So your drain isn’t draining as fast as it usually does. It’s not fully clogged, you don’t notice any other signs of damage, and nothing strange is happening, but the water sticks around for longer than it reasonably should. What do you do?
If you’re like most American homeowners, your first instinct is to run out and buy some liquid, chemical-based drain cleaner. It will probably cost you $10 or less, and in less than half an hour, you could end up with a cleared drain that runs like new again. It sounds perfect, but is it?
Drain cleaners aren’t as magical as they might seem. In fact, in some cases, they can be dangerous and they might make your plumbing problems worse.
How Drain Cleaners Work
First, let’s take a look at the different types of drain cleaners that are available, and how each one works. This will help you understand the types of harm that drain cleaners can cause.
There are three main types of commercial drain cleaners:
Caustic drain cleaners.
Caustic drain cleaners are based on substances like caustic potash and/or lye. On the pH scale, they’re qualified as bases, which means they have free electrons to give to other substance. They’re heavier than water, which means they can sink past standing water in a completely clogged drain, and when they interact with a substance responsible for the clog, they add electrons to it, generating heat in the process. Hydroxide ions in these compounds facilitate a chemical reaction that makes grease more dissolvable and clears solid substances away. However, there are some repercussions to this chemical reaction, including the heat generated as a byproduct.
Oxidizing drain cleaners.
Oxidizing drain cleaners offer a different type of chemical reaction—they take electrons away from the clogging substance in a process known as (you guessed it) oxidation. These cleaners are made from bleach, nitrates, and peroxide, and tend to generate both heat and gas (which adds pressure) to clear clogged drains. Again, there are some side effects to note here.
Acidic drain cleaners.
Most drain cleaners sold in stores are either caustic or oxidizing, but acidic drain cleaners also exist. You’re more likely to see these used by plumbers, but it’s still helpful to know how they work in case you run across an example available in stores. Acidic cleaners use powerful acids (such as sulfuric acid) to melt away common sources of clogs, like congealed grease. However, they can wreak havoc on certain systems.
So what potential dangers are there, if these types of drain cleaners truly are effective in removing clogs?
First, most types of chemical liquid drain cleaners are toxic, which makes them especially dangerous if you’re living with small children or pets. Consuming even a tiny amount of liquid drain cleaner can put you at risk of death, and even the fumes from these types of products can be dangerous if inhaled in a poorly ventilated area for long enough. Sulfuric acid and other acidic drain cleaners are even more dangerous, capable of eating through many types of materials if improperly handled.
Lasting pipe damage.
One of the biggest potential dangers of liquid drain cleaners is their effect on your current pipes. Older pipes tend to be made of copper or similarly vulnerable metals, and when exposed to enough heat, they could warp or even suffer damage. Oxidizing agents in chemical cleaners may also oxidize the metal, and over time, this could cause cracks or structural damage. Even modern pipes, which are made from PVC, can suffer warping or other forms of damage from the excessive heat generated by these chemical reactions. Using a small amount of cleaner once or twice won’t be enough to ruin your plumbing system, but the more often you use these cleaners, the riskier it becomes.
Almost all drain cleaners use powerful chemicals to get the job done, but remember that your drains all lead back to somewhere—and those chemicals don’t just disappear. Eventually, those chemicals make their way into the ocean, where they can interfere with plant and animal life in their natural biomes. Thankfully, there are new types of drain cleaners emerging that rely on naturally found ingredients and biodegradable materials to help clog drains without the environmental impact.
Interference with a bigger problem. Drain cleaners are specifically designed to resolve small, easily removable plumbing problems. If you’re dealing with a bigger issue, such as major pipe damage, pouring more drain cleaner isn’t going to help you. In fact, it may cause you to make the problem even worse, or ignore it long enough that the damage increases in severity.
Instead of reaching for liquid drain cleaner as your first and only option, try some alternative methods to clearing your drain first. For starters, check to see if anything is manually obstructing the drain, such as accumulated hair or a lodged piece of food. Then, take the drain apart using basic tools, and give it a simple cleaning with a cloth and/or a plastic snake-like snare (which you can get for a few dollars). If that doesn’t work, try using a combination of baking soda and vinegar to clear the drain, and follow up with some hot water. At that point, you might try your hand at taking apart the trap underneath the sink or clearing the drain further into the wall—but after that, you’ll want to call a professional.
If you notice that one or more of your drains just aren’t doing the job they’re supposed to, don’t reach for the liquid drain cleaner. Instead, contact us at Prestige Plumbing. If there’s a simple problem, we’ll fix it—without doing any further damage to your pipes. And if it’s something more complex, we’ll stop it in its tracks before it makes your life far more difficult than it needs to be.