Unblocking the Mystery: How Drain Cleaners Do Their Job

How could it be that when a liquid simply refuses to flow through your drains, you can fix the problem by adding more liquid? Well, through the power of science, and extremely aggressive chemical compounds, liquid drain cleaners have it figured out.

Today we’ll examine how this DIY blockage busting solution works – as well as talk about some of their potential (and potentially serious) pitfalls.

Spoiler alert: if you have a clogged drain, we recommend thinking twice before reaching for drain cleaner as it may create a far larger problem! Instead, let a professional plumber help!

The Science Behind Different Types of Liquid Drain Cleaners

How Acid Drain Cleaners Work

Acidic drain cleaners typically contain strong acids like sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid. When these acids come into contact with substances like grease or soap scum, they donate protons (H+ ions) to the material. This triggers a chemical reaction that breaks the molecular bonds in the material, effectively dissolving it. The reaction is exothermic, meaning it releases heat, which helps to further break down the clog. This proton donation mechanism essentially “eats away” at the organic and some inorganic materials, turning them into water-soluble substances that can be flushed away.

These cleaners are known for their effectiveness in tackling tough clogs, such as those caused by grease, soap scum, hair, and even some inorganic materials like calcium and lime.

However, they come with their own set of drawbacks and risks. For one, they are highly corrosive and can damage metal pipes if misused or used too often. The chemical reactions they undergo can also produce toxic fumes that pose inhalation risks. Further, these cleaners may not be suitable for all types of pipes, such as PVC or older metal ones, and using them on incompatible systems can be disastrous.

Due to their corrosive nature, they are not as readily available for consumer use and are mostly found in professional settings. Acid drain cleaners can cause severe burns, and so personal protective gear must be worn when working with them. They also have the potential to damage or discolor materials like chrome and stainless steel.

Drain cleaner in powder form being poured into shower drain.

How Caustic Drain Cleaners Work

Caustic drain cleaners, typically containing strong alkalis like sodium hydroxide (lye) or potassium hydroxide, are effective in breaking down organic matter such as hair, food particles, and grease. When these alkaline cleaners encounter a clog made of organic material, the clog materials undergoes a reaction called saponification. In this reaction, the base converts fats and oils into soap and glycerol, both of which are more soluble in water than the original material. Like acidic cleaners, this reaction is also exothermic and generates heat, which assists in breaking down the clog more quickly.

While effective on organic materials, they tend to not be effective against inorganic materials like mineral deposits – so depending on the nature of your clog they may not help at all!

Although caustic drain cleaners may be less corrosive to certain materials than acid-based cleaners, they can still cause significant damage to plastic pipes if allowed to remain in contact for too long. They are harmful if ingested, inhaled, and can cause burns if they come into contact with skin or eyes. Safety precautions, such as wearing gloves and eye protection, are essential.

How Oxidizing Drain Cleaners Work

Oxidizing drain cleaners typically contain elements like sodium hypochlorite (bleach), along with additional ingredients such as nitrates or peroxides. These cleaners release oxygen ions (O-) that can break the chemical bonds in organic material, effectively oxidizing and breaking them down. One of the key advantages of oxidizing cleaners is that they are generally less corrosive than acid or caustic cleaners, making them safer for certain types of pipes and plumbing fixtures.

However, oxidizing cleaners are not as potent as acid or caustic cleaners when it comes to dissolving heavy or stubborn clogs. They may require a longer dwell time to be effective, and even then, often fail to clear the clog entirely.

Safety is still a concern, as these chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation, and toxic fumes may be released during use. Protective gear such as gloves and goggles is recommended. Like all chemical cleaners, they also pose environmental risks if not properly disposed of, as the chemicals can be harmful to aquatic life and ecosystems.

Black bottle of dliquid drain cleaner being poured into bath drain.

Concerns Surrounding Drain Cleaners

Chemical drain cleaners, regardless of type, pose inherent risks to plumbing systems. The foremost concern is the corrosive nature of these chemicals, which can weaken both metal and plastic pipes over time. While some cleaners may be less corrosive than others, the fact remains that repeated or improper use results in a gradual degradation of the piping material. This weakening of the pipes can lead to leaks, cracks, or even complete failure of the plumbing system, requiring costly repairs or replacements. It’s also worth noting that the chemicals in these cleaners can react with other substances that may already be present in the plumbing system. Such interactions can lead to unpredictable outcomes, ranging from reduced effectiveness of the cleaner to the formation of hazardous compounds or gasses.

Given these risks, we generally advise our customers to completely avoid chemical cleaners. Most problems they are capable of solving can be fixed with safer alternatives – and if they don’t solve the problem then you’ve introduced a potentially dangerous chemical into your plumbing system for no benefit at all!

On top of the risks they pose to your drain pipes, these chemicals can cause serious injuries if they get onto your skin or into your eyes, and can create toxic fumes when mixed with common household cleaners.

Very clogged kitchen sink full of dirty water.

Alternatives to Chemical Drain Cleaners

The simplest, and most effective way for homeowners to clear drain clogs is with a plunger! Commonly, people are reluctant to use the same plunger on their kitchen sink or shower drain as on their toilet – and we totally agree. However, there is an easy and practical solution: buy another plunger.

Not only is this a more sanitary solution, sink plungers are actually differently shaped than toilet plungers – lacking the curved flange at their base that helps toilet plungers get a good seal on the bottom of the bowl.

For very mild clogs, you might find that a solution of hot water, vinegar, and baking soda may alleviate the problem. However, if this doesn’t fully resolve your clog, a professional drain cleaning is the surest solution.

Powerful Chemicals – Questionable Utility

Liquid drain cleaners work by using incredibly strong chemicals that are capable of breaking up clogs – but in the process they are very hard on your plumbing system. While the short-term convenience may seem appealing, an inexpensive drain cleaning service can transform into a serious plumbing problem if the chemical cleaners damage your sewer lines.

For small clogs, a plunger is the gold standard – long lasting and easy on your pipes. For tougher clogs, contact a professional plumber and they will have a whole suite of tools including drain cameras to precisely identify the problem, augers and drain snakes to clear shallow clogs, and even hydro jetting tools to break up tree roots deep in your sewer lines.

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