Who Invented the Original Plastic Drain Stick? (Invention Facts)

who Invented the plastic drain stick

You may have seen a slew of YouTube videos where individuals use a plastic drain stick to pull out large clogs of hair and all manner unseemly things from their bathtub or sink drains. Now there are several such simple easy to use products on the market but who originally invented it?

The original inventor of the plastic drain stick is Gene Luoma. He filed for his patent drain snake in 2000 in which patent was granted. Gene then licensed his ZIP-IT drain cleaning tool to Cobra Products in 2001 before several companies began to infringe upon his patent rights. 

In this article, we will discuss the main advantages of the Zip-It tool over the competition and provide a little bit of background information on how the inventor came up with the concept and invention.

The Invention of the Zip-It Drain-Cleaning Tool

Gene Luoma of Duluth, Minnesota, invented his Zip-It tool around the year 2000 as a way to quickly and easily extract hair out of his bathtub drain. Since he had a young daughter with long hair, he was having frequent problems with her hair clogging the drain (source).

One day, he fashioned a tool to extract the hair by cutting a thin strip of plastic off of an old sled. By cutting barbs into the plastic, he had something to snag the hair with. It turns out that it worked like a charm.

He refined this basic design into an injection-molded tool with a handle and finger grip, long flexible shaft with sharp barbs. The main advantage of the Zip-It drain-cleaning tool is that it eliminates clogs without the need for harmful chemicals or expensive, specialized equipment.

At first, he manufactured the Zip-Its himself and filed a design patent in addition to a utility patent.

The next move was to approach a local home improvement store with the idea. Their plumbing purchaser was impressed with the product and was willing to buy them in large quantities if he could produce them. (source). 

As a result, Gene licensed his invention to Cobra Products, which produces many other types of plumbing products, up until 2018. Several large chain retail stores were selling the Zip-It during the contract period, combined, they have sold at least 40 million of them. 

You can now buy Gene’s new longer 25 inch plastic Zip-It drain snake online at Amazon.com.

The Zip-It is not Gene’s only invention; he studied mechanical design and engineering  and has several patents under his belt. However, the Zip-It has proven to be one of his most simple and yet most successful inventions.

You can still find several YouTube videos online of numerous individuals unclogging their drains using the Zip-It tool like these videos from 2006 and 2009.

For a time, the Zip-it was even something of a trend with people posting videos of the nasty things they pulled out of their drains.

Since then, other companies have copied and produced their own knockoff of the Zip-It drain cleaning tool, but the original Zip-It remains the best due to its quality, construction and design.

Cobra Products and BrassCraft

The company that was licensed to sell the original Zip-it drain cleaning tool was Cobra Products. Cobra Products is a division of BrassCraft Manufacturing, both of which are brands of the MASCO Corporation (source).

Alex Manoogian founded MASCO in 1929 with its headquarters in Livonia, Michigan. They now have numerous manufacturing facilities across North America that focus on plumbing as well as decorative architectural products (source).

Robert Zell, himself a plumbing innovator, founded BrassCraft in Detroit, Michigan, in 1946, and BrassCraft now has operations in “New Jersey, North Carolina, California, and Texas” in addition to Michigan (source).

BrassCraft introduced the Zip-It drain cleaning tool to plumbing contractors to save them time and money and build business relationships. Instead of resorting to a plumbing snake, they could use the Zip-it to solve a simple clog in under 10 minutes.

Cobra Products signed a licensing agreement with Gene Luoma to produce, market and sell the Zip-It drain cleaning tool as they have listed it in their company website (source).

Other sites might list such products as a “hair snare,” “drain opener,” or “plastic drain stick” (source).

Using the Zip-It™ Drain Cleaning Tool

If your bathtub drain uses a grate or grid drain with small holes, you will want to remove them first unless they have wide slots. Even if you can fit the Zip-It through the drain holes, you will need a little extra space to pull it back out with hair and other debris on it. 

If you have a bathtub or sink with a pop-up stopper, you shouldn’t have an issue. Simply slide the Zip-It under the stopper, maybe give it a little twist or wriggle, and then pull it back up. Some sink drains are divided into four small, curved slots that you can fit the Zip-It into.

The original Zip-It drain cleaning tool is a one piece injection molded device, with a handle and aperture, long thin strip with barbs.  

The newer Zip-It Green Snake is even longer at 25 inches overall and larger handle for company identification with instructions..

Standard drain sizes are at least 1 1/2 inches, but 1 1/4 inches and 1 5/8 inches are also typical. With the Zip-It’s flexibility, these drain sizes are no problem.

The Zip-It plastic drain stick is inexpensive enough to be disposable but durable enough to last over long periods. It’s less expensive than a plumber’s snake and can remove clogs that plungers and auger strips cannot.

The Changing World of Patent Law

Inventors like Gene Luoma are having a tough time defending their intellectual property thanks in part to two landmark Supreme Court decisions: eBay Inc. v. MerExchange, LLC (2006) and TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands, LLC (2017).

 Image by ID 272447 via Pixabay

eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC (2006)

In the eBay decision (2006), the Supreme Court ruled that courts should not automatically issue injunctions due to patent infringement and that they should use a four-factor test to determine if they should issue an injunction.

