Tips & Tricks for Renting a Drain Cleaner Tool

Last updated on May 4th, 2018

If your main drain line is clogged, you're probably going to have to rent one of these commercial drain cleaning tools.
If your main drain line is clogged, you’re probably going to have to rent one of these commercial drain cleaning tools.

Got a plugged drain? It happens to the best of us. Regrettably, owning a commercial-grade drain cleaner just isn’t viable for the vast majority of people. Hardcore DIYers included. That’s even more true if you know you’re dealing with roots. As such, when my shower started overflowing, it was straight to Home Depot to rent a drain cleaner. They’re also known as drain opener, auger and snake, among other cute names. Here I’m going to go over some basic tips in case you are considering renting a drain cleaner tool.

Where to rent a drain cleaner tool?

In my experience, Home Depot is the place to start…and most likely the place to end. Though this will greatly depend on where you live. If you already know somewhere where they rent professional-grade power tools like this, then great, try there. However, in my case (living in a large metropolitan area), other tool rental places either were more expensive, as expensive, or didn’t list a price.

While I certainly have my complaints about Home Depot, the truth is that there is a lot of convenience in knowing the prices up front. Not to mention knowing the models available and units in stock. They might not have the absolute best price, but the difference is small enough to not bother wasting time checking anywhere else. At least in most cases.

What size drain cleaner tool to rent?

Before renting a drain cleaner tool, ask yourself if a manual drain auger might solve the issue instead.
Before renting a drain cleaner tool, ask yourself if this might solve the issue instead.

If you’re renting a drain cleaner tool, you should know that there are a lot of sizes and styles available. And I mean a lot. But for the home-gamer we can pretty much divide it into a few categories. Some are worth owning for any home-owner, and some pretty much have to be rented.

Drain cleaner tools worth owning

If you own a home, you’re going to face clogs eventually. It’s just a matter of time. There are a few tools that are much cheaper than a single plumbers visit and will minimize the time you spend with your wife nagging you about when she’ll be able to shower again. Just wait until the problem comes up for the first time, and then just go ahead and don’t waste time. Buy the tool and get it over with.

  • Drill-Powered Drain Cleaner – Whenever you have a slow drain or clog in a sink, this is the first thing you should try. They come either hand or drill-powered. It’s quick, cheap and clean to use so it’s definitely worth having around.
  • Toilet Drain Cleaner – Though it’s a specific tool, trying to improvise with something else is likely to create more damage than solutions. If you have a clogged toilet that a plunger won’t fix, this type of tool is the one to try. The main benefit is not leaving horrible marks in the ceramic bowl.
  • Manual Drain Auger – If I could only pick one tool to own, it would be this. It’s flexible enough to fit through most drains, but substantial enough to actually fix the problem.

For anything that those tools don’t cover, you’re going to have to look into renting a professional-grade tool.

Renting a Drain Cleaner Tool – Auto-Feed Drain Cleaner

When smaller tools just don't cut it, you're going to need an auto-feed drain cleaner
When smaller tools just don’t cut it, you’re going to need one of these.

When you’re dealing with a totally blocked drain, or a pipe you know has roots, there is no substitute for a big, heavy machine. It just isn’t worthwhile to own this type of tool if you only use it once every year or two. The decent ones cost in the one to two thousand dollar range, regrettably. Not to mention that they are quite bulky. Yeah, you’re going to have to rent this one.

Drain Cleaner Features

There are several features you’re going to want to look for.

  • More length than you need – If you suspect the stoppage is 70 ft. down the pipe, you truly will be better off with a 100 ft. machine rather than a 75 ft. one. Part of the tool’s power comes from the inertia of the drum. Once you’ve fed out all of the coil, the drum has no inertia to plow through the crud, making the motor work that much harder. If you can, always go one size up.
  • Auto-feed mechanism – If you’re renting by the hour then yes, you want the auto-feed mechanism. It will help you work much faster and do a much better job. If you weren’t racing against the clock then a manual machine would be fine. But given that you probably are, the auto-feed feature is really going to let you do a better job in less time. Especially if you’re working alone. And just in case it isn’t clear, the auto-feed mechanism simply feeds the coil out and in via a lever, opposed to feeding the wire by hand.
  • The right diameter cable – You can pretty much take for granted that any large rental drain cleaner has a solid core cable. That means that it has a steel wire inside the coil, making it a lot stronger. The only thing left to choose is the diameter. And the main factor here is that the larger the diameter, the more expensive the machine. Besides the bigger clogs it can deal with, of course. Given that you’re renting opposed to calling a plumber, it is safe to assume you care about price.  The main takeaway is that the diameter of the cable is dependent on the size of the pipe you’ll be feeding it through. If you suspect roots, always size up. The ideal diameter will also depend on the length. As a general guideline:
    • 1-3″ pipes – Use around a 1/2″ cable, with the option of smaller cables
    • 2-4″ pipes – Use around a 1/2″ cable
    • 4-8″ pipes – Use a 5/8″ or 3/4″ cable

Going to rent the Drain Cleaner Tool

Your mileage may vary, but for me the Home Depot was the most convenient place to rent the tool.
Your mileage may vary, but for me the Home Depot was the most convenient place to rent the tool.

