Drain Cleaning Tool Selection Guide

You might have one tool that you can use for multiple jobs, but using the best tool for the job can save you time and money

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Drain Cleaning Tool Selection Guide
Choosing the best tool for the job will make your job easier and save you time and money.

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You know that the best tool to clear a clogged kitchen sink is very different than the right tool to clear a main drain. But did you know that even though one tool could be used to clear a sink, bathtub and toilet, the best tool is different in each case? 

And while many contractors use the same drain cleaning tool to clear a line clogged by debris and by grease, they really should be using two different tools. If you are using the same tool for both jobs, read on and find out why using the best tool for each job will save you time and money.

Ask the right questions first

There are two primary ways to select the right tool for the job – by asking what type of drain is it, and asking what type of clog is it.  

To determine the proper drain cleaning tool for your application, you must first locate the source of the problem. If the clog is in a small drainline, like the sink, basin or laundry tub, then a hand-held machine or small floor model drain cleaner is the appropriate tool to use. If several drains are affected, the blockage is probably in the larger line common to those drains. If this is the case, a larger floor model drain cleaning machine is the right tool for the job. 

What type of drain is it?

Sinks, Laundry Tubs, Roof Vents

If you are clearing small-diameter drainlines (1 1/4 inches to 3 inches) you can use machines that use smaller diameter cables. Hand-held models that carry 1/4-, 5/16- or 3/8-inch cables are best suited for this application (see Cable Application Chart). The small-diameter cables are flexible enough to get around the tight bends. It is easier on the cables if you remove the P-trap under the sink rather than wrestle your way past it with a snake.

Bathtubs and Showers

The best tool for clearing a clogged or slow-draining tub is a Water Ram. Tubs often drain through drum traps that are very difficult to get through with a cable. The Water Ram uses a burst of compressed air to create a shock wave that follows the path of the water and isn't affected by tight bends and narrow lines. It travels down the line and knocks out the stoppage without harming the pipes. The Water Ram also works well on trailer homes that can be difficult to clear using cables because they have narrow drainlines with tight bends. 

Toilets and Urinals

The best tool for clearing a clogged toilet is the closet auger. No other tool in your arsenal will go through the bowl as quickly and easily. The spring is flexible enough to get through the tight bends in the bowl. Some come with a down head that helps guide the cable around tight bends in older bowls. Most low-flow bowls are easier to get through with a regular spring head.

Consider a telescoping auger. If you’ve ever had to remove a bowl because the stoppage was just beyond it, you’ll know why. The telescoping augers hide an extra 3 feet of cable in the handle. When you need it, just push a button and it slides right out. 

The tight bends of a urinal are particularly vexing. Getting a urinal auger just for this purpose will make your life much easier. But remember, the more flexible the snake, the less durable it usually is.   

Small Floor Drains and Clean-Outs

For clearing 2- to 4-inch drainlines (but not tree roots) you can use a 3/8- or 1/2-inch cable. There are many machines available in this range. Some feature variable-speed power cable feeds to make the job faster. Others offer wheels and folding handles to get to and from the job easier. Choose one that has enough cable capacity for most of the jobs you’ll encounter.

Drum-Type Cable Application Chart
Cable Size Drainline Size Typical Applications
1/4” 1-1/4” to 2” Small lines, tub, and shower drains
5/16” 1-1/2” to 2” Sinks, basins, and small drains
3/8” 2” to 3” Stacks, laundry lines, and small drains
1/2” 3” to 4” Roof stacks and small floor drains (no roots)
5/8” 3” to 6” Floor drains, clean-outs, and tree roots
3/4” 4” to 10” Large drains, long runs, and tree roots
Sectional Cable Application Chart
Cable Size Drainline Size Typical Applications
5/8” 2” to 3” Sinks, stacks, and small drains
7/8” 3” to 4” Mid-size drains and long runs
1-1/4” 3” to 10” Large lines, long runs, and tree roots

Floor Drains and Mainlines 

Heavy-duty machines with large-diameter durable cables are needed to clear tough stoppages and tree roots. A smaller diameter cable does not have the torque needed to cut through roots. Two types of machines are available – drum-type and sectional. Each has advantages.

Advantages of Drum-Type Drain Cleaning Machines

Drum-type machines have the advantage of being self-contained, fast and easy to operate. The entire length of cable is contained in one drum and can be transported in a single trip to the job site. Most machines come with large wheels, stair climbers and a truck loading wheel to make getting the machine to and from the job easier. A variable-speed automatic feed, feeding at a rate of up to 20 feet per minute, makes it easier for the operator to get the cable to the clog quickly. It also helps to retract the cable more easily. A 100-foot cable can weight 100 pounds.

