15 Common Causes and Tips of a Clogged Drain

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Posted October 4, 2019

With the number of American plumbers climbing to well over 500,000 in 2019, you can bet you’re not the only one experiencing plumbing issues. Your immediate reaction when water starts filling your shower or sink is probably to assume it’s due to jumbles of hair in your drain. Surprisingly, hair is far from the only common culprit that causes blocked-up pipes.  These 15 common causes of a clogged drain may surprise you. Fortunately, we have some helpful tips for handling them.

1. Scum, Soap Scum

We’re not talking low-lives, we’re talking scum that builds up in your drain from soap residue.

It can be shocking to many homeowners to discover that their pipes have been backed-up because of the type of soap they are using.

This is most likely to happen for individuals who use bar soaps. While they may smell good or come in fun colors and designs, bar soaps often leave a thin film behind on both your hands and your pipes.

This resulting scum builds up over weeks and months, effectively stopping the flow of water in and out of your drains.

The best remedy for this? Switch soaps.

Not only do liquid soaps flow more easily through your plumbing, but they also don’t create scum on your bathroom counters or showers. If you’re a bar soap user, you’ve probably had a few close calls when you’ve slipped on that soapy scum while standing in the shower.

Prevent bathroom injuries and nasty clogs. Toss the bar soap.

If you are too attached to your beautiful bar soaps, just be sure to perform regular drain cleanings to keep your water flowing freely and prevent blockage.

2. Food Oil, Grease, and Fats

Having a garbage disposal doesn’t mean you can just put anything down it. When you’re tired from a long day and you don’t feel like doing the dishes, it’s tempting to dump everything down the drain.

Resist the urge!

Here are just a few things you should NEVER put down a kitchen sink:

  • Eggshells
  • Large chunks of food
  • Fats leftover from cooked meats like bacon and hamburger
  • Large fruit peels like banana or oranges
  • Cooking oil

This can be tricky to remember for many reasons.

As we said, you may think that because you have a garbage disposal, food items will just wash down the drain. While it’s true that your garbage disposal is capable of breaking up many small food particles, it’s still best practice to scrape leftovers into the garbage can.

Do you work with common cooking oils and fats often?

Beware, fats and oils are often liquid when you are disposing of them. It may seem fine to dump them in their liquid form along with some hot water. The problem is, once fats and oils enter the drain, they often harden.

As fats and oils change back into their solid form, they clump in your drain and cause water flow to cease.

Preventing this is easy.

Simply pour your leftover cooking oils and fats into a melt-proof container. Once the fat/oil has hardened again, you can use a paper towel to wipe the container clean.

Then just toss the fat/oil-covered towel into the garbage and voila! No more mess and no clogged drains.

3. Hair

When it’s this common, we can’t do without a nod to the drain clogging culprit of all culprits–hair.

Long hair is especially good at tangling in your drains and getting stuck. Still, curly hair is a common cause, as is short hair. Over time, even men’s short hair can lead to plugged-up pipes.

Many people will recommend using a product like Draino to remove the clogs. While this may be effective for some minor hair-clogs, sometimes even Draino simply doesn’t cut it and you may need to consult a professional to remove the clog.

Head this problem off by buying a drain cover to place over your drains. These are found in just about any hardware store. They are small wire covers that are inexpensive and easy to throw out when they become covered with hair.

It’s a much less costly solution than having to replace pipes or buy large jugs of harsh chemicals to pour down and clear the clog.

4. Tissues and Kleenex

Got a runny nose? By all means, use all the tissue you need. It’s easier on your skin than most toilet papers and an essential come flu season.

But please, don’t flush the stuff down the toilet.

Just because you got the extra-soft, lotion-lined, tissues doesn’t mean it’s meant to go down your drains. Unlike toilet paper, tissue papers are made differently and woven together in different ways.

Most toilet papers are made to come apart easily when they become very wet and are flushed down the toilet. Tissues and Kleenex can clog your toilets when flushed down in bunches.

No secret solution here. Just put your used tissues in the garbage can.

5. Paper Towels and Napkins

Just like with tissues and Kleenex, paper towels and paper napkins are not meant for the toilet.

We’ve all been there, it’s 2 am and you’re completely out of toilet paper in the house. The question at that hour is, “Do I wipe with a paper towel, or not?”

You may think that softer, lighter, paper napkin could be a good toilet paper substitute. It’s not as thick as the paper towel, right?


Don’t do it. Don’t you do it…

Paper towels and paper napkins are way too thick to put down a toilet without causing issues. Sorry folks. You’re just going to have to figure something else out. Good luck!

6. Feminine Products

If you’ve made it past 6th grade without someone telling you it’s a bad idea to flush used feminine products down the toilet, it’s time to learn.

If paper towels and tissues are too thick for toilets, feminine products are a definite no-no.

Products like tampons, that are literally made to expand when exposed to moisture, are especially deadly to your drains.

Follow the usage directions on the box for disposing of feminine products. But never put them down yours or anyone else’s toilet. It will be a nasty problem for you and your poor plumber if you do.

