How to unblock a shower drain
Updated: Jun 3
If you consider what solids go down the shower drain it isn’t any wonder that they get blocked. Some common items found in a shower drain include soap, scum, dead skin, limescale, hair and the occasional shampoo bottle lid.
A blocked shower drain is one of those things that happens. But, you don’t realise it until you’re having a shower and happen to look down. The tray is overflowing and before you know it, water is pouring through the floorboards into a downstairs room. Depending on how long you’ve had the blockage, and what’s down there, you might also have an unbearable smell of drains too.
You can easily unblock the shower drain by going to the supermarket and buying a commercially available drain cleaner. It’ll certainly do the job. But, what happens if you live miles from the nearest shop or if you don’t like putting aggressive chemicals into the sewer? Some people don’t have mains drainage, instead, they have a domestic septic tank. Believe me, drain chemicals are very corrosive and aggressive and will upset the delicate balance of bacteria in your septic tank if you’re not careful.
Most, if not all, commercially available drain cleaning chemicals dissolve hair and skin, but they won’t do anything about shampoo caps and they’ll always leave a chemical smell lingering in the bathroom for a long time afterward. Not always a pleasant thing.
Here are a few home solutions you can try to unblock your shower drain using stuff most people have around the house. Let’s look and see what we can do.
Believe it or not, prevention is the best way to stop a blocked drain. Scum and soap are usually ok down the drain unless there’s a clump of hair for them to cling to. Use a drain screen to stop hair going down the drain, and make sure you and your family remove any accumulated hair. Remember, it’s no use removing the hair and then washing it down the bathroom basin drain! Flush it down the toilet instead. Then, rinse the shower tray with very hot water to wash away any suds or scum that might adhere to the tray and inside the drainpipe.
Soap and soap scum are soluble in hot water, and that’s great. Boil up a kettle and pour the contents down the drain hole. Remember that boiling water will seriously scald your skin so protect any exposed part of your body. It doesn’t hurt to use boiling water regularly, say once a week as a preventative and you’ll soon notice an improvement in the water flow out of your shower drain.
This may be an old fashioned way of doing things, but it has certainly stood the test of time. Buy a sink plunger next time you're in town and keep it handy in case of blockages. You might find it difficult to keep a seal around the plunger rim. If so, smear it with petroleum jelly or pour some water in the tray so the rim is submerged. Work the plunger a few times and you’ll eventually dislodge the clot that’s causing the blockage.
Remove the blockage by hand
Shower drains are unlike those fitted to other basins, sinks and bathtubs. The others are above floor level and you can dismantle the accessible water trap to remove stubborn blockages. On the other hand, shower trays are usually installed at floor level so you can’t dismantle the waste pipe. Luckily, you can access the inside of the drainpipe by lifting an inset filter from above. If you can see the blockage, it’s probably a mess of hair and soap scum. Just get your fingers in there and lift it out. Just a small comment here about personal hygiene. The muck you pull out of the drain is usually very unpleasant to look at and often teeming with microbes feasting on your dead skin and hair. So, wear rubber gloves and wash your hands well afterward.
Use a wire coat hanger
But what happens if you can’t see the blockage? It’s in there somewhere, so now you need to improvise a tool. A pair of chopsticks will be useful to reach right down into the water trap but, they are no use if you have to go around the bend.
Find an old wire coat hanger, and cut off the hook with a pair of pliers or wire cutters. Straighten the wire and make a small hook at one end. Once again, use the pliers for this. Feed the wire down the drain and around the bend until you come up against a blockage. Yes, you’ve guessed it. You’ve found the offending clump. Wiggle the wire around a bit and pull the wire out, hopefully dragging a part of the clump with it. Continue doing this until nothing else comes out. Now run boiling water down the drain to wash away any debris.
Baking soda and white vinegar
Yes, I know these are chemicals but they certainly aren’t as aggressive as commercially available drain cleaners. It’s simple to unblock a shower drain with baking soda (also known as bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar (acetic acid). And, it usually works every time. They’re also two of the simple chemicals you’ll find in most kitchen cupboards. So, you don’t need to make a special trip to the supermarket. Mix a couple of tablespoons of baking soda with enough water to make a thick runny paste. Pour this down the blocked drain followed by half a cup of white vinegar. The combination will fizz violently causing anything stuck in the drainpipe to move and dislodge. Leave it for about 20 minutes followed by a kettle of boiling water to wash everything away.
Get rid of limescale
Limescale, common in areas with limestone or chalk geology, precipitates into a hard crystalline solid forming the basis of a drain blockage. You can buy purpose-made showerheads and other accessories with in-built filters that remove limescale and other solids from your domestic water. StoneStream© offers a variety of water softening and filtering products, which are really easy to install. Whether you replace your existing showerhead or soften and filter your water another way, you’ll get cleaner water with less chance of a blocked drain. If you would like to learn more about Limescale and its impact on your appliances as well as your health check out our What is Limescale article.
Call a professional
If none of these clear the blockage, you’ll have to call in a professional plumber. Plumbers use strong, caustic liquids that aren’t available to the average householder. They also have tools that are far better than a bent coat hanger.
A summary of ways for you to prevent and fix a blocked drain yourself
So, we’ve looked at some simple ways you can avoid a blocked shower drain. As well as methods to fix one if you aren’t so lucky. To summarise these methods:
Try to stop or reduce the number of solids ending up in your shower drain. Hair, scum and limescale are the main offenders.
Clean the shower tray after every use with very hot water.
Clean out the shower drain once a week using boiling water.
Try to use household chemicals rather than aggressive ones.
If all else fails, use a commercially available chemical to unblock the drain or call in a professional.