Try the “Wet Rag” Vacuum Trick to Unclog Your Drain (Without Any Chemicals)

updated May 24, 2023
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Credit: Liz Calka

There’s nothing more annoying than a bathtub accumulating water from a clogged drain. (I mean, if you wanted a tub full of water, you’d probably just take a bath, right?) But before you call a plumber for help with your shower drain or a clogged sink, you can do a little DIY plumbing in your bathroom. You’ll only need a few things: a rag, a wet-dry vacuum, and maybe a screwdriver.

You probably already know there are a number of tricks out there to de-gunk a shower drain, which usually backs up from a build-up of hair or soap scum. You can try a chemical drain cleaner, but the commercial ones aren’t always great for your pipes (according to plumbers), and the natural ones (like mixing baking soda and vinegar) never seem to work that well. A drain snake is a great mechanical option, if you have one at home. But if you don’t, here’s another idea for a surprisingly simple clogged-drain hack that even plumbers sometimes rely on: Just grab your wet-dry vacuum and watch it slurp those clogs right out. It works like a plunger on your backed-up drain, but with even more power and suction. 

Ready to try the trick? Here’s how to de-clog your drain, step by step:

A note: There will be some splashing, so avoid using a vacuum on your drain immediately after using chemicals to clean it.

Credit: Joe Lingeman
  1. Remove the plate or strainer from your drain. If you don’t use a strainer (like this one), start now for fewer clogs—without one, everything just goes down the drain and gets caught.
  2. Turn the water on and allow a little bit to build up. Dip your rag in the water until it’s completely damp.
  3. Press the end of your shop vac’s hose against the drain, and use the wet rag to form a tight seal around the nozzle of the vacuum.
  4. For more stubborn drain clogs, you can rest and repeat step 3.
  5. When you’re done, turn off the vacuum or remove the vacuum hose slowly so you don’t crack a pipe. 
  6. Check that your tub or sink drains properly now that you’ve removed all that nasty hair and grime. If not, try the above steps again. (Or, in dire situations, don’t hesitate to call a plumber.)
  7. Enjoy the peace of mind brought on by knowing there’s nothing gross lurking in your drain.

If you’re trying this tip on a bathtub with an overflow plate—the circle of metal that annoyingly sucks water down when you’re trying to fill up a hot bath—you probably also need to remove the plate and plug that hole with another wet rag for an airtight seal.

Happy showering!