Advantages of Sectional Drain Cleaning Machines

Sectional drain cleaners have the advantage of being lightweight. The cables are carried separately from the machine as 7.5-, 8-, 10- or 15-foot sections. No need to carry the weigh of 100 feet of cable when the job only calls for 50 feet. Once on the job, the cables are fed into the line one section at a time and coupled together as needed. The open coil design of the sectional cable helps corkscrew the cable down the line, making it easier to clear longer runs. And if a sectional cable is ever damaged, it can easily be uncoupled and replaced.    

Advantages of Drum Type Machines Advantages of Sectional Machines
Completely self-contained Lighter weight – Machine and cables carried separately
Cleaner operation with wet cables contained in drum Sectional cable corkscrews into pipe to more easily clear longer lines.
Easier operation with automatic feed Damaged cables will not stop a job; sections can be coupled and uncoupled as needed

What Type of Stoppage is it?

In order to choose the right tool for the job, it is important to know what stoppage you are up against. Both cable machines and high-pressure water jets provide the power needed to clear a stoppage, whether it is grease, sand, ice or heavy stoppages like tree roots. 

Tree Roots

Cable machines, both drum-type and sectional, are the ideal tools to cut and clear tree roots and other difficult obstructions. Use a larger diameter cable that has the torque to cut tree roots (see Cable Application Chart).


For restaurants, factories and institutions where grease clogs are a constant problem, water jets are the tool to use. Jets are ideal for clearing grease, sand, ice and other soft stoppages from drainlines that cable machines have a hard time clearing. Jets use a stream of high-pressure water that hits the stoppage and flushes it away. The thrust of the nozzle drives the hose down the line and gives you wall-to-wall cleaning action (see Water Jets vs. Cable Machines).

Foreign Objects

To retrieve objects, rags, children’s toys, broken cables, etc., cable machines are the best tool to use. Begin by choosing the size of your drainline to find the right cable machine for your application (see Cable Application Chart). Closet augers work well retrieving diapers from the toilet. In other lines, there are a variety of retrieving tools available to attach to the end of the cable for this purpose.

Sand and Mud

Water jets are ideal for clearing sand, mud and debris-choked lines, as well as grease, ice and other soft stoppages from drainlines. Water jets use a stream of high pressure water that hits the stoppage and flushes it away. The thrust of the nozzle drives the hose down the line for wall-to-wall pipe cleaning action. 


Debris blockages can range from hair, soap and scale in smaller lines, to tree roots, clippings and gravel in larger drainlines. Cable drain cleaners are required to clear debris-choked lines. Two types of machines are available – drum-type and sectional (see Drum vs. Sectional Comparison chart).


Water jets are a great tool for clearing lines clogged with ice. They work well in both plastic and metal pipe. The larger gas jets can clear a foot of ice per minute in a 4-inch line. Water jets use a stream of high-pressure water that hits the stoppage and flushes it away. The thrust of the nozzle drives the hose down the line for wall-to-wall pipe cleaning action.

Water Jets vs. Cable Machines

But portable water jets are not effective for clearing tree roots or retrieving objects from a line. Stick with cable machines when the job calls for cutting roots or retrieving debris.

Smaller electric jets typically offer a maximum of 1,500 psi at about 2 gpm. Trying to get more pressure from an electric motor runs the risk of pulling too many amps and popping circuit breakers. It is better to use a gas-powered jet. You get twice the pressure and twice the flow rate of electric jets. This gives you the thrust to pull the hose down long runs, the pressure to break up stubborn stoppages, and the water flow to flush them away. Gas jets can clear indoor 2- to 4-inch drainlines by using the portable reels that detach from the machine. 

Jet Hose Application Chart
Hose Size Pipe Size Typical Applications
1/8” 1-1/2” to 2” Small lines, sinks, and tight bends
1/4” 2” to 4” Sinks, laundry lines, and clean-outs
3/8” 4” to 8” Floor drains, septic lines, and long runs
1/2” 4” to 10” Sewer mains and manholes

Choosing the right tool makes you money

Asking the right questions will help you chose the right tool. Choosing the right tool for the job will clear the line faster. It will also reduce your maintenance expenses from using the wrong tool at the wrong time, make your job easier, and make you more money. 


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