OK, so the economy stinks! The housing market has slowed to a standstill, bank loans are difficult to come by, and customers are putting off remodeling projects because they’re afraid to spend the money. You’ve still got to get out of bed each morning and go to work because your family and your employees are depending on you to keep the business alive. What’s a plumbing contractor to do?

Consider this: Drains clog! No matter what the economy, no matter what the season, drains clog. If you’ve only been in new home construction and remodeling to this point, it’s time to look at the steady income that comes from clearing clogged drains. Think of it as a renewable resource.

I’m sure you’ve had experiences while working at a home, when you were asked, “While you’re here, can you look at this slow-draining tub?” Or, “My willow tree is causing problems with our drains again. Can you take care of it?” Or, “We’ve got water backing up from the basement drain. Can you help us?”

Did you have a tool on your truck to help out your customer and win loyalty points, or did you have to refer them to a local drain-cleaning specialist and risk losing your customer permanently to someone else?

If you clear the drain yourself, you get to keep the money. One advantage of drain-cleaning work is that it’s basically a cash business. No need to wait 30 days or more to get paid. Also, it’s a faster way to get referrals for other jobs.

The Right Tool

If you have the right tool for the job, you can clear the clogged drain fast, take care of a regular customer, and become a hero. (Well, OK, maybe not quite a hero, but a versatile contractor and source for future projects.)

So which tools do you need? To determine that, you must first locate the source of the problem. If only one drain in the house is backed up, the clog is likely to be in the smaller line leading directly from that drain. For sinks, tubs and laundry overflows with 1 1/4- to 2-inch drains, a hand-held, drill-type drain cleaner with a 1/4-, 5/16- or 3/8-inch snake will do the job. You might also consider a water ram-type tool for this application. It’s lighter, faster, and more easily handles slow-draining tubs and long narrow lines in trailer homes.

If the clog is in a small floor drain, laundry tub, or is accessible through a roof stack, a medium-sized floor model machine equipped with a 3/8- or 1/2-inch cable is the appropriate tool to use. This will clear 2-, 3- and most 4-inch lines, but should not be used to clear tree roots. The small diameter cables cannot handle the torque required to cut roots.

If several drains are affected, then the blockage is probably in a larger line common to those drains. If so, a larger drain-cleaning machine equipped with 5/8- or 3/4-inch cable is the right tool for the job. The bigger diameter cables have the strength to cut through tough stoppages and clear longer lines to the street or septic tank.

Ask yourself what types of drain-cleaning problems you’ve run across and you’ll know what size machine(s) you’ll need.

Old Machinery

If you are thinking, “Maybe I can dig up Uncle Frank’s old draining-cleaning machine from the basement,” you’d better make sure you check out the machine before you use it. Older machines didn’t have the safety features of the newer drain cleaners. First things first; think safety:

  • Check the power cord to see that there are no cuts or frays. Bare wires on the wet ground can lead to electric shock.

  • Check that the grounding prong on the power cord is in place. Do not use an adapter plug. You will not be protected from shock if the ground prong is missing.

  • Replace the power cord with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) if one is not already in place. The GFCI protects you from shock if a short circuit should occur. Test the GFCI before each use.

  • Make sure a floor model has an air foot pedal. Many years ago, electric foot switches were used that did not protect you from electric shock if the switch is lying in a puddle of water. With an air switch, there is no electrical connection between the pedal and motor.

  • If you are using a drill-type machine, replace the motor housing if it is cracked or damaged. If you have an older metal housing, make sure the grounding prong is in place or consider replacing it altogether.

  • Check that the Forward-Off-Reverse switch is working properly. If the toggle is broken or missing, it must be replaced.

  • Make sure the belt guard is in place. Fingers can get caught between the belt and pulley.

  • Check that the drain cable is not broken or damaged. If the machine has been sitting for a while, the cable is probably rusty. Soak the cable in oil or consider replacing it. If the cable must be replaced, make sure you get a good quality inner-core cable. Inner-core cables are stronger and can withstand more torque and abuse.

  • Purchasing New

    If you’ve decided it’s time to purchase a drain-cleaning machine, here are key factors to keep in mind:

  • Is it the right tool for the job? A small, inexpensive machine might be tempting to start with, but if most of your jobs will be clearing tree roots, the small machine is the wrong machine for the job. You won’t clear the line, you’ll damage the cable, and you could injure yourself.

  • Keep in mind that the cable does all the work. The machine is primarily a vehicle to get the cable to the clog. The cable has to be the right size, and tough enough to handle the clog. Inner-core cables are stronger and more resistant to kinking, while hollow cables are more flexible but less durable.

  • Do you want a manual feed or an automatic feed? Today, automatic feed machines are more popular, faster and safer. Most feed the cable at up to 20 feet per minute with a variable-speed control lever so you can get the cable down the line fast but can slow down to chew into the stoppage. It’s easier on the cable and gives you a more thorough cleaning job.

  • Do you prefer drum-type or sectional machines? Drum-type machines have the cable fully contained in one unit, but can be heavy. Sectional machines are lighter weight, but the cables are carried separately in 8-, 10- or 15-foot sections and can make the job messier. Most contractors use the style they learned on. If drain cleaning is new to you, go with the more popular drum-type machines.

  • Drain-Cleaning Safety

    If drain cleaning means, “Eww, yuck!” to you, then drain cleaning is probably not for you. Of course, standard precautions for cleanliness around wastewater should be followed: Never touch a cable with your bare hands, and wash your hands after completing a job.

    Some manufacturers have instructional videos on their websites to show you the safe way to operate their machinery. Contact them, or your plumbing distributor for more information on the right drain-cleaning tool for you.

    In these tough economic times, don’t let potential income flush down the drain. Get into the drain-cleaning business, and get that income flowing toward you instead.