A drain cleaner can be acidic or basic/alkaline. Acidic drainer cleaner have a strong acid as the active ingredient like sulfuric acid, while basic drain cleaner have a strong alkaline active ingredient like sodium hydroxide.
Modern commercial drain cleaners are basic while acidic drain cleaners were mainly used in the past. One of the most common drain cleaner is Drano, which is basic with a PH of value of 11. Sodium hydroxide (lye) is its active ingredient.
The PH value measures how acidic or basic something is, ranging from 0 to 14. Substances with a low figure (0-3) are considered to be strong acids while those with a high figure (10-14) are considered to be strong bases.
Those substances that have a PH value of about 7 are said to be neutral. An example is water.
The main reason most folks want to know if drain cleaners are acid or basic is to know if they are corrosive or bad for their plumbing.
However, I do not recommend chemical drain cleaners for use when unclogging drains, be they acidic or basic. I have written a separate article about the reasons for that in this post.
Enzymatic drain cleaners, also known as bacterial drain cleaners are the safest drain cleaners you can use to clear clogs from drains. They are PH-neutral and will therefore not negatively affect you or your plumbing.
Unfortunately, enzymatic drain cleaners are not as effective in clearing clogged drains as chemical drain cleaners. They are also slow and need flowing water to work well.
That is the main reason why most homeowners prefer using chemical drain cleaners like Drano and Liquid Plumr to clear clogged drains. Were it not for their effects on plumbing systems, health and environment, these drain cleaners are quite fast and effective.
In a nutshell, drain cleaners, whether acidic or basic are not safe for your plumbing. Acidic drain cleaners however have worse effects on plumbing pipes and are especially dangerous if they come in contact with your skin, eyes or when you inhale their fumes.
Acidic Drain Cleaners
As I mentioned above, acidic drain cleaners will have a strong acid like sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid as their active ingredient. They were mainly used in the past but you can still use sulfuric acid to clear a clogged drain today.
Some acidic chemical drain cleaners are so corrosive that they are only sold to plumbers. It is for this reason that I only recommend using them as a last resort, but if you are in a position to hire a plumber just do it.
Acidic drain cleaners work by releasing hydronium ions which attract electrons from the organic materials in the clog (hair, toilet paper, grease, soap etc.).
The reaction between the hydronium ions and the clog results in the release of a lot of heat which is sufficient to melt the clog. Sulfuric acid will also pull water from the clog and in the process shrink it, therefore loosening it.
Basic Drain Cleaners
Most modern drain cleaners are basic in nature with a PH value of 11 of higher. One of the most common is Drano, which has a PH value of 11.
The active ingredient in basic drain cleaner is sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is also known as lye or caustic.
Just like acidic drain cleaners, basic drain cleaners work by releasing heat into the surrounding which then melts the clog. The sodium hydroxide decomposes the organic material in the clog and then a reaction between it and another metal present in the cleaner (aluminum in Drano) releases the heat needed to break down the clog.
Basic drain cleaners are also bad for your plumbing, health and the environment. Most of them are however advertised as safe for pipes and septic systems.
Why Chemical Drain Cleaners are Bad
The following are some of the reasons why you should not use chemical drain cleaners:
1. They Damage Pipes
The heat produced by chemical drain cleaners in the process of melting clogs is so high that it can soften PVC pipes and melt the glue used to bind the pipes together.
Even steel pipes are not safe. Metals will ordinarily expand when heated and should you have old steel pipes, they will be weakened further increasing their likelihood to crack and leak.
You should especially never use chemical drain cleaners to unclog a toilet. The heat produced by the reactions will cause a sudden expansion if the china and the bowl will break.
2. They are not Septic-Safe
If you are on a septic system, you should not even think about chemical drain cleaners. I know some of them are marketed as septic-safe but you should stay away from them.
Chemical drain cleaners work by decomposing organic clogs. The bacteria in your septic tank will be killed by these chemicals as well and when that happens there will be nothing to break down waste from your house.
As a result, solid waste will flow to the drain field and clog it or back up to your house. Fixing any of these problems will cost you thousands of dollars.
3. They Don’t Always Work
Chemical drain cleaners will only work if your drains are clogged by organic waste, which is also very close to the drain opening.
