The drain cleanout is a direct access point to the main sewer line inside or outside of the home. It can also be referred to as the main house trap when it is located inside the home or the sewer cleanout when it's located outside the home.
Despite the slight difference in terms, the function of this cleanout remains the same: This addition to the home plumbing system is intended to give plumbing professionals an easy-to-access point through which they can reach clogs and sewage backup in the main sewage line that extends from the foundation of the home, under the ground, and out to the municipal sewage system, a private septic tank, or the portion of main house drain piping downstream of the house trap.
Only plumbing professionals should use the drain cleanout, but knowing the location of this access point can save time during an emergency clog or backup, potentially saving thousands in cleaning and restoration. Plumbing companies may also charge less for their services if the plumber doesn't need to worry about locating the drain cleanout.
A drain cleanout pipe is 3, 4, or 6 inches in diameter and typically white or black in color. It has become common practice for the sewage line, drain cleanout, plug, and cap to be made of ABS plastic, though there are about 76 million homes in America that still have cast iron sewage lines with brass or cast iron drain cleanouts. Some homes may also have brass or copper drainage lines, though these are much rarer. Keep your sewer line material in mind while you follow these simple steps to search for the main drain or plumbing cleanout.
Before You Begin
Before beginning, it's important to note that the general location of the drain cleanout is different depending on the local climate.
- Standard homes in colder climates will typically have drain cleanouts located inside the home.
- Homes in colder climates that were built on a slab foundation may have an outdoor drain cleanout, or it can be located in a bathroom, garage, or utility room, so individuals with this type of home may need to search both indoors and outdoors.
- Homes in warmer climates will usually have an outdoor drain cleanout located in the yard.
Equipment / Tools
- Pipe wrench
- 1 pair disposable rubber gloves
Locating Indoor Drain Cleanouts
Follow the Drainage Pipes to the Main Sewage Line
The drainage pipes inside the home run to every sink, toilet, and water-reliant appliance, like the dishwasher and washing machine, so finding a drainage pipe shouldn't be too difficult. Look for black or white ABS, cast iron, copper, or bronze drainage pipes that lead away from the sink, toilet, or appliance. By following these drainage pipes, you can typically find the main sewage line.
Look for a T- or Y-Shaped Pipe Fitting With a Cap or Plug
When the drain cleanout is installed indoors, it can typically be found on the main sewage line, located just before the main line meets the foundation of the home. The drain cleanout will be on a T- or Y-shaped pipe fitting and it will have a threaded plug with a square nut. It may also have a plastic cap covering this nut.
However, the drain cleanout isn't always installed on the main line. There are some homes that may have alternate access points to the sewage system, so you will need to look around to find a black or white pipe with a threaded plug and a square nut.
Check Bathrooms, Utility Rooms, and the Garage
If the sewer cleanout is not on the main sewer line, then you will need to inspect alternate locations around the home. Grab a flashlight to help see better in dimly lit areas. The drain cleanout will often be close to a cluster of drainage pipes, like a full bathroom with drains for the sink, toilet, and shower. Inspect each bathroom in the home, looking for a capped black or white ABS plastic drain line.
If the drain cleanout isn't in the bathrooms, it's a good idea to check the utility room or the garage. In some cases, current or previous owners may have had renovations completed that hid the main drain cleanout. If you suspect that this is the case, it's advised to contact a plumber to help locate the drain cleanout without causing excess damage to the home.
Test the Drain Cleanout Plug
After finding the drain cleanout, it's a good idea to test the plug to help ensure that the plug doesn't become seized from disuse. Put on a pair of disposable gloves and use a pipe wrench or a large pair of channel locks to grip the square nut on the drain cleanout plug. Gradually begin to turn the nut with the wrench, loosening it off fully. Clean away any accumulated grime from the threads, then replace the plug.
In rare cases, the cleanout may be covered by an expandable plug that is loosened by turning a screw in the center of the plug. Even more rarely, the cleanout fitting may be covered by a rubber bonnet and secured with pipe clamps.
When you start to open the plug and you see water or feel the pressure under the plug, it's time to call a professional. This means the stoppage in the line has filled up the piping that travels outside the house. Once you pull the plug, your drainage pit, yard, or house may fill with backed up raw sewage in that localized area.
Locating Outdoor Drain Cleanouts
Walk to the Septic Tank or Municipal Sewer Line
To find an outdoor drain cleanout, first, you will need to walk to either the septic tank, for properties on a septic system, or to the municipal sewer line. The sewer line is indicated by the nearest manhole or a curb with a large S stamped into the concrete.
Estimate the Direction of the Drainage Line
Septic systems will generally have the drain cleanout located close to the home, in line with the septic tank. Simply walk back from the tank towards the home, looking for a plastic pipe sticking up from the lawn or garden.
Similarly, the drain cleanout on a municipal wastewater system will typically be close to the home. It should be in line with the municipal sewer system, but because the actual drainage line is not visible, you will need to trace a broad path through the yard to find the drain cleanout pipe.
The pipe is usually black or white in color and it's sealed with a threaded plug that has a square nut and may be labeled S, C.O., or cleanout. Though, in some instances, this plug is covered with a plastic cap or a metal lid. With this in mind, search for any objects that could cover or house a 3-, 4-, or 6-inch pipe.
Move Lawn Decorations, Foliage, and Other Obstacles
If you still cannot locate the drain cleanout, then it may be accidentally covered or purposely hidden from sight. The drain cleanout should be close to the home in an area along the main sewer or septic line, which can be indicated by drain pipe clusters in full or partial bathrooms.
Start moving any lawn decorations that are obscuring the yard outside of bathrooms, expanding the search area as you go. Keep in mind that the cleanout could be buried in a garden or obscured by foliage. Overgrown grass can also be a problem, so you may want to mow the lawn to help make the search easier.
In some circumstances, the sewer cleanout is completely buried in the yard, in which case you will need to estimate where the drainage line is coming in and use a long screwdriver to penetrate about 1 inch into the ground, probing for the top of the pipe. However, this method is essentially trial and error, even with a good educated guess, so you may want to consider hiring a professional to locate the drain cleanout.
Mark and Test the Drain Cleanout
After locating the drain cleanout, use a metal stake with a brightly colored flag to mark the location, so that you have a quick reference point in case of emergency.
The drain cleanout plug should also be tested to make sure it can be removed, if necessary. Use a pipe wrench or a set of large channel locks to slowly unscrew the nut from the pipe. The nut should thread out easily, but if you see water or feel pressure in the line, tighten the nut again and call a plumber to clear the clog in the line.
Even experienced DIYers can cause significant damage to the home sewage system. This can lead to sewage backing up into the septic system, the yard, or even into the home. Save time, effort, and potentially thousands of dollars in clean-up and home restoration fees by only employing licensed professional plumbers to clear clogs and make repairs to the main drainage line and drain cleanout.