What’s the best way to unclog your drains?
We’ve all had them – while not life threatening, clogged drains are usually inconvenient, and always annoying.
Which explains why they’re a plumber’s most common call for help.
Let’s start with the most common drain clogs, the kitchen or the bathroom sinks. Food scraps, soapy dishwater and grease build-up are the usual villains in the kitchen. In the bathroom it’s invariably soap residue and hair that slowly constricts the drain.
At first the water drains away easily, but as the ever-growing fatty deposit begins to cling to the drain and constrict the flow, the water drains slower and slower…until we have a clog that requires attention.
So, how best to deal with this household inconvenience? (You can lessen the chance of clogs in the kitchen by disposing of excess grease in a container rather than pouring it down the sink or using your garbage disposal.)
Your mother probably told you of that old standby, baking soda and vinegar.
Rustic as this sounds, it really does work – if the clog isn’t a severe one. Pour a pot of boiling water down the drain, add ½ cup of baking soda. Let it sit for several minutes then pour 1 cup of hot water mixed with 1 cup of vinegar on top of the baking soda. Cover the drain to keep the resulting foam reaction where it’s doing the most good. Finally, flush it again with boiling water.
Other than the slightly acrid smell of the vinegar this method is benign to both your plumbing and your olfactory glands.
It doesn’t always remove the clog but if allowed to stew 15-20 minutes it will eliminate unpleasant odours from your drain. In fact, baking soda and vinegar, applied regularly, work better as a preventative and as a deodorizer than as a cure. This goes for your garbage disposal and dishwasher, too.
And, speaking of preventatives, use a strainer in your kitchen sink, a stopper in your bathroom.
What about chemical drain cleaners?
We all know about dry or liquid drain cleaners from advertising or we’ve seen them in the hardware store and, in our instant-gratification culture, it’s tempting to want to zap a clog with chemicals. At the very least, before purchasing–particularly before use–read the instructions carefully.
If you think the smell of vinegar is pungent, just wait until you start pouring alkalines and acids down your drains. They’ll attack your clogs, all right, but they’ll also assault your senses, perhaps even damage your health.
Used incorrectly, they’re also hard on your plumbing and fixtures. Plastic pipes can soften and warp. Iron and steel pipes, particularly when corroded, are susceptible to failure through exposure to this chemically generated heat.
Caustic (alkaline) drain cleaners are composed of pure lye (concentrated sodium hydroxide) or potassium hydroxide or caustic potash and work by melting away the clog by creating heat. Odourless, fumeless and biodegradable, they’re accepted as being benign to septic systems or cesspools, and metal, plastic or chrome.
Acidic drain cleaners (hydrochloric or sulphuric acids) melt congealed grease, even tissue paper, by creating heat. They aren’t generally sold in stores because they’re hazardous to you and your plumbing fixtures, even capable of producing explosive vapours upon coming in contact with traces of chemicals used previously to clear a drain.
Another undesirable result can be a chemical chain-reaction that results in a blow-back of toxins and sludge that can corrode your aluminum and porcelain fixtures. Your eyes, throat, lungs and skin, too.
Read the instructions carefully, wear rubber gloves and eye protection. Be sure your work area is well-ventilated.
Oxidizing drain cleaners, which are composed of household bleach, peroxides and nitrates, clear clogs by generating both heat and gas.
These drain cleaners come as solids, powders, granules, liquids, gels and in two solutions that are mixed at time of use.
A common weakness to all chemical drain cleaners is that they don’t work on clogs that aren’t in close proximity to the drain, as in a toilet or sewer.
So much for chemical drain cleaners.
Enzymatic drain cleaners are friendlier to the environmental as well as the homeowner and the plumbing. This is biological warfare but without a downside! Bacteria cultures and concentrated enzymes are meant to flush slow-running drains rather than clear full-fledged clogs. They’re safe, easy to use and inexpensive. However, they take a while to do the job.
Which brings us to tried-and-trusty mechanical drain cleaners
The most common plumbing aid is a plunger (also known as a plumber’s friend) which clears clogs within inches of its reach, such as a clogged toilet, by suction.
A hand-held drain auger with a cable (aka plumber’s snake) thin enough to pass through ordinary sink traps can clean drains up to eight metres (25 feet) from the opening. A rotating drum feeds a cable that scours the pipe as it goes; this includes small diameter sewer pipes. (Note: a ‘closet auger’ that doesn’t scratch ceramic surfaces is used to clean toilet drains.) Both models are relatively inexpensive or you can rent one as needed.
Air-burst drain cleaners are also available in stores. These fire a charge of accelerated carbon dioxide into the drain, blowing away (hopefully) a clog that’s near the opening. This kind of cleaner is usually good for a single application. They can’t clear serious clogs in sewer drains.
An electrically powered heavy-duty drain auger used by plumbers is the big brother to a hand-held auger, able to reach as far as 80 metres. These augers can negotiate 90-degree bends, remove not just ordinary clogs but physical obstructions, and are effective in sewer pipes. Care must be exercised not to overstress the cable when feeding it through the pipe.
A sewer jetter is a highly charged and directed flow of water able to reach up to several hundred metres from a pump or pressure washer. A bonus of a sewer jetter is that its multi-spray nozzle cleans the pipe as it goes. Note that the models of sewer jetters available to a homeowner only remove soft obstructions.
Newest kid on the block is the chemical-free FlexiSnake Drain Millipede Hair Clog Tool. (Really!). It catches the hairs in a bathroom drain with thousands of ‘micro hooks’ and can be used repeatedly. But it works for hair only, not soapy buildup or grease.
Your best bet is to prevent clogs in the first place. That’s where using a strainer and not pouring cooking grease down the kitchen drain, and keeping the bathroom sink free of hair comes in. And giving your drains some TLC with baking soda and vinegar from time to time, too.
If you’re really stuck, the friendly staff at Veridis Plumbing and Heating are here to help you.