Tackling The Task Of Drain Cleaning

Among the industrial drain cleaning tools, a recent development offers flexibility.

By David W. Neville
From the August 2019 Issue

Whether operating in a small business or throughout large industrial facilities, plumbing systems and drains need cleaning. In many of these settings drain cleaning consists of pouring chemicals down the pipes every few years. In other scenarios, drain cleaning is a much more substantial job.

industrial drain cleaning
(Photo: Gettyimages/Pradit_ph)

Restaurants and food businesses, for instance, put undue stress on their drain systems with the grease and food waste that is discarded every day at those facilities. This requires heavy-duty industrial drain cleaning equipment to remove troublesome blockages that may occur. In older homes or businesses that are located next to old trees and root systems, the situation is similar, as tree roots can infiltrate drains and pipes and clog them severely.

When blockages like tree roots or a longtime build-up of grease come into play, chemical solutions do no more than lightly impact blockages. This is why there are a wide variety of industrial drain cleaning devices on the market today—there is a need for machines that can clean severely blocked drains quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.

Types Of Drain Cleaning Machines

Industrial strength drain cleaning machines can be divided into roughly three types: hydro-jetting machines, drain snakes, and power rodding machines.

Hydro-jetting is the process of using a high-pressured flow of water to scour the interior surfaces of the plumbing pipes. This removes scale, grease, and other debris that has built up inside the pipe walls over time.

Drain cleaning machines using this method work in more or less the same basic way. First, the operator inserts a hose that is connected to a tank of water into the clogged pipe. The hose can withstand the high-pressured water that is sent into the pipes, and a specialized machine pressurizes water from the tank. This hose then delivers a high-pressure jet of water into the pipe, the pressure of which varies depending on the condition of the pipes.

In general, machines may pressurize the water up to a 5,000psi (pound per square inch) or more and deliver as many as 20 gallons of water per minute. The process of removing the blockages from the pipe involves working with gravity. This type of machine can be quite effective at drain cleaning, but it does have downsides, including freezing in cold temperatures and the various dangers that can come with using high pressure.

Perhaps the most common kind of drain cleaning machine is called a drain snake. Drain snaking has a simple operation that is often effective, especially for home plumbing or smaller commercial use. Industrial strength drain snakes are, more or less, a long spring cable with corkscrew on the end, attached to a motor. The cable is inserted into the clogged pipe, and the motor feeds the cable into the pipe. With luck the cable or corkscrew at the end snags any blockages in the pipe and can then be pulled out with the blockages. This kind of drain cleaning machine is common, but it is often not suitable for more challenging drain cleaning applications found in some facilities.

The last of the three most common drain cleaning machines work via a method known as power-rodding. Developed as an alternative to drain snake machines, power rodding systems use a flexible metal cable that threads into drain systems and around bends and joints. A cleaning head with very sharp teeth is installed at the leading end of the cable.

This cleaning attachment is sized to the diameter of the pipe being treated. An electric motor rotates the cable, causing the sharp cleaning head to turn at a high rate of speed. This action obliterates the obstruction blocking the pipe, shears off any protrusions such as tree roots and shaves away years of sludge buildup. The high-speed cutting tool shreds the obstructive material that is blocking the pipe into small fragments that are easily flushed away when the flow of water is introduced into the pipe.

While all three of these methods are viable depending on the application, all three have their downsides. However, one technology—flexible shafts—when applied to drain cleaning machines, can help to rectify many of these issues, and serve as a complement to other drain cleaning machines.

Flexible Shafts In Drain Cleaning

A flexible shaft is a precisely defined and configured nested group of springs, tightly wound so that it has torsional or rotational strength, as opposed to the tensile strength found in standard wire rope or cable to which flexible shafts bear a resemblance.

industrial drain cleaning
Shown here is a diagram of flexible shaft construction. (Image: S.S. White Technologies)

What makes flexible shafts specifically useful is that these can bend, but also still rotate. In other words, a flexible shaft transmits rotary motion much like a solid shaft, but it can be routed over, under, and around obstacles.

Flexible shafts are used in a number of applications, including advanced aerospace technologies. Their flexibility, combined with tensile strength, makes flexible shafts a force in the tight, twisted environments often encountered in drain cleaning.

When compared to other technologies, drain cleaning machines using flexible shafts are advantageous in that they are smaller, lighter, and more flexible; easier to clean; and also enable the use of a camera in drain cleaning.

Flexible shafts are as strong as other kinds of cables used in drain cleaning, but they are smaller and lighter, as well as more flexible. These characteristics are helpful in two ways. First, flexible shafts’ low weight and size is useful primarily for the operators of drain cleaning machines in using and transporting the equipment to the job site. The cables traditionally used in drain cleaning can be large and heavy, as well as difficult to transport. In addition, traditional drain cleaning cables, which more or less resemble extremely long, tightly wound open springs, are not very flexible. This can make maneuvering the cables through drains difficult. Flexible shafts are notably more flexible, so they can be useful in drain cleaning applications in which the clogged pipes have many bends or are hard to navigate with the stiffer traditional drain cleaning cables.

Another advantage flexible shafts have over traditional drain cleaning cables is that they are easy to clean. Traditional drain cleaning cables are like large hollow springs, and by nature, springs open to the air, so in drain cleaning, as the cable moves through the dirty drain, unclogging debris, it is likely for that debris to become lodged in and on the cable. Because cables are long and tightly wound, it can be challenging for drain cleaners to maintain these and keep these clean. Flexible shafts, on the other hand, are covered in a protective casing, making clean-up after a drain is cleaned much easier.

Lastly, flexible shafts can be advantageous over other drain cleaning methods in certain situations because they clean drains without water, which enables the use of a camera. With hydro-jetting, camera use is impossible due to the high volume of pressurized water used. Cleaning a drain using a machine based around a flexible shaft (or other dry cable) allows a camera to be fed into the drain just behind the spinning end of the cable. This allows drain cleaners to see what exactly is blocking the pipe, enabling them to adjust their method if needed.

Overall, all of the three main methods to industrial drain cleaning have a place in various applications. And, flexible shafts are a light, powerful, clean, and effective method to clean drains that can serve as an effective option in all kinds of industrial drain cleaning applications.

Neville is a sales account manager at S.S. White Technologies, a manufacturing company with a focus on flexible shaft technology. The firm operates its U.S. headquarters in St. Petersburg, FL.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below or send an e-mail to the Editor at acosgrove@groupc.com.


  1. This is some really good information about blocked drains. I liked that you talked about if you have tried everything else you can give a pipe snack a try. My master bathroom sink has been clogging for several weeks now. I might need to try the thing out. Or at the very least call a plumber to come unclog my sink.

  2. I am glad to know that debris that has built up over time inside a pipe can be washed out by hydro-jetting it. I think my apartment’s pipes are really old and have probably never been cleaned out. If the landlord isn’t going to have them cleaned then I will call a plumber to come to do it because it is getting annoying how nothing properly drains.

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