Dealing with a clogged drain can be incredibly frustrating. You turn on the faucet or flush the toilet, only to be met with standing water that drains slowly or not at all. When facing this common household plumbing issue, some may be tempted to reach for the bottle of bleach under the sink. After all, bleach is a strong chemical known for its disinfecting and stain-removing abilities. It seems logical that it could also break down and dissolve gunk, hair, and other debris that is likely causing the clog.
However, while bleach may look like an easy solution for unclogging drains, there are several important reasons why you should never pour bleach down your drain. Despite being able to eliminate germs and whiten clothing, using bleach as a drain cleaner can actually cause significant damage. From eroding pipes to generating toxic fumes, bleach presents a number of risks and drawbacks when used improperly for plumbing issues. The good news is there are much safer and more effective alternatives to clear clogged drains without relying on harsh chemicals like bleach.
Dangers of Bleach in Drains
Before reaching for that bleach bottle under your sink, it’s crucial to understand the potential dangers bleach poses when poured down drains:
Can Damage Plumbing and Pipes
One of the biggest concerns with using bleach as a drain cleaner is that over time, it can seriously damage plumbing and piping. Here are some specific ways bleach can degrade and corrode plumbing:
- Corrodes Plastic Pipes – Many modern pipes are made of PVC plastic. However, the harsh chemicals in bleach can break down the material and cause PVC pipes to become brittle and eventually crack.
- Wears Down Seals and Gaskets – The chlorine in bleach wears away at rubber gaskets and seals in drains. This can lead to leaks and joints that fail to keep water in the pipes.
- Reacts with Metal Pipes – Bleach can react with iron, copper or lead pipes, corroding the metal and weakening the infrastructure of plumbing systems.
Corroded and damaged pipes lead to leaks, flooding, and costly plumbing repairs down the road. It simply isn’t worth ruining pipes for the small chance bleach unclogs a drain.
Creates Toxic Fumes
Another hazard of bleach in drains is the noxious, potentially deadly fumes it produces, especially when mixed with additional cleaners and chemicals that may have gone down the drain. Here are some serious risks from bleach fumes:
- Deadly Chloramine Gas – When bleach interacts with materials like ammonia or acids from other household cleaners, it can create a lethal gas called chloramine. Exposure can cause chest pain, pneumonia, fluid in the lungs and even death.
- Respiratory Damage – Even small amounts of bleach fumes can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and exacerbate asthma in sensitive individuals. The lungs and respiratory tract can become inflamed and irritated when exposed to bleach gases.
Using bleach in small, enclosed spaces with poor ventilation like bathrooms can concentrate these harmful vapors. Never mix bleach with other cleaners, as toxic chloramine gas can result.
Harms Septic Systems
Bleach has detrimental effects on septic systems that rely on bacteria and enzymes to naturally process waste:
- Kills Beneficial Bacteria – The disinfecting properties of bleach kill both good and bad bacteria in septic systems. This destroys the healthy bacteria needed to decompose solid waste.
- Disrupts Wastewater Processing – Without bacteria and enzymes, septic systems cannot adequately filter wastewater. Organic materials build up, clogging the system.
- Septic System Failure – Continued use of bleach can cause septic system backup, blockages, foul odors and ultimately complete failure. This requires expensive repairs or replacement.
Even small amounts of bleach flushed down toilets or drains can have ruinous effects on septic tanks. The bacteria killed off by bleach don’t come back overnight, doing long-term damage.
Using bleach as a drain cleaner can also pose hazards to human health beyond just the inhalation of fumes:
- Skin and Eye Irritation – Bleach can cause redness, itching, burning and irritation when it comes into contact with skin. In the eyes, bleach exposure leads to stinging, watering and even chemical burns on the corneas.
- Exacerbates Respiratory Problems – Individuals with asthma, COPD or other respiratory conditions may experience attacks or worsened symptoms when exposed to bleach fumes. The lungs become inflamed and breathing ability is restricted.
