Should I Use Commercial Chemical Drain Cleaners with a Septic Tank?

     Most homeowners will experience a clogged drain from time to time, whether they have a septic system or not. The solution, however, may not be the same for everyone, especially those with septic tanks. Many commercial chemical drain cleaners say on their label that their product is safe to use with septic systems, but should you really be pouring it down your drains? You should probably consider other options. Read on to learn more.

How Your Septic Tank Functions

     When you flush your toilets or wash your dishes, wastewater flows through your home’s pipes and into your septic tank. There, bacteria break down the solid waste, including fats, oils, and greases (or FOG). Liquid waste then continues through drain pipes and into the leach field. When bacteria aren’t present to break down the solid waste, it will build up and eventually need to be pumped to avoid clogs in the leach field or sewage backups in your home.

Are Commercial Chemical Drain Cleaners Safe for your Septic Tank?

     Commercial chemical drain cleaning products often advertise that they are septic safe, but experts disagree with their safety. In fact, Craig Mains, an Engineering Scientist at the National Environmental Services Center strongly discourages the use of these cleaners in homes with septic systems. He states, “Using commercial chemical drain openers to unclog drains is not recommended for homes that are on septic systems.”

     That’s because the ingredients in these chemical cleaners are dangerous to the natural balance of your septic tank. Ingredients like bleach, lye, aluminum, and salt are used in these products to create a chemical reaction that eliminates clogs in your pipes. Unfortunately, when these components make their way into your septic tank, they immediately begin to kill off essential bacteria. All it takes is half an ounce to destroy the bacteria, but these product labels recommend using 16 ounces or more to clear a clog!

     While your clog may be resolved through the use of these chemical cleaners, the problem will now move to your septic tank. Without bacteria there to fully digest sludge and FOG, the waste in your tank will accumulate, but not be able to exit the tank and flow into your leach field. Solids that do make it into the leach system could create clogs that require costly repairs. You may also begin to notice sewage backing up into your home.

Safe Methods for Unclogging Drains

Fortunately, there are a number of safe ways to unclog a drain that will not cause damage to your septic tank:

  • Use a plunger: If you are using the plunger somewhere other than a toilet, like a bathtub or sink, find the overflow hole and cover it with a washcloth before plunging.
  • Pour boiling water down the drain: Small clogs, especially those caused by soap or grease, can often be easily cleared with boiling water.
  • Use baking soda and vinegar: This method employs a chemical reaction like the commercial drain cleaners, but the ingredients will not kill off the bacteria in your septic tank! Pour a cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by a cup of vinegar. Cover the drain and wait 30 minutes before flushing with hot water. 
  • Manually clear the clog: Stubborn clogs may require a little elbow grease. A barbed wand or a plumber’s snake can often help dislodge the clog and allow wastewater to flow freely again. If none of these methods work to clear your drain, it’s likely time to call a plumber.

Maintaining Your Septic System

     Dealing with clogs can be a pain, but there are things you can do to maintain your septic system now and avoid costly repairs later. First, be mindful of what you put down the drain or flush down your toilets. Don’t dispose of oils and greases in the kitchen sink, and only flush waste and toilet paper. Even flushable wipes should be avoided when you have a septic system.

     To keep your septic system functioning at peak performance, use an all-natural bacterial-based product regularly. When additional bacteria are introduced to your tank, waste and FOG will be more easily digested, reducing clogs and issues elsewhere in your septic system. You may also be able to go longer periods between pumpings. However, it’s always a good idea to have your septic system inspected once a year.

What Goes Down the Drain Matters

     A clogged drain can be frustrating. Commercial chemical drain cleaners may seem like a quick fix, but it’s likely to cause more problems in the long run. Your septic tank relies on bacteria to break down and fully digest solid waste, but the ingredients in these products actually kill off the bacteria before they can do their job. Instead of reaching for chemical-based cleaners, try using a natural method. Then create healthy septic habits, like watching what you put down the drains, and having your septic system inspected yearly. Be sure to use a bacteria-based product regularly as well, to promote the natural balance of your septic tank and keep it running efficiently all year long.