Shower Drain Problems? Try These Easy Fixes Before You Call the Plumber

Alexandra Beuter

A guide to unclogging, cleaning, and fixing smelly shower drains yourself.

You can spend hours on cleaning routines and have a holy grail of cleaning products under the sink—but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to avoid shower issues. Even in the cleanest homes, shower drain problems are a nearly unavoidable reality—from clogs, to dirty drains, to less-than-savory odors. But don’t call the plumber just yet. With a little guidance, you can address many of the most common shower drain issues yourself.

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Take a deep breath—we’re in this thing together. Most shower drain issues are relatively easy (and inexpensive) to solve when addressed right away. If you notice a drain that’s far from the clean you’re used to, operating slower than normal, or even one that’s stopped working completely, try the tips I’ve outlined below.

What’s the issue?

Diagnosis should always come before treatment. So before you run out to the hardware store, take some time to determine what might be causing your issue. In my experience, most shower drain problems are caused by one of the following:

  • Clog beneath the shower drain cover. Do you notice that water is lingering on the shower floor longer than normal…or barely moving at all? Clogs from a slow accumulation of hair, skin, dirt, mineral deposits, mold, or soap scum are the likely cause.
  • Smells from biofilm or dry drain. Gnarly smell coming from a shower you use regularly? It could be caused by the buildup of biofilms and mold in the pipe. Is the culprit a shower that rarely gets used (like in a guest bathroom)? A common cause of smelly showers is dry drain, a phenomenon occurring when pipes dry out from inactivity, allowing smells to escape from deeper within the pipes.
  • Dirty drains and showers. Sometimes, the answer is as simple as a good old-fashioned cleaning. Germs, mold, skin and hair can combine to wreak havoc when they’re not regularly addressed.

Get that clog out of the shower

Strongly suspecting a clog is causing your issues? Try these steps to get the water moving again.

  1. Consider removing the drain cover. This is not mandatory, but if your issue is caused by a clog, it’s likely higher up the pipe than you think. Having the drain cover removed could help you get back to normal with significantly less product and time invested. Depending on the style cover your shower is built with, use a screwdriver and counter-clockwise motion to lift it away for easy access.
  2. Remove what you can see. With the drain cover out of the way, get out any hair (or other obstacles) that are within reach. This will help you to minimize the likelihood of further issues deeper within your plumbing system.
  3. Send in a snake. Available at most hardware stores, a drain snake can be an invaluable tool. Designed to clear clogs deep in pipes, a 25-foot snake should be plenty long enough for most homeowners, and is safer than harsh chemical cleaners. Uncoil and move the snake into your pipe, turning the handle as you encounter blockages. The snake will “grab” hold of hair and other large particulates, allowing you to pull them back out and remove them.
  4. Do a test. Pulled a bunch of hair out of your drain? You might be close to having your problem fixed. Test your drain by running hot water for 30-60 seconds. If the water drains, you’re ready to move on about your day. If not, then…
  5. Call in the big dogs. Tried the snake and still can’t get the drain to do its job? It might be time to call in the professionals. Some heavy-duty obstructions may require a plumber to clear them with pressured water, an option known as hydro-jetting.

Fix bad shower smells

Can’t get over that terrible smell coming from your shower? Most smelly drains are caused by one of two things:

Biofilm and mold

The smell you’re experiencing from these offenders will be damp, musty, and mildewy—maybe even reminiscent of rotten eggs. Biofilm, which has a pink-orange tone and a slimy texture, is hazardous to your health as it is made up of multiple species of bacteria and their waste. And because it accumulates slowly over time, preventing its buildup is an especially important reason for regular drain maintenance (more on that shortly). Because both substances are common causes of drain odor in showers, bath tubs, and sinks, with or without clogs, I like to keep a Febreze Light Odor-Eliminating Air Freshener Candle in my frequently used bathrooms to gently eliminate air odors with its essential oils.

Dry drain

If your drain odor is coming from a shower that’s not regularly used, you may be dealing with the most easily solved problem of them all: a dry drain. If you suspect this to be the case, you can start by testing your P-trap, a windy pipe under your sink and shower that holds a small amount of water at all times and blocks the sewer line from direct contact with your drain—which in turn blocks pesky odors. To test it, run the water for a few minutes. If the smell quickly dissipates, you’re dealing with nothing more than a dry drain. Even if this shower is only used sporadically, run the water occasionally to keep this U-shaped pipe filled and odors at bay.

  • Pro tip: I personally love keeping a Febreze Small Spaces Air Freshener (Bamboo scent) in my guest bathroom to keep it smelling fresh, even when no one is using it. It lasts 45 days, so it’s the perfect “set it and forget it” tool. Not to mention, the perfect reset after fixing a stinky dry drain. While you’re at it, check out these 25 tips to make your whole home smell good.

Clean that drain (and prevent future issues)

Cleaning the shower (and the drain) might not be glorious, but some simple scrub a-dub-dub now can save you lots of pain in the future. Some of my best tips for cleaning showers and drains include:

  • Make it a habit. Add cleaning your shower drain to your bathroom cleaning routine — no less than once a week for a shower that’s used daily by multiple people. Regular maintenance can help prevent the clogs and odors that build up slowly over time. Though you can’t see the issue forming beneath the surface, you can help prevent it in a matter of seconds.
    • Pro tip: Some hygiene products leave behind significantly more soap scum than others. Using liquid products rather than a bar of soap is a great way to lessen the potential build up on all surfaces of your shower.
  • Keep it simple. Make a DIY solution combining common household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda with hot water. Then use a scrub brush to help break up surface buildup. This approach will target the toughest parts of your dirty drain, helping loosen potential clogs and neutralize any odors. It’s as simple as 1-2-3.
  1. Pour half a cup of baking soda down your drain and let it sit for a few minutes. It will adhere to much of the gunk and grime covering the interior of your drain pipe.
  2. Add half a cup of vinegar. You will immediately hear a fizzing sound as the two substances work together. Let this solution sit for up to an hour.
    • Pro tip: Use your scrub brush and any remaining solution to clean your drain cover. It’s the first layer of defense against buildup in your pipes and also needs maintenance.
  3. Use hot water to rinse your drain clean.
  • Avoid outdated practices. Common drain cleaning recommendations include pouring boiling water through pipes to clean them—but this can actually cause more harm than good. Most homes built today with a modern plumbing system are made with PVC piping as opposed to metal, which can be damaged by boiling water.

If all else fails…

If you’ve tried the above methods to no avail, it’s best to get a second opinion. Significant plumbing issues, like leaky pipes or a failing system, could also result in unpleasant odors and shower problems. If you notice wet wood, drywall, or water damage (especially to a ceiling beneath a bathroom), call in the professionals ASAP.

Alexandra Beuter

Article by Alexandra Beuter

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