The Best Machine for the Job

Despite industry trend toward drum machines, there’s still a place for sectionals.

The Best Machine for the Job

Drum machines have the edge in tight spaces and are easy to transport through doors and hallways for indoor work. 

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A drain cleaning machine is the most essential asset a cleaner possesses, but it also brings with it one of the most polarizing issues in the industry: drum versus sectional.

“As you talk to contractors, you’ll find they’re very committed to a style. They don’t want to change,” says Marty Silverman, vice president of marketing for General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring. “Oftentimes trying to convince someone to change is like trying to change someone’s religion.”

But when you look at the benefits of each piece of equipment, each has benefits depending on the situation.

While sectional machines are lighter and offer stronger performance on long runs, drum machines are simple and versatile packages.

“There are advantages of each, so I see why some people like one style and some people like another,” Silverman says. General Pipe Cleaners offers both drum and sectional machines. “It’s just a different way of clearing the lines. Both do a good job of clearing the line; each has advantages on what it’ll do.”

Job type

Silverman says he would ask someone what types of jobs they plan to do before recommending which machine they should use. “Both machines can handle roots and heavy stoppages. Both are very good at that,” he says. “It really comes down to the length of the line that has to be cleared. A sectional does a much better job on particular applications, especially long runs.”

Drum cables are enclosed and must be pushed through the line, while sectional cables are open-coil springs — the coil acts almost like a screw, actually pulling the cable forward on its own.

Most drum-style machines have the option for an automatic feeding system, but even that isn’t a silver bullet.

“You’re going to get yourself in trouble if you don’t realize you can only feed the cable forward as fast as it’s moving through the line. If you push it in too fast, it’ll tangle up,” Silverman says. “Even with automatic-feed drum machines, there’s a certain learning curve to make sure you do it right.”

Job constraints

A job is as much about where the drain is located as it is about what’s in the line. While sectional machines work fine outdoors and in applications where space isn’t an issue, drum machines take the edge in tight spots where even 4- or 8-foot cable segments are difficult.

“We like the drum machines versus the sectionals. I’ve used them both. They both work well, but I prefer drum because so much of our work, half of our work I’d say, is inside,” says Hugh McLaughlin, owner of Quality Drain Service in Tucson, Arizona. “When you’re trying to do a sectional machine in somebody’s kitchen or right outside their bathroom in the hallway, they tend to be a little bit messier. I think outside they’re fine, but when you’ve got to go inside a house or inside a restaurant, working with the sections is a little more involved.

“The setup is almost instantaneous with a drum machine versus a sectional machine. There’s a bit of involved setup to get the sectional in place and start working with it.”

Both machines come in a variety of sizes and models, but even the largest drum machines can be more maneuverable than sectional machines.

“The advantage of drum-type machines is you have everything in one package,” Silverman says.

That being said, there are also locations where the all-in-one system is a detriment, such as rooftops of multistory buildings. Because sectional machines come to the job site in parts, the machine itself is lighter for lugging up stairs, and breaking the weight up can sometimes be easier.

Drum cables are about a pound a foot, so a hundred-foot drum can be weighty cargo. If you know you only have 20 feet to clean, two 10-foot cable sections are lighter than having to carry the whole drum.


“Cables are made of steel; they go in the water; they’re going to rust. So this applies to both — that you want to keep the cables clean and oiled. A light-grade motor oil will do to keep the rust from developing,” Silverman says.

General Pipe Cleaners and most other manufacturers carry special rust-inhibiting oil products designed for this application.

“Drum machines have an additional issue that the water will pool at the bottom of the drum, from the cable. So it’s even more important to put the oil in the drum and spin the drum a few times to get the whole thing lubricated, to keep the cable from rusting, and to help the drum last longer as well,” Silverman notes.

Because they are enclosed along with much of the water and grime from the traps they clean, drum cables can have more issues depending on the use.

“If you’re a company that uses it once in a while, maybe once a week or once every couple weeks, yes, you need to stretch the snakes out and loosen them up and oil them. Otherwise they will start to form in their coiled position,” McLaughlin says. “Our snakes get used 15 to 20 times every single day, six days a week, so they’re really just routine maintenance items.”

By that same token, the benefit of drums keeping the mess internal is that they decrease the chances of splattering muck in a customer’s home.


Preference and benefit can vary by region as well. For example, Florida doesn’t have many basements, so accessing roof drains is often necessary.

“It’s a lot easier to carry a sectional machine up on the roof than it is a drum-type machine. So there’s a lot of popularity in that area,” Silverman says. “There are certain parts of the country where sectional started many years ago, and then they kind of got used to that style as their first drain cleaning machine and stick with it, so that’s the reason they might have that design.”

Often this is also the deciding factor for many contractors: Whatever they were trained on tends to be the equipment they gravitate toward. McLaughlin was an exception, switching to drum machines after learning on sectionals. To a large extent, it comes down to what a particular contractor or operator is comfortable with.


“When I first started working with drum machines, I felt personally it was so much easier to operate, so much easier to manipulate through a house, but I have other friends who are in my industry who have used both, and they’re really sold on the sectional machines,” McLaughlin says.

“I like the clean efficiency of the drum machines. I just find that when you’re unclogging a drain in a customer’s home, it can be a messy situation to begin with. I don’t think that the drum machine adds to the messes, whereas I think a sectional can contribute to more mess.”

On the whole, either machine could probably be used with varying effectiveness in just about any scenario, so it’s not just about the job, it’s also about the operator.

“It’s just a matter of what method you’re accustomed to,” Silverman says. “Now, we have seen a gradual shift from sectional toward drum-type machines across the industry. Some manufacturers that made nothing but sectional machines years ago now make both styles to address the market.

“If you don’t have an allegiance or experience with one style versus another, the industry has shown that people tend to go toward the drum-type machines, as just being more compact. Usually people starting out without a preference will lean toward the drum machines.”

Consider your options

It’s important to take all factors into account when buying a big piece of equipment, including the state of your business.

“If you’re just trying to get started on a wing and a prayer, buy whatever you can afford,” McLaughlin says. “If you’re in it for long term and you have the money, buy once, buy right. Buy the better-quality equipment.”

Whether it’s residential or commercial, indoor or outdoor, basement or rooftop, the bulk of your cleaning work will determine which machine fits the bill.

“It’s asking what kinds of jobs you anticipate doing, before you decide which kind of machine to buy,” Silverman says.


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