To rent the machine, simply head to your closest tool rental place. In my case, Home Depot. I’d recommend reviewing the models they have available online before going. That way you can decide the model you need in advance. Personally, I just print out the model with the price list just to avoid issues and hand it to them.

Once they’ve swiped your credit card, start your stopwatch or timer with the return time and load the beast up in your car. Be careful, it’s heavy and awkward to transport.  By the way, before leaving, make sure the tool includes the full set of cutter attachments that the receipt lists. The rental stores have an awful habit of forgetting to include those – which leads me to the next point.

Pro-Tip I – Have your own cutter set

Once you’ve rented a drain cleaner snake a few times, you’ll notice a common theme: they always forget the interchangeable boring heads. No matter how many times I tell myself to check before leaving, I always forget to see if they included the cutters. Given how different cutter heads do different things, it’s really important to use the right one for the job.

Rather than wasting time using their dulled cutters, or being told they aren’t included, just buy your own set in advance. That way you don’t have to worry about them being included, broken, or even losing or breaking them yourself. Considering that drains invariably get clogged eventually, it’s cheap and small enough to be worth keeping in your garage.

Pro-TIp II – Consider rejecting the optional “Damage Protection”

If you’re renting at Home Depot, there’s something no one will tell you until you get the receipt at the end. They automatically add a 10% “Damage Protection” fee. This isn’t only for renting a drain cleaner tool. It applies to all their rentals. Whether you’re okay with that or not is your choice. But after reviewing the policy, the after-taste I was left with is that it is not worth it. If the tool breaks on its own, the damage should be covered regardless of whether one pays for damage protection or not – After all, it’s not your fault that the tool was not properly maintained. And if the tools is damaged out of your own negligence, “damage protection” doesn’t cover that. Basically it’s just a “peace of mind” fee.

I’m sure that if the machine gets damaged that fee might help avoid a lengthy discussion if the circumstances are unclear, but all in all it’s still at the managers discretion. As long as you’re using the tool properly, there are very few circumstances where the added fee is worth it.

If you don’t want to pay the fee, just make sure to mention it before renting the machine. For obvious reasons, you can’t just say in later when you bring it back in good condition. And if you do prefer to pay for it, that’s fine too.

Get ready to clean the drain

Before starting, grab some well-loved work clothes, some sturdy work boots, safety glasses and leather glovesDo not proceed without the leather work gloves. And don’t bother with rubber coated or textile gloves. The coiled wire has a tendency to snap or pinch so you really don’t want to cheap-out here.  Also, you might want to wear some heavy-duty nitrile gloves under the leather gloves. And no, safety-squints are not enough. Grab a pair of sunglasses and let’s go.

Next, rigorously inspect the machine. Let’s face it, it’s a rental tool and the pimpled teenager who gave it to you didn’t care to check if it’s still really working after the last bloke who brought it in.

Check the main bolt in the center of the drum. If it comes loose during operation, it’s going to make a mess. Check that the foot switch works properly and reliably. Sometimes the rubber bladder leaks and can be problematic. And above all, check that the cutter attachment is properly secured. The last thing you want is for it to fall off inside your drain. Chances are it’s just a screw holding it in place. Tighten it and apply threadlocker if you can.

And probably the most important tip, fully extend the coil and check it before inserting it in to your drain. If the cable has a kink or a tangle from improper coiling, you don’t want to find out when there’s 50 ft of cable stuck down your clogged drain. You’ll probably need a friend to do this quickly and effectively. Reel the whole cable out, make sure the cable is clean and intact, and then coil it back in properly. Thankfully, here the auto-feed mechanism will prove itself golden.

Oh, and before I forget, don’t use a cheap, flimsy extension cord. You really want to use a heavy-duty extension cord for this job. Use the thickest, shortest one you can find and fully extend it prior to use. Don’t just leave it coiled.

Using the Drain Cleaner Tool

While there’s a bit of art to it, the main points to keep in mind are as follows:

If the drain auger you rented has a coiled lead tube, insert it directly inside the pipe to keep the cable from twisting or tangling. This will only apply to drain cleaners with an auto-feed mechanism. While working, keep your hand on the lead tube to “feel” if the cable is encountering resistance. And don’t take the lead tube out of the pipe until you’ve fully retracted the cable. If you do, you’re likely to create a mess if you aren’t careful.

Basically, feed the tool in slowly until you feel resistance, and once you do, back out and creep forward successively. The resistance might be either a turn in the pipe or an actual clog. Do not try to simply power through clogs. Go little by little and keep trying. The last thing you want is a cable stuck inside your pipe.

