The Best Chemical Drain Cleaners & Drain Care Products

411 plumb The chemical drain cleaners & drain care products industry is a big business that by some estimates have us spending $150M a year on drain cleaning products and drain maintenance products in the US alone. The marketing efforts are phenomenal as each manufacturer vies for a larger market share of the millions. Banners adorn the Draino & Liquid Plumber bottles with words like “Commercial Grade” “Professional Strength” & “Industrial Strength” each attempting to show they are stronger than the other brands on the label. Crystals, liquids, & gels all claim to get right to the clog and open the drain to restore flow, even on a “Tough Hair Clog.” I have yet to see any product that dissolves hair caught in a drain. Hair is a very tough substance to dissolve and realizing that Egyptian Mummies 5,000 years old still have hair I firmly believe that if a chemical was used that dissolved hair pipes would not contain it. In recent years others have come out with Bio Drain Products that offer claims of bacteria and enzymes eating the sludge in the pipes restoring them to the original outside diameter. Even the large drain cleaning companies are offering these “Green” products to increase profits and get their share. Some of the newer “Natural” products are using citrus based cleaners in their products. Home remedies are abundant such as the ever popular vinegar & baking soda concoction. All this as home owners grasp at straws trying to take care of the dreaded slow or, clogged drain and avoid the dreaded visit from “The Plumber.”

Do any of the drain cleaning products and drain maintenance products actually work?

Truth be told the success of drain cleaning products and drain maintenance products is very limited. The drain cleaning products may succeed in opening a small hole through a clog or strip the soap scum and conditioner build up off a hair clog the clear drain is temporary or, slightly better at best when it comes to results. The only tried and true way to clean a drain is with a mechanical cleaning using a snake or, jetter to clean the drain and restore it to its original diameter. Almost every job I go to for a clogged drain has an empty bottle of “please help me, plumber in a bottle” close by. Sometimes there are several different brands. This is where it gets scary. The chemical bases of these drain cleaners fall into several different chemical families and may react violently with each other or, release toxic fumes. A stopped up drain is not the place to play amateur chemist.

A popular “Home Remedy” is vinegar and baking soda, which many people swear is effective, pouring baking soda down the drain followed by vinegar. Any person with a slight knowledge of chemistry can realize the ineffectiveness of the foamy chemical reaction that occurs. Vinegar contains Acetic Acid and baking soda is an alkaline, when combined a foamy chemical reaction occurs that neutralizes the 2 chemicals essentially doing nothing except foam.

The chemical drain openers sold in stores vary between Caustic and Acid depending on the brand selected. Caustic liquid & gel drain cleaners containing Sodium Hypochlorite (bleach) are probably the most common type. Sodium Hydroxide (lye) and Potassium Hydroxide (caustic potash) are used in crystal drain cleaners. Some come in 2 part mixes where aluminum powder or chips are added to the caustic causing a foaming reaction which generates heat. Sometimes this heat has melted plastic pipes.

The next drain opener is the strong acid type, usually containing Sulfuric Acid around 95% pure. Some areas prohibit the sale to anyone other than licensed plumbers but it is quite common to see the guy at the hardware store say that as a sales tool testifying to it’s effectiveness as he sells it to a homeowner. This is a dangerous acid that used improperly can erupt out of a drain, cause the water caught in the drain to boil. If Sulfuric Acid is used in combination with caustic drain cleaners can cause a violent chemical reaction and in the case of bleach based drain cleaners cause the release of Chlorine Gas.

Both the Caustic and Acid based drain cleaners are corrosive and may damage metal pipes, drain trim finishes and even the snake the plumber eventually uses after a lack of success with the chemicals. I have frequently snaked a line in which these chemicals were used only to see my snake rust very badly an hour after use. The bleach has ruined the coloring of shirts and the acid has eaten holes in them. I don’t even ask any more what was used. Most people lie to you even though the empty bottle is there and you can smell the drain cleaner as well as feel its slipperiness on your gloved hands. I treat every drain the same where I assume the worst chemicals are present.

If any Drain products are to be used I would recommend the bacteria and enzyme treatments. Some are actually supposed to open a clogged drain within a couple of hours. Do they work? I don’t know. But, I will say at least they are not as dangerous as the caustic and acid drain cleaners. It’s your money spend it how you want.

There are also some air burst drain cleaners where an aerosol can, charges behind a diaphragm with air pressure and then the diaphragm ruptures allowing the air pressure charge to blast down the drain to jar the clog loose. This is not going to do anything more than a plunger would do at quite a bit higher cost. I would not recommend using either an air burst unit or, a plunger after caustics or, acids have been used. It may cause the chemicals to splash on you.

Do I recommend Drain Cleaners? No! Skip contributing to the industry and use what will work. A plumber with a snake will get your drain clean and offer you a guarantee as well. Frequently the drain works better after snaking than the customer ever recalls it draining before.

Comments

  1. Mike- Pittsburgh PA says

    Sir,

    I have been a licensed plumber for six years, plus an apprentice for my first four years. Eight of those ten years were spent in all new construction. As building slowed I found myself on an all service crew. I find this site to be useful, easy to understand and well written. Keep up the good work.

    My question to you is – What is your take on the “General Hydro-kinetic air ram” tool? My first experience with it was with my current employer. It seems to be hit or miss. If it is a urinal I have to remove the waste water with a small shopvac, flood it with clear water and attempt to ‘ram’ the clog. If that dosn’t get it I’m right back to pulling the fixture and using the ‘General super vee’.It seems to be a 50/50 if it works or not. What kind of luck have you had?

    Mike

    • says

      Hi Mike,
      Thank you for the compliments! It makes me feel good about the work I’m putting into the site.
      Welcome to the service end of the trade. A few years of service will definitely help you to become a better new construction plumber. You’ll have some pet peeves about how things need to be done that you never realized before.

