What is a drain snake? We look at what they do and why you might need one

Drain snake being out down white ceramic sink by person wearing blue gloves
(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is a drain snake? If you’ve ever had a blocked sink, toilet, bath, shower or even drain, you’ll want to know. You’ve probably reached for a plunger to work its magic. And if this hasn’t solved the issue, you’ve probably progressed to a thick gooey sink unblocker to clear out the blockage.

If neither of these work it's time to get serious. You can find a plumber to tackle the issue, but if you want a more inexpensive option you can invest in a drain snake and tackle the problem yourself. Here we tell what they are and where you can use one. 

What is a drain snake?

A drain snake is a specialist tool used to help clear blockages in pipework typically, sinks, showers and drains. Also commonly referred to as a plumber's snake and sometimes known as a drain auger.

They are typically a long flexible metal cable which has what is known as an auger on the end. This is a spiral shaped bit that will work its way into the blockage and start to disperse whatever is clogging the pipe. This is often hair with accumulated debris, especially when trying to unclog a sink or shower.

You can get hand operated drain snakes that will have a handle that you use to twist the metal cable to help force the end of the cable into the blockage. There are different variations on the design, including powered drain snakes that will twist the cable, so you don't have to. These are more suitable for difficult to deal with blockages or those that are hard to reach.  

How does a drain snake work? How do you use one?

The first step is to feed the cable of the drain snake into the pipework. But note that if you are working on a shower you might need to remove the grate or cover before you start. The same may apply for sinks, if needed you will need to remove the plug hole before you start. 

When a blockage is hit, the auger – a spiral or corkscrew like coil – on the end of the drain snake needs to be turned to start breaking up or dislodging the blockage. As well as turning the auger, wiggle the cable from side to side to speed up the process.

The blockage should then start to move and you can feed in more cable to help push it through or pull the cable back up with the blockage attached. To finish, rinse through plenty of water to flush out the pipework. 

Powered drain snake clearing bath blockage

Drain snakes can be hand powered or for more stubborn blockages you can use an electric drain snake (Image credit: Getty Images)

Is it worth buying a drain snake?

Yes. It is definitely a worthwhile addition to your tool collection and they start out at very affordable prices. So how much does a basic drain snake cost? If you are looking for a drain snake to unclog hair in your sink or shower you can use something simple like these 25 inch Drain hair removers from Amazon. For more stubborn blockages that lie further down a pipe you could invest in this Heavy Duty Plumbers Snake from Amazon. This works with most domestic pipe work, but not all.

If you want – or need – something a little more heavy duty get an electric drain snake like this Rothenberger Rospi 8 Manual Drain Snake from Amazon which can be used manually or attached to a drill to power it. 

Can you snake a toilet?

Yes you can snake a toilet, but if you are going to snake your toilet you should look out for a toilet auger as these are built to protect the porcelain. They are designed specifically for toilets and often come with a protective cover that won't scratch the toilet pan or the S bend. 

How far can a snake go?

This will depend on what type of drain snake you have, what size it is and what size pipework you are dealing with. If you are looking to clean a minor blockage – like hair in the sink or shower – in your domestic pipework, you don’t really need anything more than a small manual one metre drain snake. 

If you have a blockage further down your pipework you can get drain snakes that reach up to 7 metres. This should be long enough for all internal pipework such as sinks, showers and toilets. If you have issues with external pipework, you can get bigger snakes with longer lengths.

One tip is to make sure that you use a drain snake that is recommended for the size of pipe work that you are trying to unblock. Check the manufacturer recommendations. If you use a drain snake that’s built for larger pipes in smaller pipes they can end up getting stuck, meaning you might need to call out a plumber to fix the issue. 

Steve Jenkins

Steve is Homebuilding & Renovating's DIY content editor, and has been a writer and editor for two decades. He is an avid DIYer with over 20 years of experience in transforming and renovating homes. He specialises in painting and decorating, but has strong all-round building skills, having previously worked in the industry for 10 years.