Use the right drain cleaner cutters. If you were lucky, the rental tool included a set of attachments. Use them in the proper order, from smallest to largest to make sure you really clean your drain. You don’t want to do this every three months, so do as many passes as you can.

If you have a septic tank and you intend to clean all the way through to it, have a spotter keep an eye out for when it arrives. This is only possible if your septic tank has an accessible lid of course.  You probably won’t be able to see the end of the drain cleaner, but you’ll probably be able to hear it or see agitation in the water’s surface.

What about the “Reverse” switch?

You might have wondered about the “Forward” and “Reverse” switch on the motor. Don’t worry about it. While it might sound counter-intuitive, the motor should be running in “Forward” regardless of whether or not your reeling the cable in or out.

That is, the cable should always be  spinning clockwise. Just think about the boring head with a hook that can potentially be used as an extraction tool. If you reversed the motor to reel the cable in, it would unhook from whatever it’s grabbing. You don’t want that. You want it trying to grab the clog harder regardless of moving forward or back.

It might be easier to visualize if you picture the boring head as a corkscrew. The goal is to pull the cork out, not unscrew the tip from the cork.

The only reason to use the reverse switch is if the cable is caught and you want to try reversing as a last resort. And even then, you should only use it for a few seconds at a time.

The cable’s tangled or stuck – Now what?

If your drain snake gets tangled, don't fear taking it apart. The Auto-Feed mechanism is generally only held in place by a few screws.
If your drain snake gets tangled, don’t fear taking it apart. The Auto-Feed mechanism is generally only held in place by a few screws.

If the cable gets tangled…well, now’s the time to get pissed for trying to do the job yourself instead of calling a professional. But don’t worry about it. Just face the fact that you’ll be missing the four-hour deadline. And there’s no problem with that.

To fix the issue, keeping trying to put the feed lever in forward and reverse. Try putting the motor in reverse for a few seconds. Try tugging on the cable manually. Open a faucet inside the house for a few minutes to lubricate the pipe or move the debris. Eventually it will come loose. Just make sure you don’t do anything that risks breaking the cable. And remember the trouble-shooters motto.

If you have to open the clamp to fix a tangle or realign the drain cleaner's feed tube, be aware of the little pin.
If you have to open the clamp to fix a tangle or realign the drain cleaner’s feed tube, be aware of that little pin.

You might encounter that the coil gets tangled inside or outside the drum and you can’t fix it with the feed lever. Don’t let disassembling the auto-feed mechanism or feed tube intimidate you. It can be as little as two bolts to remove the mechanism. Plus, it can save you a lot of time if you need to feed the cable back into the drum manually. Once everything is properly set up, try using the motor again.

Use a Drain-Jetter for the Finishing Touch

For light clogs, or after using a cable drain cleaner, a drain jetter does miracles.
For light clogs, or after using a cable drain cleaner, a drain jetter does miracles.

Most of the time, if one suspects roots or a serious clog, there is no substitute for a cable drain cleaner. But if it’s simply slow-drainage or potentially just a little bit of sludge, using a drain jetter is definitely worth it. You can power it with the pressure washer you probably already have. Though I’d definitely recommend a decent gas-powered model over an electrical pressure washer. In any case, the sewer jetter isn’t too expensive and are compact enough to store anywhere in your garage, even in the 100 ft. lengths. I consider it worth having.

Before bothering with renting a machine (whose one-time rental costs more than the jetter kit itself), I always try using this first. It really leaves the drain pipe pristine and can fix a lot of minor clogs. Not even a cable cleaner can leave the pipe as clean in all 360 degrees as this thing. Plus, given that the water jet feeds the hose into the tube by itself, it couldn’t be easier or more risk-free to use.

What about drains with roots?

For many owners with old houses and large trees, roots can be a problem. The roots force their way through the cracks in the pipes trying to reach the water and nutrients inside. If the roots are minor and well maintained, it can generally be attacked with the right drain cleaner and cutting head. However, use extreme caution. The last thing you want is having to explain to a plumber how you got a cable cleaner stuck 50 ft down your drain pipe. In case of doubts, leave it to a professional.

Regarding maintenance to keep the roots at bay, there are a few options. The cost-effective ones are to use root killing chemicals periodically. Personally, I’d consider using a foaming root killer once a year. As it creates foam, it will also reach and kills the roots at the top of the pipe.

For monthly or bi-monthly treatment, the best budget option would be to flush a small dose of copper sulfate down the toilet. It’s pretty cheap, at somewhere around 30$ per 10 lbs. That’s a few years supply for most people. Just make sure you get one with the smallest crystals possible for the quickest dissolution. To boot, if you have a pool you can even use it as an algaecide. It also has other uses in the garden.

As long as you pay some routine attention to your drain, it’s possible to keep roots in check. Just make sure you never let it grow out of control before taking action.

Job Done!

Hopefully by now the job’s done, the family happy and the world a better place. I hope this article has proved itself helpful. If you have any questions or suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Got any tips, suggestions or questions? Leave a comment below.