How to Unclog a Kitchen Sink, Naturally

Dear Home-Ec 101,

Is there a “green” way to unclog the kitchen sink? I really hate having to use heavy drain cleaning chemicals. Thanks!
I have used boiling water (2 pots full) then the drain cleaner set 10= minutes followed by a pot of boiling water again.

Signed,
Clogged in Closter

Heather says:

Depending on the location and the severity of the clog in your kitchen sink, I can say yes, there are green ways to unclog your drain. However, there is a trade off. You’re going to have to be willing to deal with some nasty kitchen funk, but with improved kitchen drain habits, hopefully you’ll never have to deal with it again.

Why do kitchen sinks clog?

Image is in the public domain due to expired copyright in Norway.

Every drain in your home has what’s called a trap. This trap not only serves to hopefully catch mistakenly dropped objects (actually that’s not their primary function) they serve to create a water seal that keeps noxious (and dangerous) sewer gases from entering your home. Not all traps look like the one pictured to the right, but they do all serve the same purpose.

Even if your kitchen sink only has one drain with garbage disposal, it still has a water seal, beyond the disposal unit.

But Heather, I asked about unclogging my sink, why all this talk about water seals and traps?

The trap’s function also makes it the most typical place for a clog to occur. Please note that I say it’s the most typical clog point, tree roots can also cause problems further down the line, but in that case,  you’ll usually notice problems in several drains.

If the clog is caused by food matter settling in the trap and slowing down water flow, a sink plunger is your go-to.

This article: How to Use a Plunger explains how to unclog a sink drain, as well as your usual toilet clogs.

Grease that has been poured down the sink has often cooled enough by this point that it clings to the walls of the pipe narrowing the drain. Caustic drain cleaners work by breaking down the organic matter, boiling water works by melting the grease and hopefully moving it far enough down the line where it no longer causes a problem.

If the caustic cleaners or boiling water only partially removes the clog, you’ll notice the problem reoccurs over and over. It’s like those cholesterol commercials where they show the scary plaque buildup in your arteries -only your pipes don’t get inflamed and bulge. If your pipes are inflamed, you have problems beyond the Home-Ec 101 scope of authority. You need a professional plumber and perhaps a priest¹ or shaman.

However, standard grease build up can be handled on your own, without chemicals.

How to unclog a grease clogged kitchen sink

Get a bucket, place it under the trap. Loosen the nuts that are before and after the trap. Sometimes they are only hand tightened, but you may need a large set of pliers. You need to be careful not to use TOO much force with PVC or you risk cracking the pipe.

When the nuts are loose², carefully remove the trap. Now clean it thoroughly with hot water (from another sink, I didn’t have to tell you that, right?) and a bottle brush or an old rag. This greasy funk is going to SMELL, you probably want to do this outside.

The trap usually connects to another section of pipe known as the trap arm. This is the section that goes from the trap toward the wall. Carefully remove this section and thoroughly clean it, if at all possible.

If your sink is a double sink, there will be a third section of pipe to address, this one will come from the second drain and probably join the pipe descending from the main drain just above the trap. Remove this section carefully and clean it, too.

Before reassembling your plumbing, check to make sure the threads are clean on each end of your pipe sections. The nut that holds the pipe in place must be able to tighten securely to prevent leaks. If there is any debris or you don’t tighten the nuts correctly, say you cross-thread it instead of twisting smoothly-  you may find yourself with a leak.

You now have two chemical free ways to clear kitchen sink clogs.

Prevent Future Clogs and Slow Drains in the Kitchen Sink

Do not use your disposal unit to process pasta, rice, or chunks of potato. These tend to form gluey masses that love clinging to your trap.

Do not discard any grease in your sink.

When food has been rinsed down the drain, always follow with plenty of very hot water.

Good Luck!

¹With apologies to Fr. Ed, although I’m pretty sure he knows I’m only teasing.
² Too easy.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks! :)

  2. KeterMagick says:

    You also can try enzymatic drain openers. They are as green as it gets. http://www.dogpile.com/info.dogpl/search/web?q=enzyme+drain+opener I pour Rid-X enzyme down all of the drains (sinks, tub, shower, toilets) once a month before going to bed and have had only two clogs in 10 years. Both of those were HIS fault, so guess who got to snake out the pipe? ;o) Look up the terms “drain snake” and “blow bag” (they are only nasty in the sense that all plumbing is kinda nasty) for more nonchemical ways to clear a drain.

    • KeterMagick says:

      And another item for preventive maintenance: consider buying screen wire drain covers for your problem drains. I use them on both sides of the sink (to catch food particles and keep stuff from accidentally falling into the disposal) and in the shower (to catch hair). It’s easy to just dump the contents into the trash and not have stuff that could cause a clog go in there in the first place.

