plumbers grand rapids mi

09 Nov. 18

To Open or to Clean the Drain, that is the Question

Have you ever tried eating pudding out of the packet with a spoon or a straw, and then get frustrated because you realize that you cannot have it all? Of course you have. Everyone faces this dilemma at least once in their lifetime, whether it be pudding, ice-cream, baked beans, or peanut butter etc. The spoon is a great tool to get the majority of the food to your mouth, but not necessarily the best tool to thoroughly clean the bowl, cup or dish, not to mention the access can also limit your thoroughness. The last part of the process involves water, a cleaning agent (dish soap) and a brush or a sponge that can adapt to different contours. After that, only then is the dish and/or container restored to its original state and ready to accept another serving.

Just like the example above, it is your DWV (Drainage, Waste, and Vent) System. It is not an if, it is a when will my DWV system need to be opened/cleaned and how? It may be years of accumulated buildup, roots, sand, abuse, grease, etc. The good news is, there are several ways to go about this. Let’s review the options, and get a good understanding of the equipment and how it works.

Clean the Drain

  1. Chemical Drain Openers/Cleaners
    1. Often use harsh chemicals to open the drain, the chemicals generally create heat, and get to the blockage by being heavier that the water itself.
    2. Often settle at the bottom portion of the blockage, and generally does not clean the whole circumference of the pipe.
    3. Can also be harmful to the pipes you are trying to open.
    4. Often a temporary solution
    5. As a professional, not recommended
  2. Plunger
    1. Pressurizes the drain by compressing the air from between the blockage and the plunger. Added pressure can then dislodge the blockage. If there is an open atmospheric vent inbetween, it will not allow pressure to build.
    2. Most useful on isolated toilet clogs, minor kitchen sink, tub/shower, lav, and floor drains.
    3. Plungers are means of creating an opening for flow to be restored, but do not clean the pipe.
    4. Can cause leaks at wax/gaskets of toilets if the blockage is beyond the toilet, also in tubular traps that have weak seals.
    5. Often a temporary solution
    6. As a professional, not a preferred solution
  3. Blow Bag
    1. Uses the incoming water supply to fill up a bladder that fits inside of the pipe and swells to seal it off. It will assert as much pressure(PSI) on the blockage as provided from the supply that is serving it.
    2. Most useful on isolated drains with soft blockages that do not have multiple branches or a vent tying into where the pressure could easily be relieved.
    3. A blow bag can dislodge a blockage and allow water to flow, but does not necessarily clean the drain.
    4. Often a temporary solution
    5. As a professional, not a preferred solution


  1. Cable
    1. Uses a rotating cable with a cutter/blade on the end to open, retrieve and clean to a degree. Although the cutter spins at a decent rate, it will often bind, lag, and skip portions of the drain.
    2. It is an effective drain opener, many times used on root blockages, fabric (wipes) like clogs, mortar/concrete, cast iron, mineral build-up, hard grease, the lead before the detailing.
    3. Is good for retrieving foreign objects
    4. It is a better drain opener than it is a drain cleaner.
    5. Some equipment can be extended for longer lengths but can lose its effectiveness in doing so.
    6. Access can limit the effectiveness of it. There are situations where one could get an expanding cutter and/or chain on it to assist the cleaning process. However, it is often more time consuming being used as a cleaner.
  2. Milling Machines
    1. Originally designed for drain lining prep and reinstatements.
    2. Effective drain opener and cleaner. Spins at very high RPMS. Internal rotating cable is less hazardous.
    3. Limited in length
    4. It can be used in tandem with camera equipment.
  3. High-Pressure Water Jets
    1. The standard for efficiency and effectiveness.
    2. Open, clean, and flush all in one shot. Uses high-pressure water and engineered nozzles to spray and clean the full circumference of the pipe.
    3. Preferred method of professionals
    4. It can cut through roots, hard deposits of grease, scale, and mineral build-up.
    5. Not generally limited by access or length of the drain.
    6. It can be used in tandem with camera equipment to validating real-time cleaning.

Several things to think/ask about before approaching each drain problem are

  1. What is the purpose of this drain, and what fixture(s) does it serve?
  2. Does this drain rely on gravity, or is it forced through a pump?
  3. Sewer, septic, branch, bathroom group, shower, storm, does it pass through a backwater valve or a separator, etc?
  4. Is it a heavily used public drain, or is it a lightly used private drain?
  5. Abuse?
  6. Age?
  7. Pipe Material? Length?
  8. Is it a common penetrable drain or considered impenetrable? Possibly roots, water infiltration, sand/dirt infiltration, separation?
  9. What has Changed? Fats, Oils, Grease, hand soaps, hair can slowly accumulate over the years and effect drains and vents.
  10. Has it happened before and do you know what was caused it?


Once some of those questions are answered, a professional can make a more educated analysis of the situation and prescribe the appropriate equipment to effectively open and clean the drain if necessary. That having been said, the best analysis is a camera inspection. It gives fact vs speculation, which is always the best approach. The goal should always be to restore the drain back to its original clean new installation state. So, to open or to clean, I say both if that is what the line requires to restore it to its original state.

Pro Tip:


It is best practice to verify the cleaning with a follow up camera inspection. Without it you can only speculate on the condition and performance of the drain.