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Drain Cleaner 101

You might notice poor water pressure, poor drainage, or bad smells, and all of these can be signs of a worsening clog in your pipes. It’s a sticky and often unsightly job, but a clogged drain is par for the course when you're a homeowner. Over time, drains will not only retain bits and pieces of what we throw at them, but they will build up a biofilm of bacteria and byproduct. Left too long, the elements that go down the drain get stuck with the accumulated biofilm to create a blockage that only an outside product can penetrate through.

Stubborn clogs in your plumbing can be a real annoyance, especially if they occur frequently. In many cases, you can address clogged drains on your own with products from your local store. In this guide, dive into what drain cleaners are, how to use them, the different types for different jobs and, lastly, environmental considerations.


Getting the right drain cleaner for the right job is paramount to finding a drain cleaner that actually works. It's important to select a drain cleaner that can reach deep into the specific drain you pour it into to break down biofilm. Biofilm represents bacteria that live off of the various elements and products being washed down the drain as well as the bacteria's waste. No matter how diligently we use drain screens and clean the top of the drain, biofilm can still build up in deeper sections of the pipes and grow into a problem that is both messy and, potentially, hazardous to your health.


Drain cleaner works by breaking down and dissolving biofilm so that it washes away and clears the pipe passageway. It's important to select the correct type of drain cleaner to ensure it reaches deep enough into your specific pipe. If you use the wrong type of drain cleaner it may never reach the clog to break it down.


A drain cleaner is a solution comprised of different acids and bases that can be used to unclog different plumbing fixtures such as drains and sewer pipes. Drain cleaner can also be a mechanical device which is called a plumbing snake, drain auger or even plunger. Store bought drain cleaning chemicals are the most common type of drain cleaning solution.


Like most dilemmas in life, there is no simple answer for finding out which drain cleaner is best. It depends on many variables. Before this question can be adequately addressed, we must first be able to say where the clog is and whether or not the source of the clog is known.

When deciding on a product to get through your clog, look for a thick drain cleaner. The newer products are generally thicker than the older products and the thickness allows the cleaner to stay at the site of the clog longer and creates more time to break it down. Keep in mind that the most common ingredient of liquid drain cleaners is household bleach and this should not be used if you are hooked up to a septic system.

The new foaming products are a more effective choice because they have the ability to reach all of the biofilm, or gunk that has built up inside the pipes. Most drain cleaners only have the ability to trace the same course as the water, but this overlooks the upper part of the pipe where the water does not touch. When used according to the package instructions, a foaming cleaner should fill up the entire pipe and effectively wipe out all the biofilm.

There are some things to avoid when assessing a clog. First, be sure not to use liquid drain cleaners for clogs in laundry drains. Clogs in laundry drains are primarily made up of lint buildup which is tiny clothing fibers. These fibers can not be dissolved by a liquid drain cleaner. Second, an enzyme cleaner should not be used if your drain is completely clogged. You'll be better off by using a powerful drain cleaner and/or a mechanical snake. Enzyme cleaners should also not be used if you are connected to a city sewage system.


For the bathroom, the main problem is usually hair. You can also get a buildup from soap, gels and bath products, but hair is still the most common problem for bath drains.

The nice thing about this type of clog is that it can be cleared with a drain cleaner tool, so no chemicals are involved. There are a few different drain cleaner tools, but the best one is possibly the drain claw. It is a small wire looking drain cleaner with a tip that has a hundred interlocking plastic hooks. You can work the tip into the opening of the drain and with a twisting motion and grab the hair that is slowing the drain. It is much more flexible than the other drain cleaner tools and it doesn't get stuck in small areas."


For kitchen drains, the most common problem is grease, a buildup of food particles and soap. For these types of problems, the best antidote is a chemical drain cleaner available at most big box stores. Products such as Liquid-Plumber or Drano are a base that attacks the junk that has accumulated in the kitchen drain and will slowly eat it away to allow for faster flowing water. Sometimes multiple applications may be required to dislodge the stubborn clogs. In any case, you need to avoid pouring the chemical cleaner in the side of your sink that has the disposal. The aluminum parts of the disposal will react with the base of the cleaner and cause serious problems. Instead, slowly pour it into the side of the sink without the disposal and wait for several minutes before flushing it with hot water.


A toilet is most commonly clogged by what is most commonly put in it: human waste. A toilet can be cleared with a commercial product or tools, but it’s important to first establish what system your toilet is connected to. If your toilet is connected to a septic system, you can use toilet drain cleaners but if you're hooked to a city sewer system, your choices may be more limited. In either case, your best bet may be to add specific enzymes and bacteria that are used for clearing toilets. These products are safe for the environment and are used to eat at the organic matter and keeping clogs at bay.


