Unblock Your Drains Without Harsh Chemicals

updated: 24/04/2024

Unblocking Drains in the House

First Reactions

The standard first reaction from most people when confronted with a sink full of dirty grey water that just won’t go down the plughole is either to (a) phone the plumber or (b) run down to the nearest hardware store for a bottle of Drano™ or some other ferocious chemical to tip down the hole and obliterate the gunk doing the blocking. However, neither of these methods is really necessary for the majority of blockages, and it is quite possible to get things going again without reaching for the chemicals.

I will open a bracket here. Did you know that blocked drains can jeopardise your tenant’s deposit when vacating the property? Your landlord will (most likely) deduct a sufficient amount to cover the costs of unblocking the drain. You can, of course, ask your end of tenancy cleaning company to try and remove the blockage by using their strong cleaning chemicals but… please read below.

Drano™ and the like are strong chemicals that dissolve the substances (usually organic substances) that are causing the blockage. However, the Drano™ will keep working and dissolving organic substances after the water is gurgling freely down the sink. Just stop and think for a moment what this is likely to do to the aquatic ecosystem. Yes, your drain chemical of choice is probably biodegradable (these days, anyway) and will break down and be less noxious after a while, but it won’t do this straight away and it will have some effect. These fierce chemicals should definitely not be used if you have a septic tank system – they will kill the anaerobic bacteria that break down the waste solids.

A plumber trying to unclog blocked kitchen drain

What Causes Drain Blockage?

Soap and Hair

The most common cause of blockages down sinks is a gunky mixture of soap scum and hair, often caused by people washing their hair in the sink or wet shaving. While letting beards, armpit hair and leg hair grow wild and leaving it unwashed is probably going a bit too far in the quest for an unblocked sink, it is possible to minimise the amount of hair that goes down. Most plugs have a trap at the top of them to prevent large objects going down and a good amount of hair gets stuck here, especially long hair. Clean hair off the trap regularly. Sometimes, if the water is a little sluggish to go out, pulling out any hairs from the trap can work wonders. The hairs will come up covered with thick black or grey goo that smells vile – chuck this down the lavatory or in the compost heap (toilets have wider pipes for obvious reasons and can handle this sort of muck). Waxing and dry shaving with electric shavers can also minimise the amount of hair going down, but this is a matter of personal preference.

Hot Fat

The other common cause of blocked drains is the stupid habit of tipping hot fat in its liquid state down the kitchen sink. A plumber of this writer’s acquaintance says that this is the most frequent reason he is called out to a job. Don’t do it. Instead, give that liquid fat to the dog, pour it into the compost heap, use it to make a bird feeder or save it for making soap (the soap produced won’t be perfect, but it will be good enough soap).

OK, that’s how to prevent a sink getting blocked, or at least reduce the likelihood of it getting blocked. But what if you’re sitting there with a sullen grey puddle that won’t go down?

A funny cartoon image of a plumber working in a kitchen

Ways of Unblocking Drains

Air Pressure

First of all, try the force of air pressure. For this, use a plunger or plumber’s mate – one of those sticks with a big rubber cup on the end. A big one works better than the small ones – the idea of these things is to force air up and down the pipe, which will dislodge and/or break up the blockage, so the more air pushed, the better. Place the cup over the plug hole and get pumping up and down. You will hear a swirling, swooshing gurgling sound, and (all going well) the drain will be clear.

Use Chemicals

Still no luck? Now its time to try chemical action, but you can use natural products for this. Boiling water will melt fat so it can get down, so this can be your first line of defence if you suspect that fat is blocking the drains. But better still is the baking soda and hot vinegar method. First of all, pour about a cup full of baking soda down the plughole. Make sure it all goes down – use a bit of boiling water to help it on its way. Follow this with a cup of vinegar, preferably heated or even boiling, as heat speeds the reaction between the acid and the base. The resulting reaction will force the blockage apart, and the acid in the vinegar will also have some effect on the alkaline soap. Wait a few minutes and repeat.

Elbow Grease

If you still don’t have any luck, you may need to physically remove the blockage. This is a nasty job and you can only do it if you can see the S-bend (or U-bend) in the pipe – try the cupboard under the sink or basin. Remove anything in this cupboard and put a bucket underneath where the pipe comes down from the top. Now unscrew the bottom of the U-bend – you may need some help from a pipe wrench. Then unscrew the top and stand clear as the water from above comes splashing into the bucket. Tip any excess water from the bend into the bucket as well.

Now comes the really nasty bit: you will have to poke around and find what’s blocking the pipe. If some idiot has poked cotton buds down the sink (it happens!) or if there’s a very thick plug of fat/hair/soap/gunge, you will have to remove this. Wear rubber gloves.

When you’re done, screw the pipe back on nice and securely, and go and throw the bucket of dirty water onto some unobtrusive place in the garden.

And don’t ever tip fat down the sink again.

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About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.