Which is worse: too much Drano or snaking the pipes?
September 12, 2018 6:27 AM   Subscribe

I've rented the upstairs apartment in an old (100 years?) 2-family house for 8 years. The landlord is terrible--non-responsive and unwilling to update or repair various typical issues. When he does respond to my very infrequent complaints he uses awful contractors who usually seem not to know what they're doing or use cost-cutting methods that often make the problem worse. I'm sure it's because they were the cheapest contractors he could find.

The bathtub drain has always been very slow, varying in severity over time. I clear it of hair every time I use it. But every shower (and I take quick showers) ends with me standing in gross dirty, soapy water up to my ankles. And of course this gunks up the tub and makes it harder to clean.

I call to complain about this once a year or so. The response (usually after 2 ignored emails and 3 disregarded voice mails) is to tell me to use Drano. If he's feeling generous, he'll leave a bottle on the porch. If I push and say it's not enough to fix it he sends the plumber, but the plumber refuses to snake the drain, saying it will damage the pipes. The plumber also tells us (and recommends to the landlord) to just keep using Drano. I am now using Drano about once a month, and it never completely clears the drain, just speeds it up slightly for a few days.

Won't Drano damage the pipes, especially being used so often? And if the pipes are so vulnerable to being damaged by snaking them, doesn't that strongly indicate that they need to be updated/replaced? I suspect they're original to the house as so very little else has been updated. What will happen if the Drano eventually does cause damage? Leaks? Pipes collapsing and causing flooding?

I need to arm myself with knowledge before I make another call to the landlord and threaten to withhold rent unless he provides a more long-lasting fix. I'm very hesitant to use this nuclear option as I'm a tenant-at-will and absolutely cannot afford to move. I can't risk being told to leave.
posted by primate moon to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
So, I live in a 40 year old building where the plumbing is infamously crappy (as in: people have taken the developer's name in vain since the building went up), and had a similar "tub is very slow to drain" issue a few years ago. If you've got a tub/shower combo where there's a toggle to plug the drain (e.g., a lever that's part part of the overflow drain that you flip up/down to close/open the tub's main drain), I'd check there first. You can pull the entire assembly out and clean it. I'd bet it's either (1) clogged with stuff, or (2) the plug assembly is sitting too low in the drain. If you pull it, and the tub drains fine without it present, it's the problem.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 6:41 AM on September 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Something a plumber told me eons ago when I lived in an old house was that the snake could scratch or chip at the old pipes which could then make spaces for other things to get stuck more fixedly. One thing you might try is both heat and force. Pour tea kettles of boiling water down the drain to try to loosen and dissolve soap scum. Then fill the tub full and once it’s good and full, pull the plug.

I’ve had better luck with that method. You could also call in your own plumber for a consult.
posted by amanda at 6:43 AM on September 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

As for why they say it'll damage the pipes: the pipes are likely either old and cast iron, or newer and PVC; I've had PVC pipes get broken at the point of a bend when the landlord tried snaking them, so they may be PVC pipes. I can't imagine iron pipes being damaged by snaking unless they're very corroded.

Drano is relatively mild; it's soap and bleach and maybe a few other things. But, it doesn't really cut through big clogs, and as you've seen it's not doing the job for you.

You can buy solutions of weakened sulfuric acid -- which has all kinds of horrifying warnings all over, but if you follow directions it's not bad at all -- which I've found to be much more effective and can cut through really plugged drains; however, it's not good for iron pipes. You may want to ask the landlord if you can use that in the pipes and see what they say.

How long does the water take to start backing up in the shower? If it's almost immediately, then the blockage is near the shower; if it's a couple minutes, it may be blockage further down. If it's close, you can usually buy a small snake and do it yourself.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:44 AM on September 12, 2018

What kind (if any) stopper or strainer is on the drain? Have you or the plumber ever just removed it to see if there is visible hair wrapped around a crosspiece or something?

After a year of pouring Drano down our bathtub drain every few months, I finally did that. Found a disgusting clump of hair that I was able to fish out with an unbent hanger, and it's been great ever since. The clog is not necessarily deep in the pipes (unless you've already ruled out close to the surface clogs).

These are the instructions I used. Not necessarily recommending that you do it yourself, as I then had a hard time putting it back together and was afraid I'd broken something (hadn't), but I would at least insist that a plumber do that level of checking.

There are other steps that can be taken short of heavy-duty snaking, as well: plunging the drain, or using a plastic zip-tie type snake. I can't see how either of those would damage pipes, and they may be enough to clear the clog.
posted by Kriesa at 6:46 AM on September 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Have you tried taking a plunger to it? I have long, thick hair that is a nightmare for shower drains and I find that a combination of Drano, plugging the drain and filling the tub (as mentioned above) and also using a plunger often does the trick.
posted by like_neon at 7:01 AM on September 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Drano is relatively mild; it's soap and bleach and maybe a few other things

I'm not sure I'd characterize a substance that's mostly caustic soda as "relatively mild". Even so, it's unlikely to do anything bad to a PVC drain. It might well promote corrosion in a cast iron one.
posted by flabdablet at 7:04 AM on September 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Snaking does indeed run the risk of punching a hole in the pipe, and it won't permanently solve the problem. I don't really like using Drano either, especially when I know the water is prone to backing up (a little exfoliation can be nice, but I don't really want to be soaking my feet in Drano, thank you very much).

