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Death, taxes and clogged drains

Photo by Stilfehler, Wikimedia Commons

It’s the household and building issue that never is expected and always catches us off guard.

The sink, whether in the kitchen, the utility room or the bathroom, clogs and we suddenly face an ugly mess to clean up before we can get on with our lives.

For most of us, clogs happen relatively infrequently. That’s good. But it also means that when they do occur, we’re usually not prepared to deal with them, making the situation all the more inconvenient and frustrating.

Clogs in all kinds of household and commercial plumbing are inevitable but also relatively easy to prevent and remedy in most cases. Let me share some of my tips for keeping them out of your life as much as possible through foresight and simple action.

Many clogs occur in kitchen sinks that we have overloaded with food scraps, especially the wrong kind of food scraps. It’s true that clogs are even more likely to occur in kitchen sinks with garbage disposals, the very tools that are supposed to chew up food scraps and send them down the pipe.

The problem is too many of us put too much stuff — and the wrong stuff — down garbage disposals. We mistakenly think of garbage disposals as able to chew up anything. But sometimes they can’t, and clogs are the result.

Anyone contemplating dumping food scraps down a kitchen sink, with or without a garbage disposal, is to avoid items that are almost sure to create a clog. Potato peelings, carrot peelings, noodles, oatmeal, rice and other scraps from starchy foods are among the worst clog culprits. The problem here is that starchy foods swell up when they soak in water.

Peelings are especially troublesome, as they are thin and slippery and often don’t get chopped well by a disposal. They end up sitting in the disposal apparatus or elsewhere in the pipe, where they are repeatedly exposed to water and start to swell. Eventually, they catch other food and start a clog.

I advise not dumping any kind of vegetable or fruit peelings into a sink and instead disposing of them in the garbage can. That should be the rule as well with any kitchen sink that doesn’t have a garbage disposal. Greasy or gristly items, such as pan drainings or meat scraps, also should stay out of sinks, as they don’t easily dissolve in water and can easily start clogs.

If you do have a garbage disposal, put only small amounts of food — and certainly not peelings or starchy or greasy food — down the drain. Also, make sure you run the disposal with a stream of warm water before, during and after sending food down. Just flipping on the disposal for a few seconds is a great way to start a clog.

I also recommend having your traps — the U-shaped part of the pipe below the sink and the main plumbing clean out, often found in your basement — cleared regularly to ensure a steady flow. Do this, too, whenever you accidentally drop anything large or potentially clog-inducing down your sink. Make sure to place a bucket under the trap before you open it.

Many property owners can unscrew PVC pipes and clean out traps themselves. If you have metal pipes or aren’t comfortable taking your pipes apart, you can hire a maintenance expert or plumber to do this for a relatively small charge.

If a clog develops, I don’t recommend harsh chemical treatments as a first option. Instead, try a combination of hot water, baking soda and vinegar and then plunging the sink. This also is a good preventative treatment every so often to loosen soap scum, hair and other clog-causers.

Sometimes clogs are so severe that maintenance experts and plumbers must come in and use an auger device called a “snake” on the pipes. Another approach is to apply a high-pressure jet of water down the pipes.

But most of us can avoid the surprise and inconvenience of a clog if we simply watch what we put down our sinks and occasionally do a little simple, preventative maintenance.

Tony Lasky

Tony Lasky is owner of Building Logic, a commercial property care and repair company based in the Twin Ports. For questions or to suggest column topics, please contact him at (218) 279-5300.