What is a blocked drain?

When we talk about blocked drains, we’re referring to a group of plumbing problems. These may include:

  • blocked kitchen sink
  • blocked bathroom sink
  • blocked laundry sink
  • sink draining very slowly
  • blocked shower drain
  • blocked toilet or toilet overflow
  • blocked outside drain
  • gully trap overflow

So, it’s not just a clogged sink or toilet. A blocked drain essentially means a block in the way the water is draining from your property – whether that’s the kitchen, bathroom, laundry, etc, and it can be the sink, shower, washtub, etc. We refer to it all collectively as blocked drains.

A blocked drain is a huge hassle and inconvenience. Not only does it mean you can’t use your kitchen or bathroom sink until the blockage is cleared, but a blocked drain may also cause damage to your property if it happens regularly. To get your drain unblocked professionally, we recommend that you get in touch with our drain unblockers.

A blocked or clogged drain means that water and waste are not flowing from your house to the sewage system properly. No one wants that.

Your first clue that you have a blocked drain is often the obvious sight of water not running down the drain properly. If your sink is filling with water and not draining properly, something is clogging the drain. You may also notice a bad smell coming from your plumbing, which might indicate wasted is clogged in the pipes. 

What causes a blocked drain?

Knowing what causes a blocked drain is useful in preventing your drains from blocking in the first place. The most common cause of a clogged drain is substances being washed down the sink that shouldn’t be.

These might include excess food, grease or oil, tissues. People often think they can wash just about anything down the kitchen sink. That’s not the case – even if you have a waste disposal unit like an InSinkErator®.

Blocked drains can also be caused by things being washed down the sink in the bathroom that shouldn’t be there. This often includes dental floss, hair/hairballs, contact lenses, tissues.

These things don’t break down in the water, so they gradually accumulate and create blockages in the pipes. These blockages then turn into blocks in the drains.

The best ways to prevent drain blockages like these are to:

  • Avoid washing anything down the bathroom sink other than water, soap, toothpaste.
  • Read the instruction manual for your waste disposal unit in the kitchen to make sure you’re using it as the manufacturer recommends. This includes knowing what you shouldn’t put down the waste disposer and knowing how much water to use with it.

Health risks and hazards caused by a blocked drain

As well as being smelly and a nuisance, a blocked drain can also be a health hazard and the cause of health risks in your home. That is because drains are actually quite unhygienic and loaded with germs. Think about what you wash down the sink, shower or drain.

We wash down the drain dirt from our clothes and shoes, dirt from our hands and bodies, bodily fluids, toothpaste from our mouths, bacteria from cutlery that has been in our mouths … on the list goes on. In addition, when we put food scraps down the sink into the waste disposal unit, we’re creating a breeding ground for bacteria if we don’t wash it all down thoroughly.

All of that is completely normal and usually safe. Where the possibility for health risks comes in is when that dirty water doesn’t go down the pipes fully or when our hands come into contact with any of the bacteria present or the dirty water.

When your drain is blocked, there is a high chance that grey water will come back up and you’ll come into contact with it. Even worse, if your toilet backs up and overflows, you run a high risk of coming into contact with water full of bacteria, germs and viruses.

Bacteria grows and multiplies in moist areas, so any water sitting in blocked drains or sewage pipes may harbour things like Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. Coli or Staphylococcus. Bacteria from raw meat is often found in a sink, and traces of faecal matter are often detected in showers and sinks.

So it’s important to not only wash your sink and shower areas thoroughly, it’s also essential to make sure your drains are clearing effectively to reduce the risk of these bacteria spreading and causing you to get sick.

There is also the theory that some bacteria can become airborne and affect the air quality (not just the water quality) of a home. In these instances, people with asthma, hay fever, eczema and allergies triggered by air quality may suffer worse symptoms when there are blocked drains.

How do you unclog a drain? 

If your drain is blocked because you have accidentally dropped something down the drain that shouldn’t be there, you’ll want to get the item out. This might include a small metal object that’s done down the kitchen sink (perhaps a pull tab from a can). Or it might be a piece of jewellery that’s slipped out of your fingers and fallen down the bathroom sink.

For starters, it’s best to make sure your sinks have proper guards on them to prevent items like these from falling down the drain. But if something slips through the cracks, there are a few things you can do to try to dislodge the item and unclog the drain:

  1. Don’t run the water. The last thing you want to do is force the item even further down the pipes.
  2. Grab a small plunger. It pays to have a smaller sink plunger on hand, rather than having to use your toilet plunger, but either will work. Cover the drain opening with the plunger and start gently, push and pull. The plunger works by sucking and pushing air through the pipe, which will hopefully push and pull the substance blocking the pipe, eventually dislodging it. You may hear a gurgle or a small rush of water once the block is released.
  3. If you’ve dropped something down the drain that you want to retrieve, like a piece of jewellery, don’t use the plunger method. As this may push the item further down the drain and into the sewage pipes. Instead, look under the sink, and you’ll see the main drainage pipe that curves into the shape of a P or a J. This is called the trap or the P-trap because its purpose is to trap water before it exits temporarily. This trapped water provides a seal so that wastewater, sewage backflow, and gases from the sewage system don’t flow back up through your pipes and into your home. The water in the trap is replaced every time you use the sink. The handy thing about the trap is that this is usually where substances that cause a sink blockage get trapped.

Place a bucket underneath the trap and check if there is a clean-out plug near the bottom of the trap. If there isn’t a clean-out plug, you will need to disassemble the trap to check for any trapped substance. Slowly unscrew the bottom pipe section and allow the water to drip into the bucket. Use a small utensil or tool (a teaspoon will do) to clear out any substances in the bottom of the trap.

You might read about “natural” methods of unclogging a drain that includes concoctions of baking soda, vinegar, boiling water, etc. We’re not a fan of this DIY approach. Drains are usually blocked because there is too much waste in the pipes (tissues, hair, grease), so adding more stuff to the clog isn’t going to help break it down.

Think about it, if you have a fur ball from your pet, does adding baking soda and water make it dissolve? No. Similarly, running water often isn’t strong enough to push a blockage down and out. You need suction and air for that, which is why a plunger may work.

The best way to unclog a blocked drain

The best way to unclog a blocked drain is to prevent it from happening. It starts with knowing what you can and cannot wash down the sink. Learn to recognise what a healthy drain sounds and smells like. At the earliest sign of a blockage, get on to it. Either try the steps above or get a plumber in early to have a look.

We have an Auckland emergency plumbing team available 24/7 who can help with your blocked drain – and a range of other emergency plumbing services. Give us a call on 0800 437 021, and we will determine whether an emergency plumber needs to be sent out straight away.