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.