How to Best Handle Various Drain Clog Types

One contractor runs through the different tools he prefers to use on drain cleaning jobs

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I always start out using a spade cutter if it fits in the cleanout. The spade cutter will open most clogs and has less chance of escaping a broken line because it is a larger tip. It also has less chance of getting stuck inside of a root system because it is a larger blunt object.

Even though the spade is more of a blunt object than a straight auger or a saw tooth cutter, it still has blades that will rip through a clog. Start with a straight auger if the spade cutter won’t fit in your cleanout.

Once you open the drain and can see what is causing the clog, you can go to the customer and explain that they have an issue that requires additional cable time at an additional cost to clear the drain completely. Then you can choose the tip that will clean out the majority of the drain.

Drop Head Auger

The drop head auger is a tip that flops around on a fixed point. In theory, you can drop down into a stack if you open back-to-back fixtures that lead down into one drain pipe. I’ve never had considerable success using this type of head to drop into a clogged line, but it is worth a shot — especially in tiled commercial bathrooms where cutting into the wall is the last resort to access a drain.

Straight Auger

The straight auger is the most common tip for opening a drain, but it is used as an exploration tool to break up a stoppage and open the drain so you can confirm which correct tip can be used to fully unclog the drain. Most technicians use this tip on every drain, followed by a camera. It is probably the most versatile tip because it is the same diameter as the rods themselves, flexible yet strong, and can screw itself into objects and bring them back to help you determine the problem.

For example, if the customer flushes wipes down the drain, the corkscrew tip will snag on the wipes, and when you retrieve the rods, the wipes will come back on the tip. It will also catch onto roots and bring them back. The downside of this tip is how it corkscrews into an extensive root system and can get stuck.

Funnel Auger

The funnel auger is just a larger straight auger used in cases where you’ve punched a small hole through a clogged line but need a larger-diameter corkscrew tip to clear out more area of the drain. Again, this tip can get stuck in an extensive root system, so proceed with caution.

Hook Auger

This tip is used for light root stoppages where the root system is fragile. When the root system is dense but can be easily broken up, this tip will rip them up.

Retrieving Auger

Hopefully, you will never have to use a retrieving auger. This tip has only one purpose: to retrieve sewer cables that are broken or lost in a sewer line.

At some point in your career, the sewer will open, the rods will take off down the line (if using a sectional), or the rods will have a weak point and break in half while in line. If and when this happens, you will have to attach this tip which screws itself into the rods themselves. Then you try to pull the rods out of the sewer line like you are fishing and reeling in the broken rods. Most times, the rods snap because they had a weak point due to age and you ran into a heavy clog, the torque breaking the cable. If this is the case, your odds of retrieving a broken cable are low, but you still need to try. If you cannot retrieve the cable, you will have to give the customer a price to dig up the sewer because there’s an issue significant enough to break a powerful machine.

Spade Cutter

The spade cutter — king of sewer tips — is technically meant to open up floor drains, but you should use this tip as often as possible. It will open nearly every kind of clog, and if you hit roots, it will usually open them. If not, you can feel the machine catching on the roots, in which case you can pull out and put in a root cutter tip. This is the ultimate tip to go down the line first.

Four-Blade Saw Tooth Cutter

If you run into a line that looks like it has a hard, glazed buildup (usually in buildings that use chemicals and cleaners), this tip will slowly chew through and knock off some of that material. It has four serrated blades that will chew through the hard deposits. Drain technicians rarely use this tip, and most will admit that the spade cutter will also knock out deposits. You might also find that glazed chemical deposits are hard as concrete and impossible to remove.

Grease Cutter

You will run into quite a few lines where you run the rods, the line will take the rods easily, but the drain still won’t take water. This usually indicates that the line has heavy grease buildup from kitchen grease or detergent buildup of soap scum. Kitchen grease and soap scum are easily blown out using a jetter, but few drain technicians know that you can also clear grease clogs out with a grease cutter tip.

The angled paddle bit whips up and cuts through grease as you run water into the line. The goal with a grease cutter is to get past the grease clog and slowly pull back on the rods every few feet while running water the entire time. Hot water liquefies grease. However, as it travels down the line, it will massively accumulate as the water cools down. Running cold water chunks up the grease everywhere throughout the line, making it easier to remove. Opening a grease clog with a grease cutter is possible and done routinely by drain technicians. Still, a jetter would usually make short work of this clog.

Spiral Saw Tooth Cutter

This tip is huge and is used to clear out foliage debris such as sticks, roots, and foreign objects like towels and rags. If the tip fits, and that’s what you need to do, it is a worthwhile time investment to try and get this tip down the line. It is advantageous on 4-inch clay lines supporting a downspout system that may have tons of sticks and leaves.

Saw Tooth Cutter

This is the greatest tip for chewing through and removing root systems. You need to go very slow and chew through the root system methodically while running water to flush the knocked-out debris down the drain. This bit is great for roots because it has a circular pattern of saw teeth as you advance to chew roots and a “C” cutter on the backside of the bit that will also tear roots on your exit. However, this tip is also hard to fit down some cleanouts, so try and get in through an untrapped 4-inch cleanout somehow, even if you have to pull a toilet.

Spiral Bar Cutter

This tip is similar to the spiral saw tooth cutter and is excellent for clearing foliage out of a downspout or sewer line.

Sharktooth Cutter

If you use a drum machine, you are familiar with the sharktooth cutter because it is usually attached to the machine when you get it. This tip is in a “C” shape and has serrated edges to help cut through general clogs. It is also wide enough to cover the inside diameter of your average pipe, so it is great for a one-time complete clearing of a pipe. The only downside is that it quickly gets stuck if a pipe breaks underground, and it doesn't always punch a hole through a clog because there is nothing at the tip’s core. It is a tip that cuts like a “C.”

Grease “C” Cutter

The most common way to chew through food waste buildup and kitchen grease. This tip has an entirely different look than the grease cutter but is very similar in how it operates. It uses the “C” to cut and whip through grease as you run water to clear the line.

Expanding Finishing Cutters

These are very rarely used. They are made for “finishing off” a drain cleaning by expanding and reaching the outer layers of the inside diameter of a pipe. Its job is to knock down any loose material that may be lingering on the inside walls.

Chain Knocker

The chain knocker is a crazy-looking tip with small chains that fly inside the pipe, knocking scale buildup around. If you use it to knock around cast iron barnacles, make sure you run plenty of water. Some boiler professionals use it to knock out scale buildup in large boiler tubes.

Flue Brush

As a drain technician, you might never even see one of these tips, but you should know about it. The tip looks like a boiler brush because it is used to finish clearing out boiler tubes and heat exchangers. For example, think of a 1 1/2-inch wire brush to clean copper fittings.


About the author: Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has over two decades of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College.



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