Dear Umbra,

How does one unclog a clogged bathtub drain without pouring toxic chemicals directly into the waste stream?

Allie Cat
Boiling Springs, Penn.

Dearest Allie Cat,

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I don’t believe that’s your real name.

But yours is a noble question. Let’s get motivated by reviewing a Drano material safety data sheet [PDF], where we find that the product has a hazard rating of “high,” that “mixing with other cleaning products may cause toxic gas,” and that Drano may cause “chemical burns” to the eye, “moderate skin irritation,” or “severe damage to the digestive tract.” Alright! We’re ready to replace toxicity with elbow grease.

Be kind to your pipes.

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First, go to the hardware store and ask for a plumber’s snake, or a drain snake. They will sell you a coiled wire inside plastic tubing. Then go to the grocery store and buy white vinegar, baking soda, and a treat for later.

Return home. Put on work clothes, open the window. Pour a slug of baking soda down the drain and chase it with vinegar. See if the drain unclogs. Feel disappointed. Move on to the snake.

The snake has a small knob that controls the coil; unlock it and start pulling the coil out and inching it down the drain. Use the rotating crank at the top to force it farther in, and play with the locking knob to see how it can bolster your shoving and twisting. When you reach an impasse, pull out the snake. With any luck, there will be a revolting rotten mass at the end of it. Pull that off with a rag. Try the soda/vinegar trick again. Stand up and stretch. If the drain is not clear, once more into the breach.

I’ve put a drain snake all the way down to the “stack” — the main pipe — which was about 10 feet away. (If the stack is backed up, all the house drains will show it, and you should call a professional.) I’ve oft given up hope, but if you stick to it, the snake should work. It’s far better than toxic chemicals — not only for the environment, but for the pipes. (To avoid this workout in the future, be diligent with sieves and perform regular — some say weekly — soda/vinegar treatments.)

You will unclog the drain, my friend. When you do, slosh in a bit more vinegar for freshness, wash up, and have that treat. You’ll deserve it.


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