    • HeatherSolos says:

      @KeterMagick I hate using a snake. The last time I had to use one was a horrible week in which the entire family had contracted a parasite from the local waterpark. I’m certainly not too proud to snake out a drain, but I may have flashbacks. ;)

  3. Once I cleared a clog that wouldn’t budge by listening to my grandfather. He’d been the manager AND maintenance manager of a couple trailer parks, and knew how to fix all kinds of things. He happened to call when I was in the middle of this clogged drain debacle, and he asked me if I had a hand-held hair dryer.

    I was like o.O Yeah….so? He said to make sure there was no water anywhere that I would electrocute myself, then plug it in and aim the hottest air possible at the trap. Within a couple minutes, it worked.

    After that, it’s the first thing I try every time. Doesn’t always work, but it’s so easy that it’s worth a shot!

    • Thank you so much for the hairdryer tip!!! I would never ever have thought to dry that and it worked like a charm! Cleared our drain within 5 minutes!!!

  4. We had a memorable ‘first Thanksgiving with a garbage disposal’ several years ago. Did not realize that sweet potato skins would clog up the drain when put in the disposal. Ended up with the kitchen sink on pieces on the floor while my grandfathers argued over the proper way to fix it.
    Tree roots in pipes are a nightmare. My neighbor recently had to dig up his entire front yard to repair pipes that had been broken by tree roots. Cost about $20,000. I’m sure everyone has seen the ads about ‘call before you dig’ so you don’t hit gas or electric lines. Might also be a good idea to determine where pipes are, I recently discovered that when my neighbor replaced his fence 3 years ago, one of the new posts was put in my main drain line from the house to the city sewer. What should have been a 6 inch pipe was about 1/4 inch. Three years of waste was packed into that baby and eventually backed it up enough that when you flushed the toilet, sewer water came into the shower & bathtub. Good times.

    • KeterMagick says:

      @bookchick I actually put almost nothing down the disposal now…I use the wire screen to catch everything and put it into the trash or the composting. I have a septic tank, so limiting what goes into it lengthens the time between expensive service calls. The drain field on it is both TINY and shallow due to bedrock, so I have to be exceptionally careful with it. I was worried about the pecan trees that grow too close to it, but they have turned out to be a big help, actually. A recent plumbing disaster (brought on by a catastrophic overpressurization of the city water system that blew out the pressure regulator) had me replacing all of the supply pipes including the one from the meter to the house. When I dug it up, I found that the dope smokers (literally) who built the place laid the supply line in between the septic laterals. Yes, EWWWW. So I relocated it, but I also got a good look at the laterals. The pecan tree roots are all through the drain field, just below the laterals, and don’t actually go into the laterals, which is ideal, and after 30 years of use, the drain filed soil looks and smells like soil anywhere else on the property and had plenty of earthworms (their sanctuary in this time of extreme drought)! Natural biofiltering FTW!

      • @KeterMagick I’m surprised you even have a disposal with the septic tank. My parents are on septic and when they built the house the plumber told them not to bother with a disposal because there was so little you could put down without causing issues in the tank.

        • KeterMagick says:

          @bookchick The disposal came with the house, and I run it about every other day just to clear the drain after washing dishes. I don’t actively put anything down it, but some small food particles do get down there. I run ice through it once a week to clean it. The Rid-X bacteria do a good job of digesting these small solids.

          I grew up in a house with a septic tank, and we had a disposal there, too. My folks didn’t use it correctly, so it was always needing to be pumped out, and their drain field was gummed up with grease and had to be dug out. When I bought this place, I called a fellow out to inspect the tank and he gave me the directions to take care of it. I haven’t had a single problem with it and have only had cleaned out for preventive maintenance twice in 10 years, and it was in good shape both times.

  5. Celery is also a disposal no-no. Anything that is long and stringy or may become long and stringy as it decomposes can cause major drain problems.

  6. I made a heap of apple cobblers with my roommate and her little sister. The little sister (who was in college, btw) was cleaning up and asked what to do with all the apple skins. My roommate said to put them in the garbage disposal. The little sister crammed them ALLL down there and then wondered why it wasn’t working properly. Luckily, we had a mini plunger that took care of the problem, but we were kinda freaked out for a minute before we realized what had happened.

  7. lol – this is so good and so true! Sinks are our friends but we do abuse them every day, I promise to be more careful so I don’t have to climb underneath and expose it’s innards again – ever!

    http://2muchfun-livingwell.blogspot.com/