You’ve seen “liquid plumber” products and likely even tried them. After all, they’re quick and easy to use, affordable, available at almost any grocery or hardware store, and relatively effective at improving slow drains and removing basic clogs caused by organic matter like hair, grease and food.
However, they can also damage your plumbing if they’re not used judiciously – even from the first use. Here’s what you need to know about drain-cleaning products and when you should call a plumber instead.
How Do They Work?
Your sinks get clogged from a buildup of sludge called biofilm and other solid organic bits. Here in Texas, we also have to worry about any hard-water deposits that build up over time. Most liquid drain cleaners contain lye (sodium hydroxide) and bleach (sodium chloride). These chemicals create a corrosive and heat-releasing chemical reaction once they hit water. As the cleaner moves through the pipe, the heat and the chemicals work together to dissolve both the biofilm and some solids like hair and grease. Other solids are softened by the process and are released down the pipe, and the clog is cleared.
However, all these reactions taking place at one time in a very small space can be more than some residential drains and pipes can handle.
How Do They Affect Your Pipes?
The problem is that those harsh chemicals don’t stop reacting once the clog has cleared – and they can cause irreparable harm to:
- Your pipes, especially plastic, PVC, rubber or older pipes
- The glue that holds pipes together – again, particularly with older joints
This means using these products is kind of like playing Russian roulette: your overall success is determined by the state of your pipes (which you usually can’t see) and simple blind luck.
What About Safety Concerns?
When we mentioned lye and bleach, your eyes might have widened a bit. We’re always taught to handle these corrosives extremely carefully – and yes, they absolutely can cause injury if they’re handled or used incorrectly. The addition of hot water can worsen or strengthen any reactions. Always:
- Read the instructions and follow the safety precautions on the packaging.
- Flush the pipes as thoroughly as you can once the clog is clear.
- Be careful not to combine these cleaners with other household products, cleaners or other chemical ingredients. Ammonia, for instance, can react with the bleach to create a poisonous gas.
- Protect your skin and eyes from spills and splashes. Remember, these chemicals dissolve organic matter!
- Avoid breathing the fumes.
Are They Worth the Risk?
Only you are familiar enough with your household plumbing to answer this question. Liquid plumbers are widely thought to be safe for occasional (three to five times a year) use to handle slow drains and basic clogs. However, it is never recommended to use them in your toilet! The chemical reaction doesn’t work as well on the type of waste matter that usually clogs toilet pipes, so it won’t work – not to mention it’s not always safe for use in porcelain.
Are There Any Non-Chemical Alternatives?
There are several tried-and-true options that don’t involve harsh and dangerous chemicals. Consider trying:
- A good, old-fashioned plunger. If you can combine enough force from pushed water with the pull of the plunger’s suction, you can likely shake the clog loose, get it to move down and allow water to flow again. Please note there is more than one plunger design and use the one designed for your drain opening. And never use a plunger after chemical cleaners as you don’t want any chemicals splashing up and onto you.
- A drain snake or toilet auger. These tools allow you to manually break up a clog that is relatively near the top of the drain. You just uncoil the snake and push it down the drain, breaking the clog apart and allowing it to clear safely. These tools are not only inexpensive, they are reusable (although there might be a bit of unpleasant cleanup involved).
- If you’re not in a hurry, enzyme-based liquid drain cleaners essentially digest organic clogs and are usually less harmful to the plumbing (and to you!). Because they use natural bacteria and enzymes, they just work much more slowly. Many are recommended to be left overnight before pipe flushing.
When To Call a Plumber
Here’s the tricky thing about clogs. Due to buildup of biofilm around any clog, a drain cleaner may eat away enough around the edges to allow water to pass, after which you assume the drain is clear. In reality, however, the original clog may still be there in a slightly smaller form, just waiting to capture more organic matter and build up more biofilm.
If an object is obstructing your drain – small toys, hair clips, Q-tips, you name it – no amount of liquid drain cleaner or any of the other options above will solve your problem. If you have repeated clogs in the same drains, continuing to use liquid drain cleaner will only make your problem worse by potentially damaging your pipes. It’s best to call in the professionals and explain about the repeated clogging. It will save you time, effort and money in the long run.
When the plumber arrives, always remember to tell them if you have recently put any liquid cleaner down the drain. Show them the package. If you don’t make the plumber aware and they use an industrial cleaner in the drain, there is a very real danger of chemical reactions like potential explosions or the release of toxic fumes.
Drains are the veins of your plumbing system and should only be serviced by experienced licensed plumbers. At Horizon Plumbing, we are your neighborhood plumbing experts who have fixed toilets and drains in DFW for more than 40 years. We can address any clog, even those under your home (we can tunnel underneath and keep your floors undamaged). Call us at (817) 461-1117 or get a free quote to avoid a potential plumbing disaster.