Here’s how to outsmart a stopped up or slowly draining kitchen sink and banish clogs for good—without calling a pro.
Q: Last night my kitchen sink clogged up while I was in the middle of a load of dirty dishes. By morning, the sink had finally drained, but I certainly don’t want this happening again. Is it a situation I can tackle this myself, or do I need to call a plumber?
A: While a clogged kitchen sink is annoying, most folks can clear up this common problem without a plumber or caustic chemicals. Often, a buildup of food scraps and grunge is to blame for the obstruction. Fat and grease, fibrous foods like celery, starchy stuff such as pasta and potatoes, and even bones can wind up in your kitchen sink accidentally. Although certain food refuse can safely be ground up by a garbage disposal, stubborn scraps and gross goo can eventually stop up a hard-working kitchen sink, so follow this guide to get the drain running again.
Check the garbage disposal.
A clogged kitchen sink with a built-in garbage dipsosal may just have food scraps from last night’s dinner that the unit failed to grind up, in which case running the appliance again could fix the problem. Turn on the tap and switch on the disposal.
If nothing happens when you flip the switch, the disposal’s internal circuit breaker may have tripped due to the clog overloading the motor. Look underneath the unit for a small red button, push it to reset the circuit breaker, and try running the unit again.
If the disposal hums but the blades don’t spin, something is likely jammed in the works. Remove as much standing water as possible into a bucket or bowl and then unplug the garbage disposal (the electrical cord and outlet will be underneath the sink). Shine a flashlight into the disposal and, if you spy an obvious culprit, such as a chicken bone or spoon, use a pair of tongs or plyers to remove it. (Never stick your fingers inside a garbage disposal; those blades are sharp!) Plug the disposal back in, and give it a try.
Problem solved? Great! If not, continue to the following steps.
Try boiling water.
Sometimes, you can melt a partial grease clog using boiling water. Fill a pot or teakettle with water and bring it to a boil. Then carefully pour it directly into the drain. If the water drains easily, you’ve cleared the clog and you can move on to the kitchen sink maintenance tips, below. If not, try the next step once the water has cooled down.
Pick up a plunger.
Plunging will often force a clog down and out of your sink drain. First, if you have a double sink, block the unclogged side with the stopper or a wet rag. For a good seal with the right plunger, you’ll need at least three or four inches of water on the clogged side, so if necessary, run the sink until the water reaches that level. Now, cover the clogged kitchen sink drain with the plunger and vigorously pump up and down for 30 seconds or so. Stop and see if the water easily swirls away, indicating that you’ve cleared the drain. If not, plunge for another 30 seconds. If the clog is still present, try another tactic.
Check the trap.
If the above steps fall short, or you have a double sink with both sides stopped up, there’s a good chance that the clog is located in the trap—the U-shaped portion of your sink’s drainage pipe. Gather a bucket to catch water and a wrench, if necessary, to loosen the fasteners holding the trap in place. Place the bucket underneath the trap, loosen the fasteners with your fingers or wrench, and then remove the trap. Inspect it for blockages, using a coat hanger or similar tool to push the offending mass out of the pipe. Rinse the trap clean in a different sink or with a garden hose, and then replace it in its proper position. Run the faucet and see if the water drains normally. If the clog persists, or there wasn’t any blockage in the trap, continue to the next step.
Send in the snake.
A clog may be lodged even further down than the trap—a job for a drain snake. Also called a sink or plumber’s auger, and available at just about any home improvement center for less than $25, this useful tool cranks by hand, sending a thin “snake” of wire into the plumbing to push through blockages.
Before snaking a drain, place a bucket below the trap to catch water and remove the trap. Then loosen the drain snake’s setscrew and pull out several inches of cable. Feed the cable into the waste line–that’s the part of the pipe that carries waste water away from your home–and then crank the snake clockwise to push the auger deeper into the pipe. If you feel obstructions, slightly pull back, and then continue to crank the snake forward. You’ll know you’ve hit a clog if you first feel resistance, but then feel the snake break through the blockage and become easier to crank forward.
Start to withdraw the snake by cranking its handle counterclockwise. Wipe the gunk off the snake with a rag or paper towels as you pull it out of the pipe. Now, insert the snake into the pipe again and crank it forward. Repeat as many times as necessary until you no longer encounter any resistance.
Reassemble the sink’s trap and turn on the water. If your sink still doesn’t drain, the problem could be further down the plumbing than you can reach with a snake, or caused by a more serious blockage, such as tree roots breaking into the pipes, and the time has come to call a plumber.
Keep your kitchen sink draining properly.
Once you’ve unclogged your drain, keep it open by following these guidelines.
- Leave water running the entire time the garbage disposal is in use, and for several seconds afterward, to thoroughly flush food scraps down the drain.
- Only feed half a cup of scraps into the garbage disposal at a time to avoid overloading its motor. If you don’t have a garbage disposal, toss food scraps into the trash or your compost pile.
- Once a week or so, dissolve buildup inside the pipes by pouring a half-cup of baking soda into the drain and then topping it with half a cup of white vinegar. The baking soda helps absorb odors, the mild acid of the vinegar helps dissolve buildup, and the foaming action of the two combined lifts away food particles and other slimy grunge. Once the foaming stops, flush the drain with hot water to further reduce buildup.
- Whether you have a garbage disposal or not, the following items should go into your trash or compost pile, never into your kitchen drain:
- Coffee grounds, which tend to clump and eventually build up inside the pipes.
- Cooking fat or grease, which coat the inside of the drain and narrow the passageway.
- Starches such as rice, pasta, or potatoes in quantities more than a quarter-cup or so, which turn into a swollen, sticky mess inside the pipes.
- Stringy, fibrous foods such as celery, which can entangle garbage disposal blades.
- Bones, fruit pits, and eggshells, which are hard on a garbage disposal’s blades and don’t easily flush down the sink’s drainpipe.
- Any nonfood items, including paper, cigarette butts, paint, motor oil, hair, and kitty litter, none of which travel easily through plumbing lines.