What’s the deal with unclogging drains with vinegar and baking soda? Does it actually work, and if it does, should you do it? Will it cause any damage to your pipes? Here’s what you should know.
Unclogging drains with vinegar and baking soda has been a time-tested lifehack that goes back for generations (before the concept of “lifehacks” had even been dubbed as such). But it’s getting fresh renewal among younger generations now after a TikTok challenge started by @sorryimannie gained momentum at the end of 2020. Suddenly people who had no idea you could clear a stopped-up drain with two ordinary, nontoxic, biodegradable pantry staples were witnessing how combining the two of them created a foaming, clog-busting chemical reaction. Plus it was cool to watch them effervesce up out of the sink!
Baking Soda + Vinegar
Combining baking soda and vinegar is probably one of the first science experiments you ever did in grade school. You filled a model volcano with baking soda (sometimes dyed with a few drops of food coloring), then added vinegar so you could watch it bubble and foam.
And yes, even though this seemed like just a cool craft trick when you were a little kid, it was indeed a lesson in chemistry. Baking soda, formally known as sodium bicarbonate, serves as a base. Vinegar, made up of diluted acetic acid, serves as the acid. In fact, it’s the acids in vinegar — formed after oxygen is fed to grain alcohol and allowed to ferment — that give it the distinctive taste you probably recognize from its use on sandwiches or salads.
When you combine baking soda and vinegar, two chemical reactions take place. First, the hydrogen ions in the vinegar react to the sodium ions and bicarbonate ions in the baking soda. The result is the creation of two new chemicals: carbonic acid and sodium acetate. This is what’s known as an acid-base reaction.
The second chemical reaction happens almost instantaneously when the newly formed carbonic acid begins to decompose in the liquid and carbon dioxide forms. This is what’s known as a decomposition reaction. The fizzing and bubbling caused by the carbon dioxide rising out of the liquid is the same as the carbon dioxide you would see in seltzer water or soda — but probably at a much more intense level.
Don’t Mix Chemicals Unless You Know What You’re Doing!
On that note, it’s important to remember you should never mix chemicals unless you know that it’s safe to do so. In the case of combining baking soda and vinegar, the result is harmless. But in other cases, mixing chemicals can have dangerous results. You’ve probably heard the common warning that mixing bleach and ammonia create toxic gasses called chloramines that can make you nauseated or unable to breathe. It’s the same with other types of chemicals.
Yes, even non-toxic products like vinegar — the stuff you use to make salad dressing — can be dangerous if it’s mixed with the wrong chemical. For example, vinegar should not be mixed with bleach or else it creates a chlorine gas that could be lethal if inhaled.
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It’s therefore important that you don’t use vinegar or baking soda in your drain if you’ve used a store-bought drain cleaner immediately beforehand. Similarly, if baking soda and vinegar prove insufficient at clearing your drain, do not use a drain cleaner immediately afterward. The results could be dangerous!
How to Use Baking Soda and Vinegar
Going with baking soda and vinegar could be a great option if your clog isn’t too bad. Older plumbing can take some damage when exposed to particularly harsh drain chemicals. Additionally, because baking soda is a natural deodorizer, it will take care of any gross smells lingering down in your drain.
Start by setting a pot of water on the kitchen stove to boil. The more water, the better — you want at least 1 gallon, but go for 2 gallons if you have a pot that’s big enough.
Remove the stopper from your bathroom sink either by raising the stopper valve or (if possible) unscrewing the stopper altogether so you have open access to the drain.
Pour a half-gallon of the boiling water down the drain. This will help soften any greasy, oily buildup that may be down there from things like hand lotion or Vaseline, plus any soap residue that has built up around the lining of the pipes.
After that, sprinkle approximately 1 cup of baking soda down the drain. If you weren’t able to remove the stopper, you may have to use your hands to push the baking soda down the drain. Have patience and get as much of it down there as you can. If your sink is wet, it may turn the baking soda to mush. That’s okay — it will still react with the vinegar.
After the baking soda is completely down the drain, pour 2 cups of white vinegar into your sink. You’ll see the chemical reaction take place. Foam will fizz its way up out of the drain and potentially fill your sink.
Allow the baking soda and vinegar to react completely, waiting as long as five minutes if necessary. Even when foaming is no longer coming up out of your drain, there may still be a chemical reaction taking place down out of sight. This reaction will loosen up any debris down there that is causing your clog.
After the chemical reaction has subsided, pour another 1 gallon of boiling water down the drain to rinse away the loosened debris.
While this trick might work with simpler clogs, there will be times when you’re faced with clogs that are so bad they need a professional’s assistance. If you don’t see improvements after this DIY solution, reach out to Linthicum Plumbing at [email protected] or by calling 410-768-5350.
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