How to Use a Drain Cleaning Bladder

Clear stubborn clogs in a hurry with this inexpensive method.

drain cleaning bladder (XL)
Suzifoo / Getty Images

Dealing with clogs is time-consuming, troublesome, and definitely not an exact science, which is why there are so many methods that both professionals and DIYers use in an attempt to rectify these situations. Clogs that are left for one or more days can cause a home to begin to smell due to the trapped waste and water, so it's essential to unclog your pipes as soon as possible. Plungers, hair snakes, drain augers, chemical clog removers, and even pipe cameras are commonly used to unclog drains, but a less-commonly used tool is the drain cleaning bladder.

These devices consist of a heavy-duty rubber compartment that expands and resembles a small balloon. However, this balloon only expands when it's connected to a water source and filled with cold water from one end. The other end of the drain cleaning bladder must be inserted more than six inches into the pipes, preferably after any tees or U-bends. When the bladder becomes completely full, it shoots pressurized water into the clogged plumbing drains, breaking up clogs and clearing away any remaining pieces of partial clogs.

What Is a Drain Cleaning Bladder?

Drain cleaning bladders are not well-known tools, but they are incredibly effective at clearing clogs when they are used correctly. These tools are made up of a heavy-duty bag or balloon that is capable of expanding when it's filled with water and releasing the water at a high pressure to clear clogs. One end of the drain cleaning bladder has a garden hose fitting so that users can connect a garden hose directly to the drain cleaning bladder to filler the balloon. The other end has a narrow hole or can sometimes have an external spout to help throttle the water and increase the pressure of the spray.

These tools come in three sizes. Small bladders are used for 1-inch and 2-inch pipes, medium bladders are made for 1.5-inch to 3-inch pipes, and large bladders are designed for 3-inch to 6-inch pipes. They are most commonly used outdoors, on piping outside the home, such as yard drains.

Safety Considerations

Before deciding to use a drain cleaning bladder, it's important to understand that there are some risks that come with using this tool. The design of a drain cleaning bladder causes it to store water and then release it in a powerful spray within the enclosed pipe. While this should not do damage to your pipes, there have been cases where old, brittle cast-iron and PVC pipes have cracked or ruptured due to the high pressure. It's not advised to use a drain cleaning bladder if your existing plumbing is in poor condition.

Additionally, you should never put a drain cleaning bladder inside the toilet. The porcelain is very likely to crack or rupture when the water jet is released. If you have a clog in the toilet drain that cannot be cleared, you may need to remove the toilet to gain access to the drain directly. For the best results, get the drain cleaning bladder as close to the clog as possible so that the spray isn't directed into a U-bend, P-trap, 90-degree turn, or into a vent, which would result in shooting water up onto the roof. If the bladder has a direct route to the clog it will have the most effect.

How to Use a Drain Cleaning Bladder

  1. Choose a Suitable Drain Cleaning Bladder

    If you start trying to clear a clog with the wrong drain cleaning bladder, you could end up causing a bigger mess, so take a look at the size of the pipes and choose an appropriate bladder.

    • Small drain cleaning bladders are intended for 1-inch and 2-inch pipes.
    • Medium drain cleaning bladders are made for 1.5-inch to 3-inch pipes.
    • Large drain cleaning bladders are suited for 3-inch to 6-inch pipes.
  2. Prepare the Area

    Make sure that you make as little mess as possible by laying down a few cloths, rags, or towels underneath the drain pipes where you will be working. This will help to catch any water or waste that would otherwise fall on the floor. It's also a good idea to grab a bucket and position it to catch any water that could come out of the pipes, because using a drain cleaning bladder can be very messy.

    For this reason, drain cleaning bladders are more commonly used outdoors than indoors by professional plumbers, but with the right amount of preparation using towels, rags, cloths, and buckets, you can significantly reduce the mess.

    Given that most drainage pipes are located under sinks, inside walls, and in other dimly lit areas, you should consider using a headlamp, flashlight, or even a smartphone to help illuminate your workspace.

  3. Connect the Garden Hose

    One end of the drain cleaning bladder has a male hose attachment that can be used to connect a garden hose directly to the bladder. Typically you can hand tighten the garden hose, though if you want a snug fit to avoid any leaks, then it's advised to use a set of channel locks.

