Drain-cleaning equipment has been one of the key staples of the rental industry for decades. While there have been improvements over the years, namely the introduction of inner core cable for greater durability, ground fault circuit interrupters and air foot pedals for safety, the machine design has remained basically the same — an open-cage drum mounted on a frame that carries a cable that the renter pushes into the drain by hand. Though this design was functional, it was not very enticing to the renter. Renters see drain cleaning as a dirty, messy job, but they'd rather do it themselves than pay a plumber.

Now available is the newest wave in drain-cleaning technology — automatic feeds and closed drums — engineered to make the job of drain cleaning easier, cleaner, and safer. Your customers will like the advancements because they don't have to work so hard to clean a drain, and because they don't have to touch the cable or create a mess in the house. The technology benefits rental companies because they keep the customers' hands off the cable, making the machines safer to operate, and your customers won't be so reluctant to do it themselves again.

Automatic feeds are easier

In the past, all rental machines were manual feed because rental companies didn't trust the renter to handle anything but the simplest tool. Now, rental companies have finally figured out that the automatic feed machines are easier to use and safer for their customers. Automatic feed machines are the dominant type of drain-cleaning tool for plumbing and drain-cleaning professionals.

Automatic feeds are faster and easier to handle than shoving the cable into the drain by hand. They can drive the cable into the line at up to 20 feet per minute. And they help to retract the cable, which is much easier on the operator since a 100-foot by ¾-inch cable can weigh as much as 100 pounds.

The feed lever controls the feeding rate and direction of the cable. Just move the lever down to feed the cable into the line. The further the lever is moved downward, the faster the cable will feed. Move the lever up to retract the cable into the drum. When the lever is in the middle (neutral) position, the cable will spin in place.

The cable is fed into the line and against the obstruction with a firm, even pressure, adjusting the feeding rate to match the resistance met. When the cable reaches the stoppage, the feed is put in neutral and then shifted slightly forward to allow the cable to progress forward slowly, chewing into the stoppage as it goes. This slow forward movement will reduce stress on the cable while doing a more thorough cleaning job. A back-and-forth action often works best.

Floor model machines allow the operator to vary the feed rate of the cable to adjust for the resistance met in the line. You can feed the cable out fast until you get to the stoppage, then slow down to slowly chew into the stoppage until it's clear, then pull the cable back — all without having to stop the machine or reverse the motor rotation. To adjust for different cable diameters, you simply turn the knob on top of the feed.

Automatic feeds are cleaner

In the beginning, rental drain-cleaning machines were equipped with an open cage so the rental center could inspect the cable between rentals for damage and hose it off before the next rental. Now, more durable inner core cable designs and slip clutches have significantly reduced the chances of a renter damaging the cable.

Rental customers didn't like the open cage design because the wet cable sprays water all over their clean basement as the cage spins. The newer, closed drum models offer a solution to this problem. The closed drum keeps the water and spray contained for a neater, cleaner job. The customer is happier, and the rental company has less concern about receiving a damaged cable back from a rental.

The question of how to clean the cable is addressed by a drain hole in the back of the drum that allows the rental company to hose off the cable and drain the water by tipping the machine on its back.

Hint: It is helpful to pour a little light-weight oil into the drum and rotate the drum a few times. This lets the oil soak into the coils of the cable to lubricate it, prevent rust, and extend the life of the cable and the feed rollers.

Automatic feeds are safer

Instead of the operator grabbing a rotating cable with his hands, risking injury to hands and fingers, the automatic feed machine does the pushing and pulling. Further, the cable is contained within a guide tube or spring between the machine and drain opening. This helps to prevent cable whipping and kinking, and the operator doesn't have to touch the cable.

Feed maintenance

Automatic feeds use three off-set rollers to control the feeding rate of the machine. These rollers must turn freely for the feed to work properly. To keep the feed operating smoothly it must be kept free of excessive soil and grit. The feed should be regularly flushed with fresh water followed by a light oiling of the moving parts. No disassembly is normally required.

Drain-cleaning manufacturers offer automatic feed machines for all of the most popular cable machine sizes — from 100-foot machines for cutting tree roots and clearing heavy-duty stoppages in 3-inch to 8-inch lines, to 50-foot and 75-foot machines for medium-sized drains from 2 inches to 4 inches in diameter, to 25-foot hand-held drain cleaners for sinks, tubs and laundry lines.

As you are evaluating your fleet of drain-cleaning tools for replacement, consider upgrading to automatic feed machines next time. Your customers will thank you.

Marty Silverman is marketing director for McKees Rocks, Pa.-based General Pipe Cleaners.