Drainage woes keeping the flow flowing

DR. VOSS WROTE: "How do you keep sink/shower drains from accumulating stinky gunk and, if it is already there, how do you get rid of it? "A couple weeks ago, we replaced our kitchen counter tops. When we took out the old sink, the amount of gunk' in the drainpipes was unbelievable. About half the pipe cross section was occluded. If it were an artery, it would have been a heart attack waiting to happen.

DR. VOSS WROTE: "How do you keep sink/shower drains from accumulating stinky gunk and, if it is already there, how do you get rid of it?

"A couple weeks ago, we replaced our kitchen counter tops. When we took out the old sink, the amount of ‘gunk' in the drainpipes was unbelievable. About half the pipe cross section was occluded. If it were an artery, it would have been a heart attack waiting to happen. We even cleaned out the drainpipe as it extended into the wall (downstream from the trap), at least the length of a long screwdriver. I guess it is not too unexpected, since the old sink and drainpipes were in place since 1982. We don't have a garbage disposal, and do use a screen in the drain to catch stuff. Is there anything more we can do to prevent this problem, and any effective way to clean out the drainpipes, short of replacing them?

"Similar gunk is probably in the shower, laundry room and bathroom sinks. The shower had an odor problem that began after we were out of town for a week (and it wasn't in use). After trial and error, including lots of cleaning, I solved it by pouring a daily dose of diluted bleach water down the drain after each use, and after a week or so, the odor went away.

"Any advice gratefully received. "Sincerely yours, Demented by drain doo-doo."

Dear demented by drain doo-doo, Welcome to our world! Kitchen drains are, by virtue of their service, rather nasty creatures. Soaps, food waste, grease, etc., quickly settle out of solution and get quite chummy with each other in the darkened recesses of drain-world. They co-habitate recklessly as if the ‘60s and communes were back in style! During their slow descent into decomposition, they form a black goo that stains more permanently than a Sharpie. Grease coats the piping quite quickly following new kitchen drainage installations, and, while it remains a fluid in warm or hot water (think doing dishes), it quickly clings to anything it can as drain water cools. As you noted, drainage systems are much like arteries and subject to restricted flow too. Funny how drainage art imitates life!

Grease clings to anything it can as drain water cools.

Bathroom sinks rank (no pun intended!) second in the disgustingly repugnant department. Toothpaste, soaps, etc., coagulate along with strands of hair and shaving cream to form slippery snot-like goo.

Long hair and tub drains have led to some pretty weird clogged drain calls! One that is forever etched in my memory was a tub-on-feet and a lady who had hair down to her waist. I immediately encountered a stubborn knot while using my hand-auger and started pulling/tugging gently. With a long and loud slurping noise, the hair-clog kept on coming and coming and coming until a 6-ft.-plus length of hair the same diameter as the drain lay in the bottom of the tub — looking like an anaconda coiled and ready to strike!

As for your kitchen quandary, the only way to avoid this problem is to avoid using the kitchen sink as a kitchen sink and eat all meals out! If that's not an option, a weekly or monthly dose of a grease-eating enzyme product can be utilized or a mild drain cleaner. Extreme care must be exercised as chemical cleaners can degrade sink surfaces and, where stainless steel is the product, permanently stain the sink. Good safety practices are in order with eye protection a top priority.

Some interesting compressed gas-blaster drain-cleaning aids are available, and I tested one for a local TV station's "Does it Really Work?" segment. First blast caused most of the sink's contents to leave the sink, but not by way of the drain! After cleaning up that mess, I made sure I had a better seal for the next take. That one blew the trap right off the sink and another mess to clean. Shortcuts such as chemicals or compressed gas might appear to resolve the issue because they've eaten a hole or blasted one through the portion blocking flow. A thorough cleaning will require the use of mechanical equipment by trained professionals. Your drain has 25 years of build-up, just like hardened arteries with plaque.

Keeping the drain free and clear forever isn't likely to happen by virtue of what's going to be sent down the line. No matter how carefully you wipe off dishes, there will be residue films and food particles just dying for an opportunity to cling to the cooler drainline surfaces. Grease thins out in hot water, but gets sticky as it cools. Some evidence exists that grease sets up into little balls in cold water that will roll along without sticking, but no one washes dishes in cold water. So that tidbit of grease knowledge is pretty useless, unless you're doing dishes in cold water using All-Tempa-Cheer that's actually meant for clothes!

For those who insist on pouring grease down any drain line, I'd say: Go ahead, live life on the edge, but save up for the plumber.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].