One Small Thing

How to clean and unclog a drain without using chemicals

Slow drains driving you crazy? That means it's time to clean them — but don’t reach for those harsh chemicals! Plumbing experts agree that it can damage pipes, not to mention the environment. Doyle James, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing, offers the following sage advice for cleaning and maintaining drains.

Kitchen sink drains


At least once a week, pour very hot water down the drain. This can help prevent clog-causing build-up on the interior surface of pipes. Or, pour one cup of vinegar down the drain and let it sit for 30 minutes. Rinse with two quarts of very hot water. Another option is to pour an enzyme drain cleaner, like BioChoiceES or Earthworm Family Safe Drain Cleaner, down the drain each month to stop clogs before they start. The enzymes in these cleaners break down the build-up in drains.

Earthworm Drain Cleaner, $10, Amazon


Bio-Clean Drain Septic (2 pounds), $50, Amazon

  • Be proactive.

Before rinsing dirty dishes/pots/pans for the dishwasher, scrape them well and then rinse with cold water. This helps keep any remaining grease solid so it can travel through drain lines more easily. Using warm water emulsifies grease and as the grease cools while traveling through the line, it solidifies and coats the inside of the drain line. Over time, this build-up on the surface will lead to stoppages.

  • Stinky drains?

Pour a half-cup of baking soda into the drain and follow it with two quarts of hot water. Baking soda is a great cleaning agent and will absorb foul odors, too. There are also commercial preparations, like Lemi Shine Disposal Cleaner, that use natural products to freshen drains.

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House cleaning: Areas you might miss, like reusable bags, kitchen sinks, showerheads

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To remove clogs:

Fill the sink with very hot water and leave it for one to two hours. The weight and pressure of the water may clear the stoppage. If not, use a plunger to force water through the clog and possibly dislodge it.

If you suspect a grease clog, a mixture of very hot water and vinegar can also help melt and remove the grease that’s blocking the pipes. Allow it to work for a few minutes then use a plunger to help move the clog along. You may have to repeat this more than once.

Or you can try a microbial cleaner, such as BioChoiceES or Earthworm Family Safe Drain Cleaner. “Stay clear of any type of drain acid,” James warned. “As a rule of thumb, anything you wouldn’t want to drink, you shouldn’t put down your drain because eventually it ends up in the water supply.”

Bathroom sink and tub

Monthly maintenance:

Once a month, remove hair from drains using either of these methods:

1. Drain Weasel hair clog tool: It’s hard to beat this tool when it comes to removing hair from drains. The plastic wand is lined with burrs that snag and hold onto hair, making it easy to remove. Rinse drain with hot water afterward.

2. A bent wire hanger: Use a regular wire coat hanger and straighten it out as much as possible. Bend one end to create a hook, push it through the drain and start fishing. Hair, and all the gunk that’s stuck to it, should pull out. Once it’s all pulled out, run the hot water.

And don't forget to clean pop-up stoppers in the bathroom sink and tub. Lift them from the drain, remove any debris, and scrub off gunk using an old toothbrush. Rinse and replace.

To remove clogs:

  • Remove the hair

Most bathroom clogs are caused by a build-up of hair and personal-cleaning products. The best way to remedy that is to remove the clog manually (see above).

  • Flush with hot water

If removing hair doesn’t seem to work, try pouring a kettle of boiling water slowly down the drain. Pour it in two or three stages, allowing the hot water to work for several seconds between each pour. Take care to pour the boiling water directly into the drain.

  • Call a plumber

If the above tips don’t clear the drain, it’s time to call a plumber. Pipes are sometimes clogged further down the line with years of accumulated grease build-up or even tree roots. These are problems a professional should handle.

Plunger recommendations

According to James, different plungers work best with different drains.

  • A cup plunger, which most people will recognize, is used for sinks and bathtubs. It will tightly seal against the surface, allowing a good amount of pressure to be applied to the obstruction.

Cup Plunger, $5, Amazon

  • A toilet plunger, which is formed to fit the inside of the trap of a toilet, allows for strong seal pressure to be applied and produces force and suction to loosen the obstruction.

Rubber Toilet Plunger, $18, Amazon

  • A bellows or accordion plunger applies a large amount of force for stubborn clogs. It is not recommended for the typical soft obstruction because the pressure can cause joints and seals to leak.

Liquid Plumr Bellows Sink & Drain Plunger, $6, Amazon