When the kitchen sink won’t drain, or someone in your household refuses to take a turn cleaning the toilet, it’s easy to stroll down the plumbing aisle and pick up a $5 solution to your problem. But popular drain clog removers, toilet cleaning tablets, and more “solutions” should come with a warning label. Why? They could cause significant damage to your home’s plumbing, might contain ingredients like chlorine bleach that can be harmful to breathe, and don’t always solve the initial problem.
Plumbers are frequently called to homes to fix the aftermath of DIY clog removal attempts and repair the damage from drop-in toilet cleaning tablets, so they know a thing or two about which DIY “remedies” to avoid. And while their advice can’t solve your housemate chore disputes, these tips from two professionals might save you from a conversation about who has to pay for the drain cleaning. Here are some “solutions” that might be more trouble than they’re worth, according to plumbers.
1. Using toilet tank cleaning tablets
Tablets that you drop into the toilet tank promise to clean the toilet with every flush. And they do. But they also destroy the rubber seals that help hold the toilet tank in place and keep water from ending up all over the floor in the process.
“They eat them away,” Max Rose, a co-owner of Four Seasons Plumbing in Asheville, North Carolina, told Apartment Therapy about the chemicals in such tablets. “Then when (the tablets) get smaller, they can get caught in the flush valves, causing the toilet to malfunction and run all the time.”
Instead, look for a self-cleaner that hangs in the toilet bowl. If you’re willing, use a toilet brush and a chlorine-free, biodegradable cleaner that won’t release harmful fumes — sure, it involves elbow grease, but you’ll know your toilet is clean by the end of the session.
2. Using harsh store-bought clog removers
If your sink has backed up once, it’s probably backed up a thousand times. So it’s understandable to try a store-bought solution before agreeing to pay a plumber an hourly rate. Just make sure to pick a clog remover that won’t damage the pipes and injure people in the process.
Because here’s the thing: Many liquid clog removers don’t even fix the problem. Instead whatever is clogging the pipe causes the solution to sit in one place where the chemicals start to corrode the pipe without dislodging the clog. You (or a plumber) will have to send a snake down the drain to grab the clog and pull it out. And that means all the water and chemicals that the clog is holding back will have to come out, too.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Levi Torres, the owner of High 5 Plumbing in Denver, Colorado. “We’ve actually had technicians who have gotten burned from the chemical coming back.” If you do call a plumber, make sure to tell them that you tried clearing the pipes with a cleaner, so they can protect themselves, which often involves wearing goggles while pulling the clog out
Torres recommends using an enzyme declogger that you can pick up in the plumbing aisle, and which shouldn’t be harmful to humans or pipes. Just mix it with hot water and send it down the drain when you start to notice the sink draining slowly or as regular maintenance. “I use Bio-Clean every month in my house,” Torres said. “It prevents things from plugging.”
3. Using harsh septic additives
If you live in a rural area and rely on a septic system instead of city water, you might notice funky smells from time to time. Just as with drain cleaners, though, skip bleach or chlorine-based additives. Many regions have banned certain septic treatments because they pollute groundwater and kill the healthy bacteria that make the systems work. Pick an environmentally-friendly, enzyme-based cleaner instead — and be sure to check with your local municipality about which treatments you can and can’t use in your area.
4. Using “flushable” products
Toilet paper — even the thick, soft triple-ply stuff — breaks down quickly, and Torres notes that only it and waste should be flushed down a toilet. But so-called “flushable” wipes don’t break down, despite what the packaging may promise.
“Your toilet is going to flush whatever you want it to,” Torres said. “The problem is where it goes next.”
Wipes easily get caught anywhere between your toilet drain and the city treatment plant. Once they’re snagged, they will stay there and give other solids something to cling to.
“You’re causing a massive nightmare,” Torres said, explaining that once the clog gets big enough, water starts to back up at every house in the neighborhood. Skip the wipes or put them in the trash instead. You could also install a bidet to clean your tush if that step is important to you.
5. Using clog-clearing tools without caution
Be careful when considering mechanical cleaners for your frequently backed up drains, too. These alternatives to liquid decloggers could still damage pipes, given that drain guns use CO2 cartridges to shoot high-pressure air into the pipes. If your plumbing is older or otherwise compromised, that pressure could damage the pipes.
Rose and his team also find cheap hardware store drain snakes twisted into knots in toilet drains. “Using a small-size snake in a bigger drain will cause it to just spin around until it gets caught, causing damage in the process,” he said.
Frequent sink back-ups often indicate problems with the plumbing system. You might be better off calling a pro to check it out and use the proper tool to clear it.
Note: Prevention is the best remedy
Prevent clogs altogether and use trash cans or compost bins for food scraps and anything besides waste and toilet paper. And as Torres noted, using an enzyme drain cleaner as part of your regular cleaning schedule can help prevent clogs.
“It’s environmentally-friendly,” Torres said. “It’s safe for humans and pets. It’s just an enzyme that eats bacteria. You just put it in your drain once a week, once a month and it prevents buildup from happening, so the drain doesn’t plug.”