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How to prevent clogs in your plumbing

This type of inexpensive strainer can collect food particles with ease. (Tim Carter/TNS)

The inspiration for this column came from two different friends of mine who live in Los Angeles but who don’t know each other. Yet they do know I’m a master plumber, so each got in touch with an interesting tidbit on a favorite topic: drains.

The first was from my best friend Steve, who received a mailer from a local plumber advertising a high-pressure drain-cleaning service. The other was from my friend Alex, a contractor, who tunes in to my live-streaming video every weekday. He sent me a photo of a clogged two-inch kitchen drain stack with this comment: “I have a client that kept snaking their drains and was reluctant to change out the pipe. He wanted to know why he had to call a plumber to come out each month. I looked at years of plumbing bills and told him, ‘Congratulations, you put this fine plumber’s child through college.’ ”

The photo Alex sent me showed the stack completely clogged with black organic debris. No wonder the pipe had to be snaked each month to get the sink to drain.

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All of this misery and expense is preventable! Allow me to share decades of experience, so you can avoid having clogged drains in your home.

First and foremost, the only thing that should flow through the plumbing drains in your home is water, human waste and tiny particles of solid food. Note that I didn’t say that toilet paper is okay. Some people in other parts of the world think the use of toilet paper is actually somewhat unsanitary and unacceptable, so they just use water.

I find it shocking that major U.S. plumbing fixture manufacturers don’t heavily promote bidets. You should watch the flushable wipes video on my website to see how high-quality toilet paper doesn’t break down much at all as it travels through your pipes.

Grease is one of the worst things you can put down your drains, as Alex’s client has discovered. Although you can liquefy it and seemingly emulsify it by mixing in liquid dish soap with the grease in the pan, the grease will eventually coat the inside of the pipes. This grease can capture larger food particles and rapidly choke off the drain line.

The way to deal with grease is simple. If you use paper towels for light cleaning or to dry your hands, put these wet or damp towels aside and allow them to dry. Use these to sop up warm liquid grease in your pots and pans. Wipe off greasy plates and bowls with these used towels, then throw them in the garbage. Your goal is to minimize the amount of grease you put in your drain system.

Never put feminine hygiene products or flushable wipes in a toilet. These are absolutely unacceptable in a septic system, and it’s not a good idea if you’re on a city sewer. All of these should be placed in a sanitary waste can, which should have a plastic liner and lid. Post a sign in the bathroom, so guests use the can for disposal.

Purchase a drop-in stainless-steel screened strainer that fits in the basket strainer of your kitchen sink. These simple and affordable devices collect food particles with ease. Once the strainer starts to fill, remove it and dump the waste in your garbage can.

Do you use a garbage disposal in your kitchen, thinking it’s the answer? It’s not, because most homeowners have never been trained on how to use one and prevent clogs. If you want to see what a garbage disposal creates, get out your blender and a clear blender jar. Put your food scraps in it, add a little water, turn it on and look at the sludge left behind.

If all of this sludge is not transported to the septic tank or city sewer, it can start to coat the sides of the drain pipes and choke them off over time. If you insist on using your disposal, then keep the sink water running for 30 seconds after you turn off the machine. Better yet, after you turn off the water, pour two gallons of water as fast as possible into the sink to flush the sidewalls of the horizontal branch drain arm in the wall and the vertical drain stack that services the kitchen sink.

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If you can, pour about 15 gallons of very hot water down your kitchen sink once a month. You want to pour this heated water into the sink as fast as possible, being careful not to burn yourself. The idea is to put so much water into the pipes that the tubing under the sink and the horizontal branch arm in the wall behind the sink completely fill with hot water. This will dissolve any grease from the sides and top of the pipes, keeping them as open as possible.

Each week, pour 10 or even 15 gallons of cold water into your toilet as fast as possible. (Do this with a helper if you can.) Your goal is to create a type of flash flood in your bathroom drain pipe and stack, as well as your main building drain — much like how Mother Nature keeps creeks and streambeds clean of accumulated debris with an occasional flood. This massive surge of water in the pipes goes a long way in keeping them wide open.

Subscribe to Tim’s free newsletter at askthebuilder.com. Tim now does live streams Monday to Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern at youtube.com/askthebuilder.

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