How to Clean a Drain

A sink drain with water flowing down it.

Drain cleaning products typically contain the most toxic, hazardous chemicals people have in their homes. Inside the harmless-looking bottles you’ll find lye and other corrosive agents like sulfuric and hydrochloric acid. Drain cleaners will burn your skin on contact, and a splash could easily rob you of your eyesight. Ingested, this stuff is lethal – it will literally melt your insides. Commercial drain cleaners can also produce hazardous fumes. The bottom line: don’t bring this stuff into your home. Below you’ll find out how to clean and unclog a drain using simple tools and safe chemicals you already have in your home.

Open and Clean a Drain without Harsh Chemicals

  1. plastic drain snakeGetting started. Many times you can clean a drain just by getting your fingers in there. Hair is especially problematic for bathroom drains. Hardware stores sell tools that make removing hair much easier. Some look like thicker, longer pipe cleaners, others (right) like industrial tapeworms. Hair goblins cling to them in revolting clumps. If nothing else, a clothes hanger will work for this in a pinch. While you’re at it, pick up a drain strainer or screen, which are simple and cheap. They’ll certainly keep Cousin It out of your drains.
  2. baking soda and vinegarBaking soda, vinegar, and boiling water. Mild clogs and slow flows are no match for this age-old homemade drain cleaner. Put half a cup of baking soda down the drain and follow it up with a cup of vinegar. The fizzy reaction is the stuff of science fair volcanoes. Plug or stop the drain to keep this reaction below. Next, wait ten to twenty minutes. Drink a beer, reflect, and then put a kettle (or pot) of boiling water down the drain. If you ask any green-minded individual or publication how to clean a drain, this is the trick they’d recommend.
  3. picture of garbage disposalVariables: garbage disposals and grease. Baking soda will damage garbage disposals when used over time. Instead of the above formula, try mixing four cups of vinegar, two cups of water, and ½ cup of salt in a pan and boil it. When the mixture starts boiling, shut the heat off and add a few tablespoons of dishwashing liquid. Pour this concoction down the drain and let it sit for ten minutes. Lastly, flush with boiling water. If your drain is clogged by grease, disposal or no, an often recommended solution is washing soda and water, followed again by boiling water.
  4. plungerPlunger: not just for toilets. Use a plunger to unclog a drain that is severely blocked. First, plug any safety/overflow drains with a wet rag. Next, fill your sink or bathtub with enough water so that the plunger’s “bell” will be submerged while in action. Get the business end of the plunger in there, work out any bubbles, and seal it over the drain. Lastly, plunge your way to a clean drain and domestic glory.
  5. professional drain snakeDrain snake. Also called augers, drain snakes are used to clean a drain by grinding up or shredding the blockage. You guide this creature-like tool down the drain until you reach the problem. Next, you’ll grind this way or that until you’ve got the drain clean. If this fails, it isn’t time to break out the harsh chemicals. Instead, call in a plumber. Have them show you how to remove the “J trap” for any horrifically clogged drains in the future.
  6. outdoors faucetThe hose method. I’ve never tried this, but I’ve been told it is a great way to clean a drain that is partially or fully clogged. First, hook up a hose to a spigot, bring it into your home, and lead it down into the drain. Have someone quickly turn on the spigot full blast. The pressure of the hose should unclog the drain. If this and the other methods on this page all fail, it’s time to call a plumber.
  7. Person with clothespin on their noseDrain odors. A clean drain drains swiftly, but it should also be free of odor. Baking soda is a cheap solution. It won’t make your drain smell like potpourri, but it won’t smell like a dog’s death-bed farts either. Bad odors are acidic in nature, and baking soda absorbs and neutralizes acids. Simply leave a cup in the drain overnight. If you have a garbage disposal, slice a lemon into small pieces and grind it up. The citric acid will leave your drain clean and fresh.

How to Keep Your Drains Clean and Clog Free

  • Strainers, screens, and hair catchers. No, they won’t block every strand of hair or blob of food from passing, but these simple solutions will make drain cleaning a less horrific chore.
  • Consistency. Clogs and odors become a problem when grease, decaying hair (puke), and other such niceties are allowed to build up and fester. Pour a pot of boiling water down your drain once weekly. Try the above baking soda and vinegar solution once every month to keep your drains clean and swift.
  • Grease. This may be the reason you had to learn how to clean a drain in the first place. Grease and fats clog drains. Save your grease in a sealable container – coffee cans work well. Grease can be composted or you can bring it to a local fast food joint. They recycle grease, which is later turned into consumer goods. Yeah, really.

Natural Drain Cleaners

bottle of drainboDrainbo Drain Cleaner. If you’re very quiet, you might just be able to hear the bacteria in this product scream “thank you” as they’re dumped into the buffet of your drain. However, these bacteria are quickly killed by conventional cleaning products, so lay off with the bleach and such before and after application.

bottle of earth enzymesEarth Enzymes Drain Opener.People are always complaining about drains clogged with hair. Well, unlike Drano, this stuff won’t dissolve hair (or your lungs!) but it will eat away the gunk that’s holding that hair goblin together. It will work, just not as quickly.

bottle of bio-cleanBio-Clean Drain Cleaner. This stuff can be used for grease traps, garbage disposals, and of course, it can be used to clean a drain. The bacteria in this product are said to produce enzymes that eat through not only grease and fat, but also detergents, paper, and other synthetic crap that sometimes finds the drain. You can order Bio-Clean on Amazon.