To prevent injury when using bleach for household cleaning, it is crucial to wear gloves and eye protection. Never mix bleach with other chemicals, and use it only in well-ventilated areas.
Better Methods to Unclog Drains
The risks clearly show why bleach should be avoided as a makeshift drain cleaner. Thankfully, there are much safer and often more effective methods for unclogging sinks, showers, and tubs:
Baking Soda and Vinegar
A homemade drain cleaner can be made with baking soda and vinegar. The chemical reaction between acidic vinegar and alkaline baking soda releases bubbles and pressure that force through blockages. Plus, vinegar helps dissolve gunk, hair, and soap scum. Step-by-step instructions are:
- Pour 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain.
- Follow with 1 cup heated white vinegar, then quickly cover the drain.
- Let react for 5-10 minutes, then rinse with hot water.
For severe clogs, repeat the process twice. Baking soda and vinegar are non-toxic and inexpensive!
Boiling water is an effective and easy way to loosen clogs. Steps are simple:
- Boil several cups of water in a tea kettle or pot.
- Carefully pour the boiling water down the clogged drain.
- Let sit for several minutes, then flush with cool water.
The hot water melts and clears away grease blockages. Follow up with a plunger to help dislodge the freed clog.
A drain snake, also called an auger, uses a twisting metal coil to manually remove blockages. It’s ideal for sinks, tubs and other drains within arm’s reach. For drains further away, a longer snake that attaches to a drill is required. Follow these steps:
- Insert the end of the drain snake into the drain opening.
- Crank the handle clockwise while pushing down to feed the snake deeper.
- Once the clog is reached, twist and pull out debris.
- Remove snake once water flows freely.
Drain snakes can remove hair, sediments and other debris that cause stubborn clogs. They can be purchased or rented if needed.
A simple sink plunger can manually dislodge clogs through suction. To use:
- Fill sink halfway with water to cover drain opening.
- Position plunger over drain hole to form a seal.
- Plunge up and down vigorously 10-15 times to loosen clog.
- Remove plunger and flush drain with hot water.
A plunger is effective for clearing sink, tub and shower drain clogs. Caution should be used to avoid scratching fixtures with the plunger bell.
Enzymatic Drain Cleaner
Enzyme-based drain cleaners are a moderately safer chemical option compared to bleach. They contain bacteria cultures and enzymes that help break down organic matter like food, oils, hair, and soap scum. Look for an enzyme cleaner that:
- Lists active enzymes or bacteria on the label
- Doesn’t contain corrosive chemicals like sulfates or lye
- Is non-flammable and low-odor
Enzymatic cleaners require time to work but won’t produce noxious fumes. Follow product instructions carefully.
When to Call a Professional
While the do-it-yourself methods described can resolve many basic clogged drains, there are certain situations where a professional plumber may be needed:
- Clogs that keep recurring – A chronic clog may indicate a larger issue needing repair.
- Water draining very slowly – Slow drains could mean a partial blockage in the main line.
- Multiple drains clogged at once – This points to a problem with the main sewer line.
- Drain requires taking apart to access – Some drains like tubs have overflow plate covers that may need removal.
- You’ve tried other methods unsuccessfully – A very stubborn clog may need a pro’s expertise.
A plumber has specialized snakes, hydro jetting tools, cameras and equipment to fully clear drain obstructions. They can also diagnose and repair hidden issues leading to recurring clogs.
Before reaching for bleach next time you have a sluggish drain, consider the dangers. Bleach can damage pipes, release toxic fumes, harm septic tanks and create health hazards. You shouldn’t pour bleach down the drain under any circumstances – the risks far outweigh any potential benefits.
Luckily, there are much safer and often more effective options for unclogging drains at home. Baking soda and vinegar, boiling water, plungers and enzymatic cleaners can all clear clogs without wreaking havoc on your plumbing. Should DIY methods fail and professional help be needed, a local plumber has the proper equipment and know-how to address tricky drain obstructions.
By understanding the concerns of bleach as a drain cleaner and instead using gentler methods, you can clear clogs safely and keep your plumbing running smoothly for years to come.