Our bathroom tub and sink drains regularly start running slow, and I regularly go the the hardware store and buy some drain cleaning product, like Drano, Plumber’s Helper and others. I regularly pour this caustic or acid liquid down the drain, following directions carefully. It never works the first time, so a second application is needed, and usually that works enough to get me another few months. Rinse, repeat.
Recently, I got a professional strength cleaner that was “virgin sulfuric acid”, had a bottle that was wrapped in a plastic bag, was covered with warnings, skulls-and-crossbones and instructed not to get it on anything organic, or even metals. It was labeled “Environmentally Responsible”. Hmm. I wonder if pouring stuff like this down the drain is a good idea? I did anyway … and it didn’t work either.
I knew better — when I was in college, and for a few years after, I was a carpenter, then worked in real estate management. Real plumbers don’t use the liquids, they use a plumber’s snake. But you don’t have to have a fancy one that plugs in — I have had a hand-cranked snake for years, and it takes some effort, but works great.
How To Clear Your Tub Drain Without Drain Cleaning Liquids
A plumbing snake (drain auger) is a long spiral of spring steel, like a slinky but 1/4" thick, and 20 feet long; you can get one for about $15. At the business end, the spiral is unwound a little. The whole thing is curled into a holder that is designed to let you crank it around. You insert the end into the drain, uncurl some of the snake from the end and start cranking. Because it’s like a screw, it pulls itself down the drain and snakes its way around the bends and corners.
You keep feeding and cranking and the snake whirls itself around the inside of the pipe. When you get to a clog, the snake digs in and either breaks it up, or grabs on. If the latter, you pull the snake back up the drain to see what you have caught. Sometimes it is tricky to get around a corner — if so, pull the snake out a little, and try again.
Generally, drain clogs are a delightful potpourri of hair, soap, and all of the other lovely things that come off your body when you shower. Yummy (and what a delicate aroma)! Pull of cut this stuff off and flush it down the toilet drain. I usually run a second one down until I get 15 feet or so along and the snake is not getting hung up.
The get the snake into the drain, you’ll need to remove some part. In a bathroom sink, the drain cover/stopper needs to come out. Most sinks have a knurled knob attached to the stopper gizmo — follow that down under the sink and see where it enters the drain pipe. Unscrew the cover (you might need a pair of pliers, and if the sink has water in it, get a bucket). Another alternative for bathroom and kitchen sinks is a nut at the bottom of the drain trap — the u-bend part of the drain; pliers and a bucket are needed here. For the tub, remove the stopper handle/overflow plate (not the drain cover) with a screwdriver.
In some cases, the clog is actually stuck to the stopper mechanism, and if so, you’re in luck. Clean off the guck, and reassemble.
There are many better guides on cleaning drains, so take a look at any of these articles on how to clean a clogged drain.
Environmentally Sound Drain Cleaners
There are some solutions that might work without harsh chemicals or a lot of work, including things like boiling water. There are a couple of good suggestions on how to clear drains on this site, none of which involve anything nasty.
There are a number of drain cleaning products that don’t use acids or bases, but instead use microbes that like to eat up the clogs. I haven’t tried these, but I suspect they are best as a preventive measure — most of the sites I found indicate that they won’t fix a hard clog. Several sites recommend Drainbo So have some on hand, and use when you see your drain getting slow. This does sound like a more reasonable approach.
Remember: The Drain Goes Somewhere
It’s worth thinking about what you put down the drain. Organic stuff can mostly be dealt with by public sewage treatment plants or a home sewer. But chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food waste, cleaners and so on can have bad or unknown impacts on the environment, as we recently learned from the excellent Frontline show called “Poisoned Waters“.