Most drain cleaners are made with strong chemicals to break down hair, grease and oils. However, enzyme-based cleaners are also available. These drain cleaners use bacteria and enzymes to break down hair and organic matter. So, should you use a chemical-based or an enzyme-based cleaner?
There can be a price to pay with chemical-based drain cleaners which rely on chemical reactions in order to clear clogs. There are three general types.
1) Caustic cleaners that contain either lye or potash, two powerful alkaline chemicals. Caustic drain cleaners produce heat to break down food and grease clogs, turning them into a soap-like substance.
2) Oxidizing cleaners that contain bleach, peroxide and nitrates; they oxidize clogs to produce heat and gas which breaks up the organic matter.
3) Acid cleaners that contain highly concentrated levels of sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid. These products are typically not available to homeowners; they must be purchased locally by plumbers. Acid drain cleaners also create heat by means of chemical reaction in order to break down clogs. While acid drain cleaners are more effective than caustic or oxidizing drain cleaners, they also carry greater risks if used improperly.
Because the chemicals used in these products rely on the heat produced by chemical reactions, they can actually soften PVC pipes, especially if the pipes are more than 20 years old. They also damage older metal pipes made from brass, aluminum, chrome, stainless steel, or galvanized steel. These caustic chemicals can also affect septic tanks because they kill the good bacteria necessary for a healthy septic system.
Fumes from chemical drain cleaners can irritate or burn eyes, skin, and mucous membranes and eat holes in clothing if accidentally splashed or spilled.
If you mix a chemical drain cleaner with bleach or ammonia, the chemical reaction can create a toxic gas, which is especially dangerous for those with asthma or heart conditions.
Enzyme drain cleaners are generally safer and use bacteria that produce enzymes in the presence of organic matter, such as food particles, hair, mildew, mold, and algae. The enzymes break down the material into tiny pieces that can then be flushed through your pipes with water. Because enzyme drain cleaners are free of chemicals, they pose no risk to your pipes, surfaces, or septic system.
Most plumbers discourage the use of chemical drain cleaners. Though they can clean your drain pipes thoroughly, they can damage the system over time.
What is an enzyme drain cleaner? They contain bacteria cultures as well as concentrated enzymes that respond to the presence of organic substances. They are generally designed to work on clearing the pipes of live organisms such as mildew and molds as well as those that have organic content such as food particles.
They feed on organic materials that range from hair to food waste to molds and algae and soap scum. The minute organisms digest these substances and actually reproduce and spread throughout your plumbing system.
Enzyme drain cleaners are effective in maintaining the smooth flow in pipes, but they’re not that great when it comes to getting rid of clogs. Also, the speed at which they work depends on the flow of liquid through the pipes. If the flow stops because of a clog the cleaner can only clean up to the clog. Therefore, you cannot use these products as instant clog busters.
Don't expect these products to clear a clog 50 feet down a 2 or 3 inch drain line quickly, nor will they clean out twenty year old pipes in a few hours or even a few days; it will take time for the enzymes to break it all down. Enzyme cleaners are primarily maintenance products. If you have a serious clog you may need to get it open with clog removers or a plumber before using an enzyme product.
On a Saturday night after doing the dishes I noticed the sink was draining very slowly. Sunday morning the water in the sink in the half bath directly below the kitchen was draining painfully slow. After removing the trap and cleaning out a large amount of black greasy sludge, the sink still failed to drain. The next step was to take the trap off again and use a small sink snake. It's 8 feet long, but the clog was beyond its reach.
That's when I tried a product called Commercial Drain Maintainer which sells at Home Depot for about $14 a gallon. According to the label billions of enzyme producing bacteria digest fats, oils, and greases, along with other organic waste that accumulates in drains and grease traps. It clears slow drains and eliminates foul odors and when used regularly it reduces clogs and grease trap pumping.
Did it work? I poured 8 ounces down the drain and ran hot water until the sink filled up and then left it. When we returned home six hours later the water had drained out of the sink which I then filled up with hot water and then unplugged it. The water immediately gushed down the drain. And, a check of the kitchen sink upstairs revealed that it, too, was draining freely. Success!
This product received a mix of good and bad reviews online. I suspect the bad reviews came as a result of problems for which the product was not designed to handle. In my case it worked well because the problem was built up soap scum, grease and bits of organic matter that formed an ugly black sludge. I intend to use it on a regular basis to keep kitchen and bathroom traps and lines free of build up.