There are three main drain cleaning solutions which include chemical drain cleaner, acid drain cleaner and oxidizing drain cleaner. Each of these work in a different manner, but ultimately they break down clogs and leave your drain cleaner than they were before. The primary difference between these cleaners is the composition. Some may use heat in order break down a clog or they may cause organic matter to lose electrons. It all comes down to the drain cleaner chemicals used in the creation of these solutions. They can even come in powder or liquid form.


The most common drain-cleaning product on the market is one you have likely used before—chemical drain cleaner. The drain cleaner chemicals in these products are typically composed of lye, caustic potash and bleach. Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, works to physically remove stubborn build up by breaking up the chemical bonds that hold it together. Caustic potash quickens the decomposition of soft tissues and organic matter. This type of drain cleaner is typically sold as a liquid drain cleaner and due to it being heavier than water, is able to make its way to clogs through other liquids.


Acid cleaners are more dangerous than store-bought chemical drain cleaners, and should only be used by professionals. The main component is sulfuric acid, which can cause severe chemical and thermal burns if it contacts bare skin. Sulfuric acid can also have a dangerous reaction when exposed to water and certain metals, causing hydrogen gas, which can cause severe damage to the throat, eyes, lungs, and skin. These kinds of cleaners can come as a drain cleaner powder or as a liquid drain cleaner.


Oxidizing drain cleaners differ from chemical drain cleaners and are typically comprised of household bleach, nitrates and peroxides. The drain cleaner chemicals in this solution cause oxidization within the organic material in a clog. This breaks down the clog and allows it to be pushed through easier.


If you are wary of chemicals, you can use a drain-cleaning tool called a plumber’s snake. This tool is a long piece of metal with coiled wire at the end. You use it by slipping the metal coil down the drain and then twisting it until the water begins to flow freely down the drain. The coiled wire works to break up the matter that is clogging your drain. It can be a great thing to use when you want to be environmentally conscious or are concerned about the use of toxic chemicals in your home.


Our Roto-Rooter plumbers can offer you a great drain care product called, Pipe Shield®. It is environmentally safe and uses "good bacteria" to clear and maintain drains, thus making it a more "green" product. It helps prevent sludge and grease build-up in drains and pipes and is highly recommended by plumbers and customers alike.


Apply once a month to kitchen, bathroom, shower, tub and other drains. Add 2 oz. (1/4 cup) of Pipe Shield® to 32 oz. (4 cups) of warm water and pour into drain. Let it stand overnight, then flush with hot water for one minute. For problem drains, we recommend repeating the process once a week.

For further questions regarding Pipe Shield® or any of our other drain care products, visit our Roto-Rooter website for more information or to schedule service with a Roto-Rooter plumber.


Many chemical drain cleaners can clear a clogged drain quickly. However, there are many reasons why residents may choose to avoid chemical cleaners at all costs, here are just a few:

Highly toxic

Chemical drain cleaners are not only high in toxicity but are an extreme health hazard. Chemical drain cleaners produce hazardous fumes that get released into the air. Fumes can linger for hours, creating irritation to your lungs, eyes, nose, throat and skin. Chemical cleaners will not only incite a reaction in humans, your pets are just as vulnerable. Toxins end up in landfills and water supplies, which is harmful to both humans and the environment.

Is drain cleaner bad for pipes?

Chemical drain cleaners can harm pipes. The hydrochloric acid in the cleaning solution is so powerful that it can eat away at your plumbing. Over time and with frequent use of chemical drain cleaners, holes can form in your pipes. These harsh cleaners also gradually eat away at the enamel on your sinks and bathtubs, causing even more damage and at some point, the additional cost of replacement parts. Curing a minor clog can turn into a much more costly plumbing emergency. See our helpful information online to learn more about effective yet safe cleaning alternatives with our recommended residential drain cleaning products.

Environmental impact

Residue from harmful chemical cleaners ends up in landfills and our water-supply system, causing both harm to the environment, humans and wildlife. When toxins seep through the soil, they are resurrected through bodies of water - that same water that gets consumed by you and your family. A simple solution of baking soda and water can attack that clogged drain the eco-friendly way without damaging our environment.

Septic system damage

Septic tanks utilize natural bacteria to help breakdown water. Chemical cleaners that are poured down the drain kill off these natural organic bacteria, making your septic system less effective. After frequent use of damaging cleaning agents, at some point your entire septic system will need to be cleaned to counteract the damage.

Call the drain cleaning professionals

If you are unsuccessful with chemical drain cleaners or drain snakes, you may have a more severe problem than you thought. This is especially true if you have more than one drain that’s working slowly. Call one of Roto-Rooter’s professional plumbers to assess the situation. They’ll be able to diagnose the problem, locate the clog, and leverage more advanced tools to rectify the problem. We can also help with advice on non-toxic cleaning advice to help with clogged drains, septic repair and more.



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