      The Kinetic Water Ram to me has such limited effectiveness that I have never considered using one. No matter what claims the manufacturer makes, simple physics laws say that the full force of the ram is not going to be directed at the clog if there is a vent or, another branch between the ram and the clog. To me this makes the ram nothing more than a glorified plunger.

      When I’m sent to a drain cleaning call I charge to clean the line not just open it. The customer pays a pretty good price for my work too. There is nothing that cleans the line better than a cable properly sized for the job except perhaps a high pressure jetter.

      Some years back a new drain cleaner at our company told me he was thinking about buying one. I advised him against doing so. That advise fell upon deaf ears and soon he was doing a lot of water ram use. This actually generated quite a few customer complaints and callbacks for him, when management found out what he was doing they directed him to take it off his truck. The primary complaint was the amount the customer had paid and the amount of time he spent doing the work. the customers resented the quick fix approach. A large portion of his problems were the call backs as well. Simply said it was not doing a good enough job of cleaning the line to make it through the guarantee period our company policy provided on drains.

  2. dan o. says

    i was very pleased with your site…i was curious if i where to use baking soda n vinager first, would it react with any other drainage solution and or any other treatment solution i might try next? thank you and look foward to hearing back from you !!

    thanks,
    dan o.

    • says

      Hi Dan,

      The only advice that I would give to you is stop pouring stuff into your drain hoping for a magic cure to your stopped up drain and call someone to snake the line clear. There is no way for me to analyze the chemical composition of what is remaining in your drain and tell you what you could safely add to it. In my opinion there is nothing that can be safely added even before conducting your science experiment.

      Redwood

  3. Roberta says

    Thanks for your honest expert opinion. I have never had a drain problem, thank gawd, but am always pulling so much hair out of the shower drain that I thought maybe I should pour something down the drain to try and ward off problem later down the road. Thank you for letting me know that you don’t believe anything disolves hair. I don’t like the idea of chemicals anyway, but the illustration of mummies with hair is a great way to get your point across. Thanks again for educating me. :-)

  4. Marc says

    Hi Redwood, Thank you for your input on drain cleaning. I’m a fellow plumber and have only found a little success with drain cleaning products. I avoid using them unless I have too, and even then there is no guarantee. I have had a couple of occasions where I was able to snake through a sewer line, but because of the concentration of grease the snake slipped in and out without pushing the grease on through. Any suggestions of a chemical to aid in the breakdown of this level of grease? I appreciate any input, and thanks again. Marc

    • says

      Hi Marc,

      Really the best cleaning for a grease laden line is jetting the line. With a snake sometimes wrapping a rag through the babes and around the cable making a plug of sorts then wrapping it with duct tape can be used to push the grease through the line.

      As far as drain cleaning products for grease the only type I would recommend would be the bacteria and enzyme type treatments of which Bio-Clean is a pretty good one. Many plumbers carry that on their trucks and sell it to customers. Bio-Clean is pretty effective on grease.

      There is a new drain cleaning forum on the web called “Drain Cleaning Forum” of all things, Google search for it. A good bunch of guys there willing to share knowledge and tips. I’d suggest you join that.

      Redwood

  5. Joe says

    I have a very slow kitchen sink drain. A pro snaked it using a 50 footer, which went 40 feet, hit a blockage. He reversed and repeated, same thing. Still very slow. He charged me $20 for effort and said “try bleach” which I tried, I am letting it sit several hours, next I will flush with boiling water, windows open to rid of gas. I read about the grease here, but it does not appear to have caused power snake to fail, rather the snag is likely the issue. 57 year old cast iron pipe in basement from sink leads to main drain. I hit it with a hammer 50 times trying to break up blockage, didn’t work. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance.

    • says

      Hi Joe,
      Stop beating on your pipes before you break them, and try another pro!
      This time hopefully one that works.
      I don’t leave a call before the drain is working or, I have given a quote for a repair that will work.
      Redwood

    • says

      Hi Kevin,
      The Zip-It does work quite well on hair clogs in the first few feet of a drain. Too bad it is a one time use tool, getting the hair off those sharp plastic barbs will get you a cut with drain goo in it. I usually use a mechanics parts retriever tool for getting hair clogs because the same $5 tool can be used over and over again.
      Redwood

  6. Julie says

    Hi there,
    Every so often the odour from the drains seems to build up and come into our house, especially under the kitchen sink, where I believe an outlet is. I wonder what product or item you would suggest I use on a regular basis, just for the purpose of replacing this odour with a ‘freshness’? And exactly where you would put this product – down every strainer and toilet, or just one in particular?
    Thanks so much for your very helpful information.

    • says

      Hi Julie,
      I wouldn’t use any chemical down the drain. I believe you may have a plumbing problem that is allowing sewer gases to enter your home. Either the sink is improperly plumbed or, there is a pipe with either a hole in the pipe or an opening that should have been closed allowing the sewer gases in to your home. Is there a P-Trap installed on the kitchen sink drain?
      Redwood

  7. susan Blakesley says

    Great site!

    I have a rental house with clogging problems mainly in the tub. The present occupant works for a paper/cardboard recycling company, he comes home and showers off the paper dust and this has made quite a clog. We have a snake, haven’t tried it yet, would love to know if there is anything that might dissolve paper while not dissolving PVC pipe!
    Thanks

    • says

      Hi Susan,
      I would expect that you aren’t getting a buildup of paper dust itself in the drain but rather it is sticking to something already in the drain for instance a clump of hair. I wouldn’t recommend putting any chemical in the drain with the exception of bacteria & enzyme based drain maintenance formulas. I’d expect that snaking the line and cleaning the line would take care of the problem adequately.

      I hope this helps,
      Redwood

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