Selecting the Right Drain Cleaning Tool

From jetters to high-speed drain cleaning machines, here’s a rundown of the type of work each tool is best suited for

Selecting the Right Drain Cleaning Tool

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Drain cleaning with ease and efficiency starts with selecting the right tools for the job. With the type of drain cleaning options on the market continuing to grow, understanding the difference in drain cleaning machines and how to select the best option for the job is essential.

Currently, there are four main categories of drain cleaning equipment: jetters, sectional machines, drum machines and high-speed drain cleaners. Understanding when it’s best to use each can be the difference between a frustrating day on the job and being able to clear a drain quickly. 

Here’s a breakdown of the basics of each type of machine, their best uses and some things to keep in mind when using each: 


Jetters utilize high-pressure water to clear a drainline and are effective at removing grease and soft blockages. The addition of a powerful nozzle can also help cut through roots quickly while cleaning out a root-infested line. There are four types of jetters — electric, portable gas-powered, trailer/rack-mounted and sink. 

Things to consider: 

  • If you are in a building and cannot leave the power unit outside, you will have to use an electric jetter. With electric-powered jetters, the amount of pressure you can generate is also limited, making them best for smaller lines and ideal for sink and tub drains.  
  • The portable gas-powered jetter can operate at high psi and flow rates, but the tradeoff for that added power is that they are heavier and must be operated outdoors because of the exhaust. However, since many drains are accessed from inside a building, detachable hose reels and remotes allow for gas-powered jetters to be kept outside while working on a line indoors. They are ideal for commercial and industrial applications.
  • A trailer- or rack-mounted jetter can be used on a wide range of lines at high pressures and high flow rates. They are ideal for mainline city sewer drains and laterals. This type of jetter requires water reservoirs as a buffer against outpacing the water supply that can be found on the job site.
  • While not a standard in the industry yet, a new trend is the introduction of new, smaller sink jetters. These generally only work well on small sink lines because of their low psi and flow.  However, they are convenient because they are easy to carry in and out of a job and might be another good option to consider for drain cleaning projects.

Sectional Machines 

Sectional drain cleaning machines work by coupling sections of cable, typically of 7 ½-foot or 15-foot lengths, together one at a time and feeding them down a pipe to scour the inside as they spin. This allows a user to take only the necessary amount of cable to a job site. Sectional machines also have a smaller profile than other drain cleaning machines that service similar size pipes. This is an advantage for the technician if they need to access a cleanout in a cramped workspace such as a crawlspace.  A benefit of a sectional machine is that if a cable kinks or breaks, you are only out that section of cable and not the complete cable. They are effective at cleaning roots, blockages and heavy debris. 

Things to consider: 

  • All sectional machines operate in the 400-700 rpm range. To create the rotation, sectional machines feature a hand-operated clutch that causes a set of jaws to clamp down on the cable when engaged. When the clutch is released, rotation of the cable stops immediately. This element of control on the cable is particularly beloved by sectional machine advocates.
  • Different types of sectional machines will have different capacities in terms of the size of drain they can clean. This is a result of both clutch jaw sizes and motor power; they must work in conjunction. A large capacity set of jaws does no good if there is a weak motor to power the unit. Likewise, having an overly powerful motor for smaller cable sizes can increase the risk of damaging the cable.

Drum Machines 

Drum machines operate in a similar manner to sectional machines with the main difference being that the entire 100 feet or more of cable is stored on the machine and must be brought to every job. Where sectional machines focus on speed and rpm to cut through roots, drum machines rely on the torque the cable builds up to break through blockages. It comes down to personal preference on whether you prefer a drum or sectional machine. Drum machines are effective at cleaning roots, blockages and heavy debris. 

Things to consider: 

  • Drum machines often feature an integrated transport cart with stair climbers that can help transport the full length of cable.
  • AUTOFEED technology is common in drum machines that can help automatically feed and retract the cable, thus reducing user fatigue.
  • Drums can be fully or partially enclosed, which keeps debris from getting around the workspace.  This is why drum machines are popular in finished basements.

High-Speed Drain Cleaners 

High-speed drain cleaning machines thrive on speed, not torque. They clear drainlines wall to wall with the use of specialty chain knockers and allow for a camera to be in-pipe simultaneously. This is the newest type of drain cleaning machine option. They are effective at clearing scale, grease, sludge and soft blockages.

Things to consider: 

  • There is a learning curve when switching from traditional drain cleaning cable to high-speed cable. Understanding speed and finesse is key to having the machine last. Keeping water running and cleaning from downstream are also important to note as this keeps the end of the cable spinning as freely as possible. One more important piece of information for models requiring a drill is drill settings: Be sure to follow the recommended settings in the manual so the drill and high-speed cable work most safely and effectively.
  • Two basic types of chain knockers to invest in initially are standard and carbide chain knockers. Standard chain knockers are ideal for softer-walled pipes (such as PVC) and soft blockages like grease. Carbide chain knockers can be used in harder-walled pipes (such as cast iron) to clean smaller roots as well as scale. 
  • High-speed drain cleaning is not effective on heavy, dense roots or harder substances that require torque to break through. A jetter, drum or sectional machine are more effective for these blockages.  

Each of these drain cleaning tool options has benefits and drawbacks. Knowledge of the basic differences of each, paired with your professional experience, will ensure selection of the most appropriate tool for any blockage you face.  

About the Author

Alex Meyer is a product manager for RIDGID, a part of Emerson’s professional tools portfolio that also includes the Greenlee brand. RIDGID is a global manufacturer of more than 300 dependable and innovative tools, trusted by professional trades in over 100 countries. Learn more at


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