How Does a Drain Work?

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  • Drains are really quite simple devices. They need no motors or engines--only gravity is required to make them work. As long as your drain is higher than its ultimate destination--the sewer--the drain will work fine. That is, unless there's a clog in the trap, a problem with the stack or a tree roots in the connection. Every drain leads to a sewer, and the path between the sink and the street is not always easy. To ease the journey and allow for specific uses, different types of drains have been devised for different locations.

  • Most of us are familiar with the standard sink and floor drains used in bathrooms, kitchens and basements. Your toilet has a specialized drain to handle the type of waste it carries. All of these drains have three important components: a trap, a cleanout and a stack. Traps are curved lengths of pipe, named "P" or "S" for their shapes, where solids can settle and water can run over them. When the trap fills--or when somebody drops a ring down the sink--the trap can be cleaned out, simplifying the search for the problem. Cleanouts are often placed at the lowest point of the trap where clogs can be broken down using augers, or "snakes"--long lengths of coiled metal with a device on one end to break up clogs. Large floor drains may drop straight to the connection to the sewer but many, especially in older homes, have cleanouts built into the connector somewhere near where the pipe leaves the house so that the main line can be snaked for clogs and tree roots. The second part of the drain is the stack or vent, a pipe that rises from the drain after the trap to provide an escape for gases formed by decaying matter. The stack connects to other stacks and is finally vented on the roof. The escape of gases minimizes the stress on the pipes and the fire hazard from flammable gases like methane.

  • Gravity makes water go down, but drains in most toilets need water pressure to push the water through the drain. This is because of the "S" trap on the back of the commode. The high end of the trap forces a certain amount of water to remain in the bowl until more water is dropped from a higher position (the tank behind the commode) to force (or flush) the contents of the bowl through the trap. Other specialized types of drains carry water in landscaping and construction. "French" drains made of tile, are laid into low-lying land in a bed of gravel to drain rainwater or drainage from other property. Trench drains made of metal or plastic are used in landscaping and road construction. Both types need a "fall" of about an inch every 10 feet to drain effectively.

  • Photo Credit DRW & Associates, Inc.
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