First published November 2006, last updated June 2013
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or in this case – an ounce of enzyme is worth a pound of caustic soda; or a hundred bucks spent on a plumber.
I’ve lived in a few houses that aren’t on mains sewerage – they’ve either used septic systems or a blackwater recycling system. These types of systems need to be treated with extra care as (good) bacteria do the work of breaking down all the icky stuff.
A caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) based chemical for clearing drains in these scenarios is a sure-fire way to kill *all* the hard working bacteria in these systems. So, in that respect, yes, it’s an environmental hazard.
Even if you are on mains sewage, pouring Drano or a similar product down the sink isn’t exactly the best choice. For starters, it’s a hazard having it on the premises and it’s a very dangerous product to have anywhere near children. Secondly, caustic soda, while breaking down rapidly in the environment; also breaks down just about anything it touches. There are certainly more earth friendly options.
One alternative is to pour a scoop of baking soda mixed with half a cup of vinegar down the drain, and follow it quickly with boiling water.
The other alternative, what I use, is an enzyme/bacteria based preparation.
These are sold under various names and can be purchased in most hardware stores. Although they appear to be a little expensive, it’s the solution that keeps on working; only requiring an infrequent top up dose. What they do is to help establish colonies of *useful* bacteria in your drains and systems that feast on.. ummm.. well, if it’s organic they eat it basically ;).
The great thing about these preparations is that they are totally non-toxic to humans and the environment and they are very easy to use – no complicated mixtures, just pour and you’re done!
Tip: when using these types of preparations, it’s best to add them just as everyone in your family is heading to bed – if large amounts of water follow the preparation, it can wash away the bacteria before they’ve had time to get a foothold in your drains.
The next time you notice your drains smelling or perhaps water not getting away as quickly as it should, reach for bacteria instead of caustic soda. Bacteria, while sometimes our enemy, are quite often our friends!
Another couple of tips in the “prevention vs. cure” genre:
If you have a grease trap – check it regularly. I became a bit lazy and assumed my grease trap was still in good working order after a scrape 12 months prior. I had gone into an over-enthusiastic water saving mode which didn’t help and I had also slacked off on adding enzyme – with rather smelly and messy consequences.
Something else I’ve found very useful is a sink drain strainer – these trap food and debris before it winds up in your plumbing.