Photo: Paul Michael Hughes/Shutterstock

DIY Plumbing: Green Ways to Clean a Drain

by Susanna Donato Apr 26, 2010
Susanna Donato shares eco-friendly ways to unclog your drains and get on with your life.

It’s been getting slower. You’ve been ignoring it. Or you have indoor plumbing … barely. Or you’re rushing to an interview, brush your teeth and find you’ll be leaving your housemate a not-so-verdant pool in the bathroom sink.

Not to worry. Whether you are a homeowner, a renter or a couchsurfer, when the drain isn’t draining, you can fix it yourself — and most of the options are eco-friendly.

Stage one: Going slow

The best time to catch a lame drain is when toothpaste residue, elderly plumbing and lost hairs are beginning to gang up. You want to startle clogs into making their way out of your plumbing.

Step #1: Clear the Clumps. First, remove the plug. For most sinks, you can unscrew the plug stopper. For some bathtubs, you can remove it with a screwdriver. If it won’t come out, work around it.

Use a handy tool — perhaps an unbent paperclip, or ask your local hardware store — to fish around and pull out what you can.  Warning: It will be black, gunky and most likely smell. Repeat to yourself, “This is naturally occurring biodegradable matter.” Compost or trash your findings.

Step #2: Volcano! If you liked science fair as a kid, you will like this. Dump half a cup of baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) into the drain.

Now pour in a cup of vinegar. If the vinegar doesn’t drain, swizzle it around with a stick or chopstick until it does. If you have a washcloth handy, use it to plug the overflow drain. Meanwhile, put a big pot of water to boil. When the volcano has bubbled down the drain, pour in the boiling water. Most likely, more black goo will come up, but the water will clear away the slowdown. If it doesn’t, repeat step two.

Stage two: Blocked with standing water

If you didn’t attack it in stage one, you might have more work to do. Wear gloves — this can get messy.

Step #1: Repeat step one from above and see if anything significant comes out.

Step #2: Plunge it. Ideally, use a small plunger dedicated to sink clogs. In a dire situation, you could sanitize a toilet plunger and use that, but you lose bragging rights, or else no one will want to eat at your house ever again. Stop up the overflow drain with a wadded-up rag to make the plunger work.

Step #3: Pull out clogs. If step two fails, try to dislodge the clog and pull it out. In a pinch, use a wire coat hanger or other heavy wire to fish deeper in the drain. Or use a plumber’s snake or pipe auger. This is a dense, flexible wire on a reel that you unwind it slowly, forcing the snake into the drain where it can grab onto clogs when you wind it back. Buy one for around $20 US at a hardware store. For a bathtub, remove the overflow cover and push the snake down the overflow drain. Use care not to scratch porcelain.

Step #4: Remove the trap. The “trap” is a curved pipe (P-shaped or S-shaped) in the plumbing beneath a sink. First, place a bucket beneath the trap to catch the water that will rush out. Next, use a wrench to unscrew the giant nuts that hold the pipe in place. Dump the water in the bucket.

You might be able to see a clog in this trap that you can remove by hand. Or you might need to run the plumber’s snake into the pipe from here. Replace the trap the same way you took it off. You will need plumber’s Teflon tape to reseal the pipe when you replace it. Check for leaks before you go on your merry way.

Step #5: Last resort –chemicals. For a bathtub clog where you can’t access the trap, you might have to resort to a drain-cleaning chemical. These caustic chemicals usually contain lye and interact with water, so make sure you get rid of standing water first. Wear protective gloves and eyewear, and read the directions carefully. These products are quite hazardous, although they can be used with a septic system. Do NOT use them in toilets — they build up heat that can cause a toilet bowl to crack.

What if it’s the toilet?

If plunging and a snake don’t work, you might have to remove the toilet and turn it upside down to get rid of the blockage. You will need a new wax toilet ring on hand to reseal the toilet when you put it back. If the unclogging takes more than a minute, plug the hole in the floor with an old towel to avoid toxic fumes.

After you’ve washed off the black goo…you’ll have a semi-disgusting anecdote to share with your friends.

If all of these fail, you might have to call in a professional plumber. If you don’t own the plumbing, talk to your host or landlord before calling a plumber or taking dire steps, of course.

Most of the time, you’ll be able to resolve the situation quickly and without harm to the environment. And after you’ve washed off the black goo and changed out of your sweaty clothes, you’ll have a semi-disgusting anecdote to share with your friends when you go out for the cocktail you so richly deserve.

Community Connection

Want to share any plumbing horror stories? Any other unclogging tips?

For more green ideas, check out Neha Puntambekar’s guide to creating a peaceful and positive home. Looking for some DIY tips? Find tips on saving your sanity during home renovation projects here.

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