I have found the Zip-It and the Drain Weasel wands very effective for clearing slow drains like this. They're plastic and flexible, so there's not much danger of damaging the pipes, and they are quite effective at grabbing the hair and gunk that get past your drain trap. Personally, I've never thought of this as a landlord issue -- it's just a routine maintenance task that I have to do somewhere between every 4 weeks and every 3 months. It's true that some tubs just have a pitch/drain setup that makes them prone to problems, but I doubt your landlord is going to re-plumb the tub for you.

Another factor might be hard water. I find with hard water, soap leaves a lot of residue which gunks up both the tub and the drain really quickly. If this is the case where you are, you might search for a soap that works better with hard water (liquid soaps & body washes are often recommended). You might also try occasionally dumping some white vinegar down the drain (ideally, after you've pulled out any hair clogs with the Zip-It or Drain Weasel).
posted by ourobouros at 7:06 AM on September 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

I had a reliable plumber recommend Zep Drain Care to me. Unlike Drano (which, in its classic formulation, is lye and is damaging to cast iron for chemical reasons and pvc for heat reasons), Drain Care is an enzymatic product. As that plumber explained, and I bought into, hair is not actually what clogs the drain. The combination of soap, grime, etc that bond to the hair are what really cause the backups. The enzymes in Drain Care eat up that goop and the hair passes through freely. Drain Care is safe to use as much as you like, and while it may not clear your immediate problem, keeping a bottle on hand and pouring it down monthly may prevent buildups in the future. I used it regularly in a similar situation to yours and after the initial clearing with a snake, never had that buildup around my ankles again.
posted by goHermGO at 7:11 AM on September 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have long hair that clogs up our drains (shower and sink), and my fiance shaves into the sink and clogs up that drain like no other. While we have a great maintenance team in our building I just feel like everyday maintenance is my problem and I'm a little embarrassed to keep calling them about it. I have mostly solved the problem with the following:

1) Using an accordion style plunger to get enough force to dislodge large clumps. Often in the sink, a ball of hair will get pulled out of the drain. Just make sure to seal other holes with a wet cotton ball.

2) Using a hair catcher that really works - I'm not one to recommend products, but the tub shroom is magic for my hair.

3) Draino/hot water/vinegar on occasion when the above aren't working or as an initial precursor to the whole thing. But I've really found that if I keep up with the above 2 steps, I don't need draino anymore.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:12 AM on September 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

Zip-It is an amazing tool. We use it (and we used it at our new house) and it really helped. We are installing tub and sink shrooms before we move in, as I have long hair and it's a problem.

My dad also hates Drano on pipes - he is convinced it hurts them.

Jolie Kerr (Ask A Clean Person) recommends -
Treating a slow-moving drain is very easy. Pour a half cup of baking soda followed by a half cup of vinegar down your drain. Let that combination — which will bubble and foam up when mixed — work its way through the drain for 15 to 30 minutes. When the time is up, flush the drain with very hot water. If your tap takes awhile to create hot water, it’s not a bad idea to boil water in a tea kettle and use that to flush the drain; the hot water really does make a huge difference in the efficacy of this method. If, after performing that bit of sorcery, the drain is still running a bit slowly, repeat until the water drains freely.

As a preventative measure, doing the baking soda and vinegar routine once every or every other month is a really good idea. Of course, you have to remember to do it — which, without a slow-moving drain to remind you of what’s happening in your pipes, isn’t always easy.

posted by needlegrrl at 7:23 AM on September 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe get a modern plumber to come with a scope? I mean, you can buy your own wifi-enabled endoscope on Amazon for less than a plumber visit, and that should get you at least 16-20 feet of scope, but Roto Rooter or similar should have better rigs and be more knowledgeable about accessing other parts of the system via vents and flush-outs, and better equipped to do the crawling around required.

Certainly give the zip-it a shot first, but if that's not bringing anything up you may need to look further down the line.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:01 AM on September 12, 2018

Nthing the baking powder and vinegar followed by boiling water straight from the kettle. I find it the best method.
posted by 15L06 at 8:07 AM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

but the tub shroom is magic for my hair
I second this. We went from needing Drano every two months to maybe once per year. We have hard water and long hair.

I've had slow drains in both old and new apartments. If you don't feel you can escalate this, then you need to find ways to fix it yourself. Prevention is first, so get a shroom and clean it once a week! Once a clog is backing up, try baking soda and vinegar followed by boiling water. If that doesn't work, a plunger. Next there is a canned air product in the plumbing aisle where you seal all the outlets and blast air down the drain. It is best done with two people so one can hold the can and the other can press the button. The zip-it works great for clogs that are close to the drain.
posted by soelo at 8:10 AM on September 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I own a 100+ year old house with dodgy pipes and slow drains.

You're getting a lot of good advice above. I do wonder how long after you "clean" the drain does the water backup start? Is the drain ever clear?

