We all have, unfortunately enough, had to deal with clogged drains from time to time. It’s just one of those things that happens. So what’s the best fix for a clogged drain?
This article will be focused on unclogging drains, but will also discuss general ways to keep drains clean and free-flowing, as the title suggests.
What Clogs A Drain?
All sorts of things can cause a drain to clog, but the most popular will be build up over time. Drains are designed not to clog, but over time many succumb to the collection of oil, fats, grease, gunk, hair, and other debris.
The most popular culprit for a clogged drain will be the collection of hair over time. You’ll know this is the issue because it’ll usually happen at a shower drain and the clog will be preceded by day or, likely, weeks of slow draining and water collecting around your ankles as you shower.
You can also clog a drain all at once. This will likely happen when you put something you shouldn’t down the drain, like a lot of coffees grinds. This is really more of a blockage of the drain than a built-up clog and it can likely be addressed with a plunger.
Built up grease and fats can clog sink drains over time, which is why you don’t pour your bacon grease down the drain. As soon as those fats hit cold water they can solidify and grab onto the next turn, seam, or narrowing of your pipes. Drain cleaner can be very effective with this sort of problem.
Make sure you are using a drain cover in order to avoid problems like this in the first place!
What Is Drain Cleaner?
So what exactly is drain cleaner anyway? It’s a fair question, since you are about to spend $10+ dollars on it and use it in your home.
Drain cleaner is a chemical that is poured down your sink, shower, or bathtub drain in order to remove or reduce a blockage. Commercial drain cleaners are a liquid that is designed to breakdown a blockage without damaging the pipes. Most commercial drain cleaners are alkaline — being based on lye — while others are acidic, but all are strong chemicals that should be used exactly as per their directions and only used for drain removal. These are pretty nasty chemicals that need to be used with the utmost caution, even if they can be purchased at a supermarket.
The main downside of commercial drain cleaners, aside from their noxious nature, is that they are not effective at clogs that happen far from the drain. The farther away the clog, the more diluted they become and the less unclogging power they have. This is why they often don’t work on toilets and you need to resort to a physical drain clog removal tool, usually a motorized “snake.”
There is such a thing as a enzymatic drain cleaner, but this isn’t designed to stop a clog but rather to clean out drains and similar piping periodically.
There are also physical drain cleaners, like a plumber’s “snake.” These are used to punch through the toughest of blockages. Some people have known to try unclogging a drain with an metal coat hanger, but this is a bad idea as it can damage piping and even break through old pipes.
Free Fixes To Try First
If you have a clogged drain, before you run to the Drano aisle, you might want to try some other options.
One frequent tip you’ll find is pouring a large put of boiling water down the drain. Honestly, this is a long shot, but sometimes it’s enough to break through a clog. Very hot water poured down a drain is a better preventative measure than a fix though. The problem with this is that boiling water is too hot for your pipes and for the rubber or wax seal around the drain, so it can lead to leaks!
Pipes and gaskets are not meant to accommodate boiling water, so if you try it make sure the water goes right down the drain and doesn’t pool. Also, make sure the water is off boil, but hotter than typical shower.
Some people also say you can unclog a drain with the same ingredients you’d use to make a elementary school science volcano: baking soda and vinegar. You pour the baking soda down the drain, give it a few minutes, and then the vinegar. This isn’t too different than what drain cleaner is doing, but the materials are simply too weak to be effective.
This method is safe and essentially free so it’s worth a shot, but don’t get your hopes up.
The Best Drain Cleaners
If you have a clog or a slow drain, but don’t want to call a plumber, here’s what you need…
Please note, a proper drain auger is usually the best tool for the job, but we realize they are expensive and require significant manual effort. If those aren’t right for you, then a chemical drain cleaner may be the best option. That said, you should keep in mind that chemical cleaners have their limits and contain harsh chemicals that need to be handled with care (and aren’t great for pipes or the environment).
Drano Max Gel Clog Remover
If you read this site regularly you know I don’t like harsh chemicals around my home, but I have used Drano Max Gel from time to time and it actually works. I can tell you first hand that Drano is able to break down hair as well as clogs that are a build up of hair, soap, shampoo, and whatever else goes down a shower drain.
Drano is easy to use. You should the the instructions yourself, but basically you pour it down the drain, wait 15 minutes, and then you know if it worked or not. The lye-based chemicals do the work, not you.
Drano is also sold in Max Gel Ultra, which is presumably strong and better than normal Max Gel, but I have not used it. Honestly, if standard Drano doesn’t work, I have my doubts that a slightly stronger one will so I just get the cheap stuff.
Liquid Plumr Pro Strength
The long-time rival to Drano is, of course, Liquid Plumr. I’ve found the two to be more or less interchangeable, with Drano being my go-to and Liquid Plumr being fine in a pinch. I haven’t had a large enough sample size of drain clogs to honestly say one is better than the other.
Instant Power Hair and Grease Drain Cleaner
I’ve only seen this one sold at Home Depot, but Instant Power is a popular option as well. This is a non-acid liquid cleaner that comes in a 4-treatment size for a reasonable price. You can find it on Amazon, but it’s a good deal more expensive or you’ll have to get a whole lot of it.
Green Gobbler Ultimate Main Drain Opener + Drain Cleaner + Hair Clog Remover
One option that has been recommended many times is Green Gobbler Ultimate. This is priced competitively with Drano and Liquid Plumr, and it’s strong enough to dissolve baby pipes and other paper that shouldn’t have been flushed in the first place. It’s also designed to breakdown hair.
Despite its strength, the manufacture claims it’s OK for preventative use as in addition to clog removal.
Green Gobbler does have a dedicated hair clog product, but this main line drain opener is clearly their flagship product and the one with the most — and the most positive — reviews online. The Ultimate is the company’s most powerful formula, which is why it’s said to be effective at main lines, where the dedicated hair product isn’t quite as industrial strength.
Other Clog Removal Options
There are a few other things you can try if you want to avoid commercial chemical drain cleaners.
After they were recommended to me a few years ago I bought a 3-pack of these Vastar drain clog removers. They are 20-inch long pieces of hard plastic with incredibly sharp barbs running down the side. I bough them because they are cheap and I thought they might be able to help with a shower that was draining slowly because of hair build up.
I can tell you that these things never worked for me and all I did with them was cut myself on their sharp hooks. I found these to be too large to get around the internal hardware in most drains and too short to be effective when they do.
You might have better luck than I do with them, but I would not recommend them. I’ve also heard stories of them breaking in drains and becoming stuck in there, which got me off them for good. If you need a snake, get a metal one.
If you go to your local hardware store, Home Depot, or Lowe’s you can ask for a “plastic hair snake” and they will cost you about a dollar instead of spending $10 on 5 of them and having them shipped. They will be effective at clogs that are very close to the drain, but I still haven’t have any luck with them.
A more effective way to go might be a mixed pack of plastic hair snakes and manual metal snakes. A kit like this is still very affordable (relative to calling a plumber) and it’ll be more versatile than the basic plastic tool.
Do drain cleaners clean out rust in pipes?
No, a typical drain cleaner will not address rust. For this you need a specialized product, like Green Gobbler Rust Away which will remove rust and iron stains as well as associated build up.
Will drain cleaner stop smells from coming up through pipes?
It depends. A drain cleaner should stop smells by removing some of what might be causing them, but it will depend on what the source is. A better solution will likely be a drain strip or drain stick, like the Green Gobbler Bio-Flow Drain Strips which last for weeks, instead of a one-time drain cleaning.