“If they sell it everywhere, it mustn’t be THAT bad” is the homeowner equivalent to the teenage gripe of “all my friends do it, why can’t I!”  Go into any big box store and you’ll find a variety of drain cleaners promising to unclog even the most stubborn issue with the tiniest box of warnings about inhalation toxicity, poisoning, eye-contact blindness and skin-contact burns, rashes and corrosion. So, why is something so hazardous for our health available for our drains? It’s thought to be a quick fix. And, that’s about all.

We have two arguments for just saying no to drain cleaners:

It’s potentially dangerous for your health: Liquid, gel, foam, crystal and powder variety consumer available drain cleaners are a bunch of formulation differences with an active ingredient that is likely either a strong base or a strong acid. With a nod to science teachers everywhere, we recall that the pH scale ranges 0-14 with the high end defined as extremely basic (baking soda is 8.3 pH). Basic cleaners most commonly have an active ingredient called sodium hydroxide (aka lye) or potassium hydroxide. Other cleaners may contain acids like sulfuric acid. Why does it matter? Often, homeowners end up mixing chemicals – either it’s a difficult clog and you try different products or you’re layering drain cleaner on top of other household cleaning agents, like bleach. Chemicals don’t always play nicely together. For example, sulfuric acid & sodium hydroxide (base) produces salt and water, but the reaction itself produces enough heat that scalding hot water tainted with leftover chemical might come shooting out of the drain. Another reaction of a base + bleach cleaner with an acid-based cleaner yields a chemical weapon used in WW1, chlorine gas. There’s a warning on drain cleaner labels and these are just some of the reasons why.

There are long-term costs: Acid or base, the goal of any drain cleaner is to attempt to dissolve or pull water out of the material in the way of the drain, well, draining. What really happens?

  • It drains, but reality is the clog got smaller and more invasive: Despite their chemical strength, dilution from the water above the clog renders even the most potent drain cleaner weaker. In becoming weaker, often the outcome is a clog that seems to have been removed but was actually just made smaller. Smaller is a win, right? Smaller clogs simply move further down the pipe systems often becoming much more complicated to solve. They catch more materials eventually and a new clog, much deeper (perhaps even under your home) occurs.
  • It drains, but an exothermic reaction took place: Who cares! It works! But, an exothermic reaction may have heated the pipes causing damage that deforms and weakens – even PVC.
  • It drains, but the chemical didn’t just dissolve the clog: Chemical prowess of drain cleaners doesn’t stop at clogs, it continues to potentially dissolve coatings and sealants, making way for leaks.

A plumber specializes in drain cleaning and has the tools necessary to safely visualize and remove a drain without damaging the health of homeowners, storing potentially dangerous chemicals in your home, or harming pipes resulting in leaks and costly repairs down the road!