Our go to is the baking soda/vinegar/hot water treatment described above, followed by some plunger work. We probably have to unclog our upstairs shower 5-6 times a year and this always does the trick. Just be aware that the first time you may have to do the baking soda/vinegar combo a couple of times before you plunge.
posted by anastasiav at 8:54 AM on September 12, 2018

I need to arm myself with knowledge before I make another call to the landlord and threaten to withhold rent unless he provides a more long-lasting fix. I'm very hesitant to use this nuclear option as I'm a tenant-at-will and absolutely cannot afford to move. I can't risk being told to leave.

Perpetually clogged drains are a tremendous pain but they are also routine in a lot of old houses with original plumbing. To withhold rent based on a periodically slow drain is not a measured response. To risk your housing security over this seems like the worst idea ever.

Old plumbing cannot be snaked, so attempting to force him to do that is futile. Additionally, your cheapass landlord is not going to replace the entire plumbing line because your shower backs up every month, which is a fairly benign and mundane household annoyance.

Zip the drain, get a better hair trap, and run baking soda and vinegar down it once a month. Hold on to your housing and under no circumstances should you withhold rent over this specific issue.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

I just had my pipes replaced after 50 years (approximately). The original pipe diameter was 2 inches, there was hard stuff in the pipe that made the drain less than the size of a dime. You can't fix that with Drano or by snaking the drain. Replacement is the only thing that will fix it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:22 AM on September 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

When you say you clear hair from the drain, you mean after your shower you pick up the little clump of hairs on top of the grate? That's a good start, but the next step in clearing hair is to take the cover off and see if there's anything visible just below the level of the tub. A lot of times the primary blockage is right there accessible, and you don't even need serious deep snaking to get it out, just some non-squeamish fortitude and a gripping tool (like tiny tongs or needlenose pliers) or try a hook tool (like a zip-it, or a large ziptie with notches cut in it if you're cheap, or a crochet hook if that's the kind of thing you have handy) to just snag a piece of the cluster of hairs and soapslime and tug it out.

(note: don't do this too soon after using drano, there will be caustic residue in the glop that (for one) you don't want to touch and (for two) makes the glob more fragile and harder to remove)
posted by aimedwander at 10:27 AM on September 12, 2018

Using a plunger on the bathtub and kitchen sink in my old house has been a game changer. You can actually do a lot of good with one, I did drano one week with limited success and the plunger was far more effective. Plus they will synergize, each making the other more effective.

You can either fill the tub full so that water blocks the overflow drain, find some other way to plug it, or if it’s really clogged some plunging while leaving the overflow open may still have some benefit (it has for me)
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:40 AM on September 12, 2018

One note on plunging: If the blockage is further down the pipes, past the drain vent (the pipe that runs up and out of the roof, so drains don't gurgle or burp), plunging is just going to push water up the vent and pull air back out of the vent, and it's not going to affect the blockage.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:15 AM on September 12, 2018

I am also a fan of the ZipIt. Just used it tonight.
posted by kabong the wiser at 4:20 PM on September 12, 2018

Notes on withholding rent: make sure to check the details of what's allowed by law BEFORE you decide to withhold rent or take other legal action.

And if you're considering doing this, next time you notify your landlord about a problem, do it in writing, either by email or by letter.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:54 PM on September 12, 2018

Nthing the TubShroom (actually I think I have the ShowerShroom, which is apparently a quarter inch taller). I haven't had to use Drano in several years, when previously it was an every few months kind of deal.
posted by ktkt at 9:39 PM on September 12, 2018

I was having ongoing issues with my bathtub drain not draining/draining slow over the past several years, and tried the plunger and baking soda/vinegar/hot water approach with some success... until weeks to months later I had to do it all over again. Until!

Until the blocked drain was finally so bad that none of the above worked any more, and, desperate, I found my attention drawn to a seemingly new product in the store that I hadn't noticed before: Drano Max Gel ("Guaranteed to work or your money back!"). Although I had always kept away from Drano and its harsh chemicals, I really had little choice in that situation where nothing was working, so I bought it, and... it worked like a charm! Had to do it twice in a row to unblock completely, but since then -- over nine months ago -- I haven't had a blocked bathtub drain again. Try it!

The other new thing that I think is really helping is the Moen bathtub drain hair catcher, which you can get for a couple of bucks at Home Depot. Works a million times better than anything you'll find for a dollar less at a Dollar Store.
posted by tenderly at 11:37 PM on September 12, 2018

Try a plunger! You'll want to block the tub overflow somehow (tape, maybe?). Don't do this after using Drano, of course. But when the tub is block with water, a plunger can do a lot to dislodge all that soapy hair.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:03 PM on September 13, 2018

At DoubleLune's recommendation, I bought a Tub Shroom. It is indeed magic! The coolest thing is that, unlike the drain strainers I've used before (which get clogged in the course of a normal shower), the Tub Shroom's design catches the hair around the edges, while allowing water to drain freely through the middle. That means it's much less likely that the water will back up. Thanks, DoubleLune!
posted by ourobouros at 8:59 AM on September 18, 2018

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