Home & Garden

Removing stubborn clogs without harsh chemicals

Pick the easiest, safest way to clean your drains. Photo:

Most of us have experienced a clogged sink or tub at one time or another. Numerous chemical drain cleaners on the market create the impression that you simply pour a little magic potion down the drain and all your problems will disappear. That’s not to say that these products cannot be useful under certain circumstances. Some brands of chemical drain cleaners contain high levels of sulfuric acid. These products pose a hazard to you, your property, and the environment — and should be avoided unless you are absolutely certain how to use them. Just to have acid in the home is extremely dangerous, especially if you have children. Almost any plumbing professional can tell you a horror story about either being burned or causing at least some damage to their client’s property from the use of a sulfuric acid product. Once you’ve poured a strong chemical drain cleaner down a drain, don’t attempt to plunge it. To do so may put you at risk of getting burned by the chemical cleaner. Also, many of our old apartments and flats have old pipes that may not be able to handle harsh chemicals, which may burn right through them. If you don’t like the sound of any of this, save yourself the agony, mess, and risk of damaging your system. Call a plumber.

Though many clogs start around the stopper in a pop-up drain, some heavy-duty hair clogs make their way deeper in the drainage system and may foil chemical cleaners. For those determined enough to tolerate a bit of a mess, here are some simple nonchemical plumber’s helpers. It may take a few tries and a few different tools, but you can save significantly by doing this project yourself.

Zip strip: A simple plastic zip strip can be dipped down the drain to fish out shallow hair clogs and prevent deep clogs from reaching the trap. Sharp barbs run the length of the strip to snag on and pull hair clogs out of the drain.

Hair-catching brush: A hair-catching brush is thin and flexible enough to bypass sink stoppers. It goes in and brings out hair from basins and tubs.

Plunger: A trusty plunger is essential for every home. The plunger, also known as the “plumber’s helper,” is renowned as an effective way to unclog drains. However, the chances of this working in your sink or in your tub are minimal at best, as the vents and overflows in these fixtures will render the force of the plunger ineffective. To tighten the seal when working with other fixtures with sloping surfaces, you may want to upgrade to a model with a modified rubber cup. A plunger doesn’t come with directions, and in your frustration with the problem you may overlook the obvious when plunging the drain. Remember these tips:

  • If you’ve tried chemical drain cleaners with no success, the caustic fluids may have collected above the clog and could splash out the drain during plunging. Use goggles and gloves.
  • The plunger needs to seal tight to drive air pressure against the clog. Immerse the plunger lip in a bit of water before you plunge to ensure a tighter seal. And don’t forget to stop up the opening in the overflow fixture with a wet cloth.

Auger: Deeper clogs will require a cable auger, which has a long, flexible steel cable fitted with a hand crank. Feed the auger in through the overflow plate. The cable will meet resistance at pipe bends or the clog itself. If the obstruction is a bend in the pipe, turning the crank or pumping the cable by hand will force it past the curve. If the cable tip has met the clog, there will be resistance pulling the cable back out. Crank the cable tight to drill the tip into the hair clog and then pull the contraption out along with the clog.


First of all, use your common sense. Make sure there is a strainer in the drain at all times. The best tool is a good drain screen to prevent clogs in the first place. Never pour grease or anything heavier than water itself down your drain.
If you have a garbage disposal, allow the water to run for a period of time after the disposal has done its thing, so you can be sure the waste has moved into the main sewer line. (Also note: Anything extra fibrous should be suspect — pineapple tops, artichoke leaves, etc. — just because your disposal can eat it doesn’t mean your pipes can digest it.) Bacterial digestants are products that digest organic waste through a natural decomposition process. Bacterial digestants eliminate clogs, pollution, and odors by breaking down and converting organic material into its two most basic components — carbon dioxide and water.  They are especially useful for opening plugged and slow drains and grease traps.

If you realize your drains are getting slow and you’ve tried everything short of nuking them, it is time to get down and dirty, or call a pro to get dirty for you. Once your drain is completely stopped, your options become much more limited.

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Julia Strzesieski is the marketing coordinator for Cole Hardware and can be reached at [email protected].