the drum's handle and force the line forward again. Repeat until the line circumvents the snag. If you are encountering build-up, force the line forward again while turning the handle. The twisting and pushing will bore into the build-up, catch it on the snake's end and allow you to pull it free from the drain pipe.

Pull the snake from the drain pipe periodically, clean build-up from its end and reinsert the snake into the pipe. Repeat the twisting, pushing and boring until the snake pushes smoothly through the previously blocked area.

Remove the snake from the drain pipe and reattach the plug to the clean-out. Apply a layer of pipe dope to the plug's threads, place the plug in the clean-out's opening and turn clockwise to tighten. Tighten by hand and then with a 1/8th turn using the wrench.

Run water through the drain system to check whether the build-up remains in the drain pipe.


Rent a mechanically driven sewer snake to reduce the time and effort involved in cleaning drain pipes.


Wear gloves when touching waste from drain pipes.

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Things You'll Need

  • Pipe wrench
  • Sewer snake (also called drain auger)
  • Pipe dope

About the Author

Based in Hawaii, Shane Grey began writing professionally in 2004. He draws on his construction experience to write instructional home and garden articles. In addition to freelance work, Grey has held a position as an in-house copywriter for an online retailer. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in theater arts from Humboldt State University.

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