Lileks: How not to unstop a stopped drain

Lileks: How not to unstop a stopped drain


Q: Can someone shove a tennis ball down a shower drain? A: Apparently so.

Let me back up. One of the more popular boasts on the internet is the COVID-19 home project. Here’s how I spent my quarantine time! “Before” picture: a basement that looks like the bombed ruins from World War II. “After” picture: finished basement with pool and bowling alley.

Those aren’t my pictures, of course. My project: unstopping a shower drain. “Before” picture: standing water that took so long to drain you could binge the entire “Game of Thrones” series. “After” picture: well, let me tell you a story.

The last time I needed to unstop a drain I used a Miracle Wonder Gunk Wand, or whatever it was called. How it was supposed to work: Jam it down the drain, turn it and it routs the pipe as clean as a newborn’s esophagus. How it actually worked: It went 6 inches down the drain and snapped in two. Lucky for me, it came in packs of two, so I had another one to use now.

First step: Remove the drain cover. It was held in place by two screws, the first of which was ruined on contact. Picture someone plunging an electric eggbeater into melted ice cream. What conversation did they have at the company before they made this cheap stuff?

“Hey, boss, what kind of metal should we use for the screw?”

“Hmm. Well, how much would we save if we used cheap metal that stripped the moment you turned the screwdriver?”

“Enough to send the entire executive team to Vegas for a week.”

“Are you sure? They charge now for the really good buffets, you know.”

“OK, six days.”

“Do it.”

Anyway, there’s no way to get the Gunk Wand down the drain. Do we declare defeat and call a plumber? We do not. We proceed directly to the next step, which you are not supposed to do. We get out the chemicals.

I always keep a few bottles of drain cleaner on hand. Well, I keep them in the cupboard; I don’t actually have them in hand, or it would be hard to drive or eat. I always buy the maximum strength, the ones that say, “Dissolves bones or your money back.”

One of the bottles had a chart showing the things it would dissolve; “hair” was not among them. This solution could eat through a battleship, but when it came to hair, it was like a BB bouncing off Kevlar. Great.

The other bottle’s label assured me it laughed at hair clogs. Whether this was a nervous titter, a boastful guffaw or a contemptuous snort of amused disdain, I couldn’t tell. There was a 1-800 number, but I didn’t feel like being on hold for 15 minutes to find out.

Here are the instructions:

Pour the entire bottle down the drain. Wait 15 minutes. Run hot water. Call plumber.

OK, I added that last part, but it should be there. I can’t recall a time when this stuff actually worked. I know that by saying that, I’m asking for it — I’ll get e-mails that insist I should use Caustic Bob’s Murder Granules or some brand that eats through the walls and ceilings.

Anyway, it didn’t work. Now what?

The handymen among you are rolling your eyes as you lecture me: You get out your spin drum and you snake the dad-gum thing. That’ll get anything up. Even Dad Gum, if he tends to spit the chaw down the drain.

I managed to thread the spiral end of the snake through the grate and jammed it down as far as it would go. It seemed to navigate the trap, but who knows what array of pipes lurk down there? It’s like pushing spaghetti through a keyhole in a dark room.

Wherever the snake ended up going, it didn’t work. It was time for a family meeting.

“Which one of you shoved a rolled-up Stephen King novel down the drain?”

Blank looks, then they all shook their heads no.

“It’s a trick question,” I admit. “A Stephen King novel, while thick, is not dense; his work is highly readable. You could say he sacrifices depth and meaning for speedy consumption, but it’s obvious he’s found success with his style. No, this clog is more like a Tolstoy novel or something by Melville. So what was it? ‘Moby Dick?’ ‘Madame Bovary?’ ”

“ ’Madame Bovary’ wasn’t written by Tolstoy or Melville,” my wife said.

Nonetheless, no one confessed. I wish I could give you a happy ending, but we’ll have to wait a week for Part 2. The last thing I want to do is pay good money to a plumber, and since there are legal consequences for paying them bad money, I had to try something else. I ordered a powered drain snake. It has 25 feet of cable. If everything goes well, I’ll murderize the horrid bolus and send it swirling down to ignominy.

If all goes poorly, I’ll push it 26 feet down the pipe and have to pay the pros who have the 30-foot cable.

If anyone asks me what my COVID-19 house project was, I might have an unusual answer.

“Bricked up the shower so we could pretend it was never there.”

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