The court issued this decision in favor of eBay, which used the patented “Buy it Now” function owned by MercExchange.

At first, a lower court decision awarded MercExchange $30 million in damages, and MercExchange followed up their court victory by filing for an injunction against eBay to halt their use of the Buy it Now function. 

This injunction was denied by the district court but overruled by the federal circuit court. However, when eBay appealed to the Supreme Court, they received the favorable ruling that they sought.

One of the major consequences of the 2006 eBay decision was that it denied the inventor the right to prevent others from using their invention.

While they ruled that the patent infringer would have to pay the inventor, they did not leave it up to the inventor whether they wanted to sell or not (source).

This decision heavily favors the infringer, especially if the inventor does not have the resources to defend the patent in court. Even if the inventor wins, they do not ultimately set the price that they have to sell for.

TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC (2017)

Another critical decision was that of TC Hearltand (2017), which ultimately denied patent defenders the right to file a lawsuit in their home district.

The decision was mainly based on the earlier court decision Fourco Glass Co. v. Transmirra Products Corp (1957) that required the trial of patent infringement cases in the state that the defendant was incorporated in (source).

Later legislation specified that such cases should be tried in the district in which the infringing company was located, while even further legislation expanded this to mean any district the company conducted business.

The main problem with this was that it allowed individuals to shop around for the court most favorable to them, with the overwhelming majority of cases ending up in the Eastern District of Texas.

When Kraft Foods decided to sue TC Heartland over one of their products, they chose a district in Delaware, even though TC Heartland had no physical presence there.

When TC Heartland attempted to have the case moved to Indiana, where their company was located, both district and federal courts rejected their appeal.

However, after TC Heartland appealed to the Supreme Court, the court ruled in their favor. The TC Heartland decision now requires patent holders to file a suit against an infringer in the state that the patent infringer is located and incorporated. 

This ruling forces the inventor to travel to that state instead of being able to file in their local district.

The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB)

While the TC Heartland decision shields companies from “patent trolls,” inventors also face unlimited validity challenges by third parties through the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). 

Many inventors simply do not have the same resources that larger companies do to endure long, drawn-out legal cases over patent infringement.

The Leahy–Smith America Invents Act (AIA) of 2011 allows patent infringers to challenge the validity of a patent, and the PTAB now invalidates 85 percent of the patents issued.

Valuable patents like those of Gene Luoma frequently face serial petitions that cost an average of $350,000 to defend each case.

Even if the defender wins, they cannot recover the money spent in their defense. The PTAB has been known to invalidate claims to several inventions, largely subverting the original purpose of the Patent Office. 

Because Gene’s Zip-it invention had obvious monetary value, numerous companies began to infringe upon Gene’s patent. When patent holders confront such entities for  infringement, they simply file for a reexamination of the patent through the PTAB.

Due to the extravagant expense of defending these patents in court, many companies cut the costs of defending these patents and, eventually, Cobra decided to cut their losses, leaving the job of defending the patent to Gene alone.

After years of drawn-out legal proceedings, the PTAB invalidated all 12 of Gene’s claims to the patent. Now, Gene and his family no longer receive the royalties for his invention, which makes things very difficult for his family.

The Luoma Family

One of the reasons that royalty fees are so crucial to Gene and his family is that he and two of his children suffer from a progressive form of muscular dystrophy called Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD).

While Gene is an adaptive individual who continues to come up with new ideas and inventions, current patent law leaves Gene and his family wide open for unending lawsuits and the threat of losing the rights to any of his designs.

Large corporations tend to hoard valuable patents, and only they have the resources to hire the lawyers and do battle in court over extended periods.

By leaving inventors wide open to patent infringement, our government discourages innovation, which will ultimately affect us all.

appealing a patent
Image by Louis Velazquez via Unsplash

Inventor Protection Act

The realities of patent infringement have led many inventors like Gene to support the Inventor Protection Act. This act, under bill H .R. 6557, entered the U.S. House of Representatives in July of 2018, and it was referred to the subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet on October 1, 2018 (source).

As drafted, the Inventor Protection Act still allows an accused patent infringer to question a patent’s validity but only through the Patent and Trademark Office, while exempting inventors from PTAB proceedings.

The act also specifies that the Patent and Trademark Office cannot review an inventor-owned patent without the consent of the inventor.

Furthermore, the act enables the inventor to recover monetary damages from the infringer. If a defendant is found guilty of patent infringement, this act will require them to pay damages caused to the inventor as well as the inventor’s legal fees over 10 percent of the damages.

This bill also includes a provision for a trial of no more than seven days in length for a speedy resolution instead of a decade-long process.

In short, the Inventor Protection Act will restore the Constitutional rights of the inventor. It will empower them to defend their intellectual property, which is increasingly critical in our digital age.

Final Thoughts

While there have been numerous products emerge claiming to do the same job as Gene Luoma’s Zip-It Tool, none has been able to quite equal its effectiveness. This simple solution can save you a ton of money on what would otherwise be an expensive plumbing job.

While it obviously cannot fix every clog or problem, at such a low cost, it is always worth a try. Just remember the next time you use that Zip-It drain cleaning Tool that it all started with a man with an idea that he was able to bring into reality.

This innovative spirit is critical to our national development, and I would urge you to support the passage of the Inventor Protection Act because of it.