By Katie Marks, Networx
Slow-draining plumbing fixtures are a pain in the showerhead. It always starts as a slow creep so you can try to trick yourself into think that nothing's wrong, but eventually, you have to admit that something is seriously wrong and it's time to work on unclogging your sink, shower, toilet, or other fixture so that water will stop hanging around. By then, you probably have not just a drainage problem but also a staining and unpleasant smell problem, which is quite the trifecta when it comes to cleaning.
Lots of stores sell commercial drain cleaners that promise to unstop clogs, deodorize, and lift stains. But those products tend to contain caustic chemicals, like the kinds you don't want around children and pets. In addition, some can be harmful to the environment and they're not necessarily great for your septic system. Furthermore, using a liquid drain cleaner may not actually solve the problem.
You need to start by actually unclogging your drain. One option if you want to start small is to try a homemade drain cleaner and deodorizer, which, yes, can be as effective as a commercial one at managing small clogs, although it may take a little bit longer. There are a couple of different recipes for you to choose from.
One is the baking soda and vinegar technique: sprinkle 3/4 of a cup of baking soda into the drain (lift out the trap for easy access) and follow with a half cup of vinegar. Let it sit for half an hour and then pour either boiling or very hot water for two to three minutes to flush out the drain (obviously, if it's not draining, stop, because you don't want hot water spilling everywhere). Stubborn drains may require repeat treatments: one of the best ways to use this mixture is as a monthly preventative drain treatment to keep pipes smelling fresh and running clear.
You can also try a 1:1:2 salt:borax:vingar mixture in much the same way. You may want to consider yet another option: enzyme drain cleaners. These products eat away at encrusted matter in drains including biofilms (those buildups of bacteria that make drains all slimy and gross), and they're available in natural foods stores, large grocery stores, and similar locales.
If you drain cleaner doesn't work, however, you'll need to go to step two. Often, whatever is stuck in your drain is caught in your u-bend, and it's actually very easy to take apart a u-bend for cleaning. Stick a bucket under the u-bend, loosen the rings holding it in place, and gently pull it loose. Water will probably flood into the bucket, and you can take an opportunity to run water straight through the fixture to flush out debris.
You can also spray out the u-bend with a hose to remove anything stuck inside. You might want to wear gloves for this, because it can be unpleasant, especially if members of the house have long hair or you have fuzzy animals.
In case step two doesn't work, step three involves using a snake, a large, flexible device designed to be worked into the pipe and then pulled back out. An attachment on the snake traps any material caught in the drain and removes it.
And step four? Call your plumber, because it's time for some professional help to get the clog out. Plumbers can clear pipes and assess them to determine if it's time for an upgrade. Be aware that if you've had drainage problems for some time, you may also need to talk to a remodeling company, as it's possible you have leaks and mold damage too. (This is an incentive to take care of sluggish drains early!)
Once the drain problem is managed, you can address the odor and staining. Baking soda happens to be a great deodorizer and soft scrub; try using a baking soda and vinegar or baking soda and lemon scrub to lift stains, and then rinse it down the drain with hot water to kill odors. Scrub regularly to prevent buildups and keep drains smelling good.
Prevention of clogs is very important for the life of your drains. Make sure that drain traps are in place at all times and remind everyone in the house to use them every time and regularly clean them. If your toilet is prone to clogging, make sure nothing other than toilet paper goes down the drain, and warn guests if it tends to be finicky. Ultimately, problem fixtures should be examined by a plumber and potentially replumbed or replaced.