Methods for Entering a Drain System

Methods for Entering a Drain System

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When responding to a drain service call, one of the first things you’ll have to determine is how you’ll be accessing the pipe. Here’s a look at the options.

Entering the drain through an outside cleanout

The ideal position to rod a drain is through an outdoor cleanout. Before you begin, get an idea of how deep the riser pipe is using a tape measure and a flashlight. Take note of how deep the riser pipe is before it starts laterally into the sewer line. If you are using a drum machine, it is less of an issue than it is with a sectional machine. With a sectional machine, such as the RIDGID K-1500, each rod section is 15 feet long. If you have a riser pipe that is 8 feet long, you run the risk of losing the rods. It is a real possibility that when you release the clutch, the rods will take off down the drain, resulting in a retrieval process or, worse yet, an excavation to retrieve your rods. Even if you have a deep cleanout riser pipe, you should connect two 15-foot cables before entering the drain.

Entering the drain through an inside stack cleanout

One of the biggest obstacles to entering a stack cleanout is getting the plug out of the cleanout tee or wye fitting, especially in older buildings. New buildings typically have either ABS or PVC piping with a cleanout plug with a square head so that you can put a pipe wrench on it and screw it out, which reveals access to the drainline.

Older buildings usually have cast iron piping that uses a brass plug that can be very difficult to remove. If you run into a brass cleanout plug housed in a cast iron stack, there are a few different avenues to get it out. First, try to heat it with a propane or MAPP gas torch, and then unscrew it. Sometimes the heat will loosen up the fitting enough that you can remove it.

If none of that works, you have a few options left. Try beating the brass plug into the line carefully; since brass is a very soft metal, it will bend in and loosen up enough for you to pull it out. Make sure you don’t hit it so hard that it enters the drainline. The other thing you can do is drill a hole in the center of the brass plug and carefully use a reciprocating saw to cut a “V” coming very close to but not ruining the female thread of the fittings and then remove it. If that doesn’t work, or you don’t want to take the time to try all of that, you can upsell the customer a stack cleanout replacement before continuing to open the drain.

I suggest starting with a spade tip if it will fit into the cleanout and down the line. If a spade tip doesn’t make the turn heading down the drain, you are left using the straight auger to kick things off. The issue with starting off with a straight auger is severely broken lines or severe root intrusions. If a line is completely broken, a straight auger bit will screw and worm its way into the dirt where the pipe is broken and has the possibility of getting stuck in the line if there is severe root infiltration. The spade tip is too blunt and too large to screw itself into a broken line, and when it tries to start chewing through roots, the machine will bog down to let you know to proceed with catching or pulling the rods and inserting a root cutter.

Entering the drain through a floor drain

A floor drain can be your best friend or worst enemy because of its size. Floor drains are of concern because every floor drain is trapped. Floor drains typically vary from 2-inch pipe diameter to 4-inch diameter for residential services. If the floor drain is 1 1/2 inches or 2 inches in diameter, you should not try to attempt to open the drain through that spot. Your rods will have a tough time making it through that small trap, and even if you do make it through, they will bind up, get stuck, and make for a painstaking day trying to pull them out. If you have a 3-inch or 4-inch floor drain, your odds of being able to snake through the floor drain increase, but you still shouldn’t get comfortable unless you are using smaller-diameter cables. 

If your rods don’t make it down the floor drain, you need to use a “trap leader” — a 2-foot tip extension that is very flexible. Since it will bend to the point that you can touch the two ends of it together, it is perfect for making it through the trap and continuing downstream to attempt a drain opening. The major disadvantage of the trap leader is its strength. If you run into a severe line break or root infiltration and continue to force-feed the rods, the trap leader can snap and break in the line, whereas more rigid rods won’t.

The other way you can force sewer rods into a drain if necessary is to run the rods in reverse while putting more pressure on the rods to push them through. Running the machine in reverse while pushing will usually get you through most 3-inch or 4-inch floor drains.

Last, if you are just there to open the floor drain itself, you can easily do 1 1/2 inches to 4 inches with a K-50 using a 3/8-inch cable and a spade bit.

Most companies will not allow a drain tech to rod from a floor drain because of the risks involved.

Entering the drain through a water closet

Sometimes it makes sense to remove the customer’s toilet, set it to the side, and rod the drain through the opening.

Going through a water closet drain is an excellent way of opening a drain because your access is at least a 3-inch-diameter pipe that is untrapped. Once you open the drain, make sure you run water through the nearby lavatory sink as you are removing the rods. This will verify that the drain is taking water. It will also help flush down any debris left from opening the line, and most importantly, it will clean the sewer rods before they come back into their bale.

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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