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Unclog that drain!

Clogged drains are the reason for more calls to plumbers than any other problem, according to the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Information Bureau, an industry group.

Yet it is one of the most preventable, says the bureau.

The obvious first thing to do is to be careful about what you put down the drain and use a drain cleaner regularly. And if a clog does develop, try a session with a plunger, or "plumber's friend," before calling the plumber.

"Homeowners should pour excess grease into a tin can and throw it out with the garbage, and not down the sink drain," advises David L. Weiner, the bureau's executive director. "Pouring hot water down the sink drain once a day will help keep it clear."

The kitchen sink drain is the one most often clogged, he says. Stoppages usually occur when liquid fats, carried off in dishwater and other kitchen wastes, hit a cooler pipe and then solidify. The resulting grease film captures coffee grounds and other bits of food, building up until the pipe becomes impassable.

When that happens, remove the perforated drain plate or crumb-strainer. The stoppage may be directly below and can be dislodged with a long screwdriver or a piece of wire.

If the clog persists, pour boiling water mixed with a small amount of household ammonia into the drain to help soften up the clogged material. Wait a few minutes, then use the plunger, cupping it tightly over the drain and plunging vigorously several times.

The drain also can be cleared by removing the plug at the botton of the U-trap, beneath the sink.

Be prepared with a bucket and new rubber gaskets to slip into the joints. Then unscrew the cleanout plug, or take off the whole trap. Put adhesive tape around the packing nut (or wrap the wrench jaws with cloth) to prevent scratching the surface when taking off the trap. Put the bucket directly under the pipe to catch any dripping and try pulling out clogged material with a piece of wire.

If these methods don't work, the bureau recommends calling a plumbing contractor, who knows how to use powerful solvents and equipment without damaging the plumbing system.

The rubber plunger should be the first thing you try in unclogging a toilet, too. But if that doesn't work, an auger with an adjustable crank handle, called a "snake," might. This spring-steel coil usually can be worked past the trap easily and down the pipe. A 10-foot auger will take care of most clogs.

Weiner cautions that unclogging a toilet takes some special care, since most toilets are made of vitreous china and might crack if exposed to very hot water or handled carelessly with an auger. "If the plunger and auger do not clear the clog, then call your plumber. A service call would certainly cost a lot less than a new toilet."

The rubber plunger should be the first thing you try in unclogging a toilet.

He also notes that spring-steel coils shouldn't be used to clean traps under lavatories, sinks or bathtubs. A more flexible wire or spring should be used, so it can easily be pushed through the bend.

"Clogged drains are every homeowner's pet peeve," observes Weiner. "With a little know-how, you can avoid a service call from your plumber by trying to unclog a drain yourself. But don't hesitate to call in a professional if the first few tries do not work. In the long run, it may save you extra expense and frustration."

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