For a month, it’s been taking longer and longer for the water to drain from my bathroom sink. This morning the murky water is just standing there, not budging and defying my commands to exit my world and travel into the hidden plumbing pipes. I tried to pull out the stopper, but it only comes up so high and stops. I’m sure if I could pull it out, I’d solve the problem.
Do you think I can get the drain unclogged? Do I have to use toxic chemicals? Do I have to take apart the sink trap?
— Teresia M., Orlando, Fla.
There’s a really good chance I’m going to save you some sweet moolah. All you need is one tool. I’m hoping you have simple, adjustable pliers in your toolbox. This tool will allow you to remove the nut and lever arm that’s holding the sink stopper in place. I doubt you’ll have to take apart the P-trap under the sink. Many people fear this part of the drain line as it always leaks when they reassemble it.
I’ve been a master plumber for nearly 40 years and have unclogged countless drains. Some plumbers specialize in this service. In your case, since the slow drain problem has surfaced in a month’s time, I suspect your clog is just a mass of hair hung up on the bottom of the sink stopper where it attaches to the lever arm that operates the stopper.
There are all sorts of gizmos and magic tools that claim they can unclog sink drains without removing the stopper. I’ve tried them and it’s like going fishing. You may catch a fish and you may not. The different tools have varying levels of success.
What I like about taking out the stopper is that it usually takes only two extra minutes to do this, and then you have full access to the drain pipe as it leaves the bottom of the sink. Once the stopper is out of the way you can use a flashlight to really see what’s going on.
For you to remove the stopper, and the gross hunk of hair and stuff-I-prefer-not-to-tell-you-about, you need to unscrew a small round nut that’s on the backside of the vertical tailpiece drain pipe that’s at the base of the sink. Before you start this, you’re going to have to get the standing water out of the sink.
If you happen to have a wet-dry vacuum, use it. If you don’t, use a sponge and a bucket. Use rubber gloves to keep your hands dry. The vacuum does a great job because it often can get the water that’s in the vertical drain pipe, too.
Once the water is out of the sink, lie on your back and look up at the underside of the sink. You’ll see a short metal rod that is sticking out of the back of the drain pipe. This rod is linked to the knob at your faucet that makes the sink stopper go up and down. When you unscrew the nut that’s surrounding this rod, it will be easy to pull the rod from the drain pipe. Do this and just let it hang. Some small amount of water may come from the pipe, so be prepared to catch it with an old rag.
You can now remove the stopper. Be prepared to be grossed out. There could be a massive slimy hairball attached to it. The stopper assembly will be black with mold and biofilm. If you have any cuts or sores on your hands, you really should wear rubber gloves. You don’t want this gross stuff touching any open cuts, wounds or sores.
If you want to test to see if the sink drains really well without the stopper, hair and gunk in place, you need to re-install the metal rod and the nut. For this test, you can hand-tighten it; I do this all the time. Turn on the water to the sink, and it should flow readily down the drain, never backing up.
If you’re satisfied that the sink is draining well, you may want to do one more thing before you put the stopper back in place. If you have a bottle brush with a diameter slightly larger than the diameter of the sink drain, I’d recommend you turn on the water to the sink and use the brush to clean the side walls of the vertical tailpiece drainpipe. Any biofilm on this pipe can cause odors and you might as well get it clean now with the stopper out.
Drain-cleaning chemicals can be harsh on plumbing fixtures and on you. If you or someone tried to use the liquid cleaners and the stew is still in the sink, do not get this liquid on your skin or in your eyes. You must carefully remove and dispose of this toxic brew outdoors before you start to take apart the drain.
If you live in a house built before 1970, there’s a good chance you might have galvanized iron pipe as the branch arm drain line to the sink. Over time, these pipes tend to build up hard deposits that completely choke off the pipe.
If this is what you’re faced with, you may have to replace that horizontal pipe between the sink and the vertical plumbing stack that connects to the building drain under your slab or your basement floor. This is a job for a professional.
Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his
Web site at www.askthebuilder.com.