If the clog is as a result of roots inside drain lines then chemical drain cleaners will not work no matter how much of it you use and how long you wait.
Also, if the clog is far away in from fixtures (like in the main sewer line), chemical drains will not work. The reason for this is that there will be a column of water between the clog and the fixtures.
The column of water means that the drain cleaners will not get to the clog and can therefore not act on it. The water will also dilute the cleaners, thereby reducing their effectiveness.
4. They are Harmful
Chemical drain cleaners can badly burn you if they come into contact with your skin. It is even worse if they get into your eyes since they can easily make you blind.
Apart from that, fumes from these chemical can hurt your lungs when inhaled. That is the main reason the manufacturers of these cleaners recommend using them in a properly ventilated room.
5. They are bad for the Environment
At the end of the day, the toxic chemicals in these drain cleaners will end up polluting the environment. Even when the wastewater is treated, there will still be some chemicals which will be released, leach into the ground and pollute ground water.
Since these drain cleaners are sold in plastic bottles, the millions of bottles sold every year will end up in a land fill or worse in a water body. As you already know, plastic is not biodegradable.
Alternatives for Chemical Drain Cleaners
Since we have agreed it is a bad idea to use chemical drain cleaners, these are some of the best ways to clear clogged drains naturally:
1. Use Baking Soda, Vinegar and Boiling Water
Baking soda and vinegar will clear most drain clogs as long as they are not too tough or located in the main drain line. Vinegar is a weak acid while baking soda is a base.
When mixed together, the 2 will neutralize in a fizzing reaction which is what actually breaks down the clog.
Boiling water on its own can also clear clogs especially by melting grease in kitchen sink drains and hair balls in shower and bathroom sink drains. I however like to use it together with baking soda and vinegar since they are just so effective.
- Start by draining any standing water that is in the clogged fixture. You want the solution to work directly on the clog.
- Pour 1 cup of baking soda down the drain slowly followed by another cup of vinegar.
- Wait for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, boil a gallon or more of water.
- Dump the boiling water down the drain.
This method will surely clear you drains the same way chemical drain cleaners do. Just don’t use boiling water in a toilet bowl. Normal hot water from a faucet will be sufficient.
2. Plunger the Drain
A plunger is a simple but effective tool that will dislodge most drain clogs. It applies pressure on the clog and thereby pushes it down the drain line.
Start by choosing the right type of plunger. If you are unclogging a toilet, use a flange plunger. To unclog other types of drains use the usual flat-bottomed plunger.
When plunging, have some water in the fixture you are unclogging. Ideally, the bottom part of the plunger needs to be immersed in water for proper suction.
It is also important to seal off the sink or bathtub overflow opening. Failure to do that will mean the pressure generated by the plunger will escape through the overflow.
3.Clean the P-trap
Another thing you can do if you are dealing with a clogged kitchen or bathroom sink is to remove and clean the P-trap.
The P-trap is the U-shaped pipe under the sink. Whenever you have a clogged drain, the clog in most cases is usually inside the P-trap.
By disconnecting and cleaning the P-trap you can easily clear the clog in a matter of minutes. Here is how to do it:
- Place a small bucket under the P-trap to drain the water already inside the P-trap.
- Disconnect the P-trap connections. You can use your bare hands or a wrench if the connections are too tight.
- Clean the P-trap by removing the entire gunk then connect it back.
- Turn on the faucet to confirm if the clog has be fully cleared and to also make sure the connections are not leaking
4. Snake the Drain.
A drain snake will pull out tough clogs from a drain line but you must know how to use it lest you damage your pipes. Learn exactly how to snake like a pro from this post.
In the case of a toilet, you are advised to use a toilet auger which is specially designed to make sure that the auger head does not scratch the toilet bowl.
If you are dealing with a clogged bathroom sink, shower or bathtub drain, a plastic snake known as a hair removal tool or zip-it tool will come in handy.
The tool will pull out hair from the drain line which is usually responsible for the clog. What is even better is that the tool cannot damage your pipes and is also quite cheap.
And basically that is it about the acidity or alkalinity of drain cleaners. I hope you found this post useful.