If it’s too late, and this is a mistake you’ve already made, no judgments. Now you know. Just be sure to call a plumbing specialist right away to make sure your clog doesn’t cause more severe damage like leaks.

7. Debris and Dirt

If you’re coming in from a day on the farm, an especially muddy soccer game, or an afternoon pulling weeds, be sure to shake off the dirt outside. Not in the shower.

Of course, there will be some dirt that cannot be removed without soap and water. This is to be expected.

But when you allow large amounts of dirt and debris to flow down your shower drain, you’re just asking for a clog.

One of the sneaky things about dirt is that you may not realize that small pebbles or weeds are tangled inside those clots of mud.

When showering and rinsing that dirt down the drain, those large items can flow in and build up in your pipes. Pebbles and other items could not only clog your drain but cause scratching and damage to the interiors.

When in doubt, get rid of as much dirt and debris somewhere other than your shower or bathtub.

clogged drain plunger

8. Toilet Paper

Wait, …what? Yes, it’s unfortunate but true. Even toilet paper can sometimes cause a clogged toilet.

When flushed in large amounts or clumps, toilet paper has a hard time breaking down in your toilet bowl and drain.

Combine those large wads of toilet paper with sewage trying to go down and you’re going to have an overflowing toilet. It’s not a pretty picture.

You can save yourself some plumbing problems and do your part at being green by using less toilet paper. Try to be conservative in the amount you use. Most brands of toilet paper are very absorbent. A little can go a long way and still keep you dry.

Don’t pull off more than you need and definitely don’t flush more than seems reasonable.

If you need to, flush twice to prevent a clogged toilet.

9. Foreign Objects

Anyone who has children probably knows that foreign objects make their way into all kinds of crazy places in your home. Sinks, toilets, and drains are no different.

Foreign objects that can clog your drains could be anything from a stray Lego to a bouncy ball. Even your poor, deceased goldfish could potentially cause drainage problems.

Some effective ways for preventing this include:

a. Educate your children. Teach them what the toilet is used for, and what it is not. Help them understand that flushing objects, (aside from toilet paper), down the toilet, can lead to serious problems.

b. Again, buy the drain covers. At the very least, they can protect your sinks, showers, and bathtub drains from having small toys or other foreign objects from running down with the water.

10. Tree Roots

It’s crazy to think about, but even tiny leaks in your pipes underground can draw thirsty tree roots. Once those roots find a water source, it’s not long before they start growing inside your pipes.

This can be one of the most costly causes of drain problems.

It often leads to pipe damage. If tree roots take up residence in your pipes, your water flow will cease and you’ll probably need rooter service.

You may even need excavation, trench-less repair, and pressure jet cleaning.

All of this can be avoided by taking good care of your pipes and drains. Be mindful of where your drains run when planting trees and shrubs. Avoid planting things in areas that could overlap with pipes.

Be careful not to put anything down your drains that could result in leaks and cracks.

11. Minerals

One of the most common causes of clogged drains is actually caused by the minerals in the water. Hard water is full of minerals that build up and easily prevent drainage in your pipes.

The best solution is to have a water softener installed in your home.

If you are not able to do this, find a regular time to remove the buildup and descale. The more often you clean the mineral buildup out, the easier it will be. The unfortunate truth is, the longer your pipes and drains go without cleaning, the harder it is to remove the clog.

Good cleaning habits will go a long way in protecting your pipes and drains from problems.

12. Toothpaste Scum

It may take a lot of toothpaste scum to really clog your bathroom sink, but in combination with everything else slipping down your drain, it’s not uncommon.

Toothpaste scum is sticky and thick. If not rinsed down the drain thoroughly, it can trap other drain-clogging items like hair.

Toothpaste is similar to bar soap in that it creates a thick film inside your sink and drain. Just be sure to wash your toothpaste down with plenty of water each time you rinse.

Clean your sink and drain regularly to prevent film.

13. Makeup and Cosmetic Debris

Powders, blushes, foundations, you name it. When makeup gets washed down the drain, it often stays there.

If you or someone in your home uses lots of powdery cosmetics, try to avoid rinsing them down your sinks. Just like with toothpaste, even if the powders don’t clog your drain by themselves, they act as a net to trap other items in the drain.

If spills occur, wipe off your sinks and counters instead of washing makeup down the drain.

14. Cotton Balls

You use them for just about everything–except, (hopefully), as a toilet paper replacement. The rule of thumb is, if it’s not toilet paper, don’t flush it.

This rule applies to cotton balls as well.

Even if the package says they are toilet disposable, don’t flush them. Cotton balls are similar to feminine products in that they absorb water and expand. They are excellent drain-cloggers.

15. Baby Wipes

Most baby wipe boxes are clearly labeled and say right on the front “do not flush.” And so to that warning, we can add very little.

Baby wipes are intended to be wrapped up inside the soiled diaper, and thrown out. In the garbage can, not down your toilet.

For the Persistently Clogged Drain

The fact is, this list could become endless. A clogged drain can occur in countless ways. But, with proper care, you can enjoy fully functioning drains and pipes for years.

For those persistently clogged drains or more serious plumbing issues, request an appointment today. Otherwise, do as the saying goes, “Keep calm and drain on.”

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