We’ve all been there, maybe it’s been while doing the dishes, maybe it’s been while shaving, maybe it’s even been after using the toilet. For whatever reason the drain is backed up, and won’t actually drain.
A clogged drain can be a hassle, but it doesn’t necessarily demand a plumber’s attention. There are two types of drain cleaner that will unclog a blocked drain: chemical, and device.
If a single sink, toilet, or tub or shower drain is clogged the first choice is normally a drain cleaner that can remove soft obstructions such as hair and grease clogs that can accumulate close to interior drain openings. Chemical drain cleaners, plungers, handheld drain augers, air burst drain cleaners, and home remedy drain cleaners are intended for this purpose.
If more than one plumbing fixture is clogged the first choice is normally a drain cleaner that can remove soft or hard obstructions along the entire length of the drain, from the drain opening through the main sewer drain to the lateral piping outside the building. Electric drain cleaners and sewer jetters are intended for this purpose.
Chemical cleaners come in both solid and liquid form, and can be purchased from most hardware stores; however, some are intended to be used exclusively by trained professionals – these are normally the highly acidic kinds.
Some examples of chemical cleaners include: Alkaline drain openers, Acidic drain openers, and home remedy drain cleaners.
Alkaline drain openers contain primarily sodium hydroxide, and sometimes potassium hydroxide. Liquid formulations of corrosive alkaline drain cleaners can contain sodium hypochlorite (bleach) and lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) in concentrations up to 50 percent. Other corrosive mixtures come as two-part cleaners that are mixed as they are poured in the drain opening. Inside the drain the two solutions react to release a gas, and surfactants trap the gas as dense foam. The intent of this foaming action is to coat the inside of the drain pipe to dislodge more of the substances that form the clog.
Solid formulations of corrosive alkaline drain cleaners in the form of sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide granules can provide more concentrated effective ingredients. Some patented, solid-formula cleaners add aluminum turnings that react with the solid hydroxide in water to heat the caustic mixture to a boil.
Acid drain cleaners usually contain sulfuric acid at high concentrations. It can dissolve proteins and fats via hydrolysis and since sulfuric acid at high concentrations also has a strong dehydrating property, it readily dissolves tissue paper inside pipes through dehydration as well.
According to a manufacturer, potential hazards include violent reaction with water and the production of explosive hydrogen vapors upon contact with most metals; chronic (delayed) and acute (immediate) health hazards if inhaled, ingested, or contacted, including severe eye, flesh and skin burns or even permanent visual loss, inflammation of respiratory membranes, and corrosive burns to all human tissue. It may even be fatal if swallowed. Due to the vigorous reaction between the acid and water, such acidic drain openers should be added slowly into the pipe to be cleaned.
Home remedy cleaners include boiling water poured into drain openings to clear soap and hair clogs; or, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) poured into a drain, followed by vinegar.
Advantages of home remedy drain cleaners include ready availability and environmental safety, though they are limited in effectiveness compared to other drain cleaners.
Safety considerations for home remedy drain cleaners include the requirement to handle ingredients (for example, boiling water) with the appropriate care.
Some examples of drain cleaning devices include: handheld drain augers, air burst drain cleaners, hydro-mechanical drain cleaners, electric drain cleaners, and sewer jetters.
Handheld drain augers are typically designed to clean portions of a drain within 8 metres (25 ft) of the drain opening. The cable of a handheld drain auger is driven into a drain by the mechanical force created when the operator rotates a drum that anchors the cable.
Many handheld augers have cables that are thin enough to pass through common sink traps, though some manufacturers do not recommend using handheld drain augers in toilets because of their potential to scratch ceramic surfaces. Instead, a special closet auger (from “water closet”) should be used.
Similar to handheld augers, drain rods can be used for clearing blockages in long, straight pipes.
Advantages of handheld drain augers include low relative cost and ready availability through hardware stores. However, drawbacks include a reach that is normally limited to 8 metres (25 ft), and the potential for the twisting cable to scratch the ceramic surfaces of plumbing fixtures. They are also only effective on small-diameter pipes – 40–50 mm rather than main sewer pipes of 110 mm.
Safety considerations include a requirement to wear protective gloves and eye protection, and to practice good hygiene after coming into contact with drain fluids.
Air burst drain cleaners use accelerated carbon dioxide, air or other gas to rupture the clog membrane. Accelerated gas creates a force on standing water that can dislodge clogs that accumulate close to drain openings.
Advantages of air burst drain cleaners include the potential to immediately clear clogs and slow-running drains, in contrast to chemical cleaners that can take more time to work. Air burst cleaners can dislodge obstructions that are further away from drain openings than can a plunger, and in contrast to a drain augers do not risk scratching the ceramic surfaces of sinks, bathtubs and toilets.
Disadvantages of air burst drain cleaners include a limited cleaning range in pipes that do not contain standing water and, in general, ineffectiveness for unclogging blocked main sewer drains.
Safety considerations for air burst drain cleaners include a requirement to wear eye protection and, when using an air burst cleaner that uses compressed gas cartridges, careful handling of unused cartridges.
Hydro-mechanical drain cleans use high-pressure water to break up obstructions and flush these smaller particles down the drain.