    Run the hose to an outdoor faucet or to a nearby sink faucet. If you need to run the hose outdoors, make sure that you have a second person to operate the faucet, or that you have a hose valve nearby, so you can control the water.

    If you are connecting the garden hose to a sink faucet, you will likely need to remove the aerator with a set of channel locks in order to access the threads on the faucet.

    Connect the hose and tighten it with channel locks to prevent leaks. Just don't overtighten the hose and damage the fixture.

  4. Disconnect the Existing Plumbing

    Drain cleaning bladders work best when they have direct access to the clog, though this isn't always possible. Locate the closest possible area where you could disconnect the plumbing without causing damage. For example, if the clog is in the drainage pipe running from the kitchen sink, then disconnect the slip nuts on the P-trap and the trap arm to access the drain line directly.

    Some professionals state that you can insert a drain cleaning bladder directly into the sink drain. In fact, there are drain cleaning bladder kits that come with a sink crossbar adapter for use on kitchen sinks. However, this method can also cause damage to the sink, the P-trap, and the trap arm, so proceed with caution if you choose to insert the bladder directly into the sink drain.

  5. Insert the Drain Cleaning Bladder

    Slide the drain cleaning bladder into the drainage pipe. It should be inserted at least six inches into the pipe, though if possible, you should try to ensure that the drain cleaning bladder is deep enough so that it has a direct route to the clog. If the drain cleaning bladder is placed before a tee, there is a good chance that the spray will take the path of least resistance and shoot up through the drainage vent to the roof.

    To prevent this from happening, slide the bladder in past the tee. Ideally, you will be able to push the bladder in until it comes in contact with the clog, but if this isn't possible, then simply get the bladder as close as you can to the clog.

  6. Turn on the Cold Water

    With the drain cleaning bladder in place, you can start to slowly turn on the cold water. Make sure that you are using cold water, because hot water can cause damage to the bladder. Allow the bladder to fill and expand as the pressure inside the balloon builds.

    It's advised to stand to the side of the drain opening while the drain cleaning bladder is in use because in some cases the water can backflow out of the drain and splash the user, or the drain bladder can burst under pressure.

  7. Clear the Clog

    Continue to fill the drain cleaning bladder with water. When it reaches a high enough pressure, the other end will open and begin spraying pressurized water into the drain to cut through the clog. Run the water for about three to five minutes, or until you are satisfied that the drain is clear.

  8. Turn off the Water and Drain the Bladder

    Shut the water off and allow the drain cleaning bladder to deflate. Do not attempt to pull the bladder out until it has deflated, as this can cause damage to the pipes and to the bladder. Once the bladder has deflated, pull it out of the drain and disconnect the garden hose. Put the drain cleaning bladder in a sink or in a bucket so that it can be properly cleaned when the job is done.

  9. Test the Drain

    You can test to determine if the clog has been successfully cleared by inserting the garden hose and turning the water on. If the drain is still clogged, then the water will begin to backflow out of the drain, so have a bucket ready, but if the drain cleaning bladder was successful, then the water will run freely into the drain without any backflow.

    If your first attempt fails, repeat the process at least once more to try and clear the clog. You can also switch to a different drain cleaning tool or consider contacting a professional plumber if you think the job is too advanced for your current level of experience.

  10. Reconnect the Plumbing and Clean Up

    Once the clog has been cleared you can reconnect the plumbing and begin to clean up. Remember to disconnect the garden hose and reinstall the sink aerator, if applicable. The drain cleaning bladder will also need to be washed to remove any remaining waste, then it should be left to dry. Clean up the towels, rags, cloths, and any buckets to finish the job.

Drain-Cleaning Bladder Maintenance

When you are done using the drain cleaning bladder, rinse it off to clear away any remaining waste or debris, then allow the bladder to dry. You can use a light coating of silicone lubricant on the heavy-duty rubber balloon to help protect it, but you should also inspect the drain cleaning bladder before and after every use to determine if it is showing signs of drying out or cracking. Old, worn bladders are vulnerable to bursting while in use, so it's important to replace a worn-out bladder with a new one to avoid potential injury or causing a large mess.