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Most devices consist of a coiled metal wire with space between the coils at the end. The other end is attached to a device with a crank that rotates the wire as it moves down into the pipe. Drains are cleared by one of several mechanisms:
- The auger end of the wire digs itself into the clog much like a corkscrew, allowing retrieval of the object causing the clog when the snake is pulled out. (Commonly hair, combs, small toys, cloth.)
- The end of the snake breaks up the object, allowing it to pass through the drain. (Commonly tree roots, foam insulation, plastic objects.)
- The snake flails around the inside surface of the pipe, scraping off accumulated matter (ranging from mineral deposits to bacon fat) which was reducing the effective interior diameter of the drain pipe.
- Hand augers, also known as hand spinners, are useful for clearing sink and bathtub drains. Note that they should never be used in toilets, as they may damage the bowl or become knotted in the large diameter drain pipe beneath. A rule of thumb is that a 1/4" cable should never be used in a drain larger than 2".
- Closet augers (named after water closets) feed a relatively short auger through a piece of metal tubing shaped like a "J". This allows them to easily be fed into water closets (flush toilets); a plastic boot on the end of the auger protects the finish of the visible porcelain. Since most toilet clogs occur in the trap built into the bowl, the short cable is sufficient to break up or retrieve the vast majority of clogs.
- Heavy-duty drum augers are motorized and have removable, interchangeable blades for various pipe diameters that may be attached to the end. These devices are able to cut through or break up tree roots and other stubborn objects. Used unskillfully, they will also readily break plastic or copper plumbing. The electric sewer and drain cleaning machine, or electric plumber's snake, was invented in 1933 by Samuel Blanc in West Des Moines, Iowa. His wife named the machine Roto-Rooter because the cable and blades rotated as they cut through tree roots inside sewer pipe. Similar brands came along after the Roto-Rooter machine's patent expired in 1953 but the Roto-Rooter machine is still being produced today for Roto-Rooter sewer and drain technicians around the world. A different snake-like plumbers' tool is the camera snake or sewer inspection snake, which is a long cable equipped with a video camera attached (e.g. Ridgid's SeeSnake line), allowing inspection of the pipe's condition from the inside in real time. The cable bundle includes a video and audio cable that connects the camera head at one end to a video monitor mounted to the other end of the snake.
If the auger cannot break up or dig itself into the clog, the clogged section of the pipe (which can usually be located by measuring the length of the auger that has gone into the pipe) may have to be replaced.
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