Most municipal building codes mandate that drain plumbing increase in diameter as it moves closer to the municipal sewer system. I.E., most kitchen sinks evacuate water with a 1 1⁄2-inch drain pipe, which feeds into a larger 4-inch drain pipe on the main plumbing stack before heading to a septic tank or to the city sewage system. This means that, barring intrusion by tree roots or other debris into buried piping, the vast majority of household drain clogs occur in the smallest-diameter piping, usually in the pop-up or drain trap, where they can be reached easily by a hydro-mechanical device’s water hose.
Advantages of hydro-mechanical drain cleaners are their eco-friendliness (most use only tap water), their ability to dislodge and remove clogs like sand or cat litter that ‘back-fill when using a conventional snake, and their friendliness to plumbing joints. Unlike air-burst cleaners, hydro-mechanical drain cleaners do not pressurize plumbing joints. On some models of hydro-mechanical drain cleaner both hot and cold water can be used, providing added cleaning power for fat, protein, or other easily melting drain clogs.
Disadvantages of hydro-mechanical drain cleaners included limited reach into drain plumbing, and the necessity of a water source to act as the motive agent.
Safety considerations for hydro-mechanical drain cleaners include the risk of injury from high-pressure water coming into contact with skin or delicate areas of the body (i.e., eyes, and face).
Electric drain cleaners, also called plumber’s snakes, use the mechanical force of an electric motor to twist a flexible cable or spring in a clockwise direction and drive it into a pipe. Electric drain cleaners are commonly available with cable lengths of up to 40 metres and can go as far as 80 metres.
Advantages of electric drain cleaners include the ability to clean long sections of sewer drain, the ability to remove solid objects such as tree roots and jewelry, and ready availability through hardware stores and tool rental counters. Machines using springs can easily negotiate multiple 90-degree bends while maintaining their effectiveness and without damaging the pipe.
Disadvantages of electric drain cleaners include high relative cost and weight, and the considerable physical effort that may be required to control the cable.
Safety considerations for electric drain cleaners include the requirement to wear work gloves and eye protection, to carefully control the cable during operation to avoid overstressing it, to use appropriate caution when working around rotating machinery, and to use properly grounded electrical outlets.
A sewer jetter is composed of a controlled high-pressure water source such as a pressure washer or reciprocating displacement pump, a flexible high-pressure line (called a jetter hose which connects the high-pressure engine to the mini-reel) of up to hundreds of metres (several hundred feet) in length, the Mini-Reel (a hose reel which can be taken a distance from the engine) and a nozzle that uses hydraulic force to pull the line into sewer drains, clean the sides of pipes, and flush out residue. High-pressure sewer jetters can be mounted on trolleys, inside vans or on trailers. The power of a Sewer Jetter ranges from 1000 psi up to 5000 psi. Sewer jetter nozzles come in different sizes and applications; a bullet-type nozzle with a streamlined profile can clear a hole for the larger root cutting nozzle. Root-cutter nozzles are designed to cut roots with a spinning nozzle that shoots a jet stream horizontally inside the pipe. 5000 psi sewer jetters with root-cutting nozzles can clear a hole through the center of a root-infested sewer line and with its rear-facing jet streams cut the roots and clean the pipe walls, flushing the root debris through the sewer line. The sewer jetter has been labeled as a technological advancement of the plumber’s snake (also known as an electric eel) drain clearing method.
Portable sewer jetters and pressure washer sewer jetter attachments are primarily used by service personnel and homeowners to remove soft obstructions throughout the length of a building’s sewer drain and to prevent the recurrence of clogs by cleaning the sides of drain pipes and flushing out residue. Pressure washer sewer jetter attachments are generally lower in cost and weight than electric drain cleaners with an equivalent reach, and can present a lower risk of scratching plumbing fixtures.
Truck and trailer-mounted sewer jetters used by municipalities and larger service companies benefit from the high hydraulic horsepower delivered by powerful displacement pumps and so can remove tree roots and other solid obstructions.
Advantages of sewer jetters include the relative ease of penetrating long sewer lines and the ability to remove residue that accumulates along the sides of sewer pipes, thereby reducing the need for subsequent drain cleaning.
Disadvantages of pressure washer sewer jetter attachments and many portable jetters include an inability to extract tree roots and other hard obstructions. Disadvantages of truck- and trailer-mounted sewer jetters include high relative cost and weight, and the requirement for extensive training to comply with manufacturers’ safety guidelines.
Safety considerations for sewer jetters include a requirement to wear protective gloves and eye protection, to avoid contact with sewer drain fluids, and to ensure that the jetter nozzle operates only inside the sewer pipe. Furthermore, larger truck- and trailer-mounted units that operate with sufficient power to cut tree roots require extensive training and strict adherence to manufacturers’ safety guidelines to avoid serious injury.
When it comes to deciding which method to choose, there are a myriad of factors to consider. Chemical cleaners are great for small hair/grease related clogs, and they are often cheaper and easier to find than devices. However, they are also have the potential for injury to the eyes, throat, lungs, (any exposed areas) if the proper handling procedures are not followed.
Although device cleaners are often more expensive, and can be harder to find, they are better suited for stubborn clogs, or blockages that are deep in the pipes. They also offer less chance of injury than chemical cleaners.