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How to stay safe around chemical drain openers

Chemical drain cleaners are a fact of life for every drain cleaning technician. A chemical drain cleaner is a chemical-based consumer product that unblocks sewer pipes or clogged wastewater drains. They can be in solid or liquid form and are readily available through big box and hardware stores.

Chemical drain cleaners are typically used by homeowners to attempt to solve the problem of a clogged single drain, such as a sink, toilet, tub, or shower drain. Chemical drain cleaners can remove soft obstructions (such as hair and grease)

accumulating near the fixture’s drain inlet.

But when the problem is too tough for a chemical drain opener to handle, the homeowner will call on a professional. Be prepared to deal with chemical drain openers on every service call. To help avoid the risk of injury, assume your customer has already used them.

Dangers of chemical drain openers

Chemical drain openers pose several threats to drain cleaning technicians. Be prepared to encounter these dangers anytime you suspect chemical drain openers are present:

  • Not following instructions Most chemical drain openers instruct users to put the chemical “in the pipe.” Some homeowners will disregard this and put the chemical into the water closet. Putting more than four ounces of acid drain opener in a toilet bowl has been known to cause the porcelain to crack. Also, the instructions typically recommend using only two ounces in the pipe, but directions aren’t always followed. Be prepared to encounter chemical drain openers that haven’t been used according to the directions.

  • Splashback If an acid is poured into a drain already containing a caustic, a violent reaction called a splashback will occur. An unsuspecting homeowner might cause this reaction by using more than one chemical drain cleaner. Before you enter the pipe, be aware that the homeowner may have already used multiple chemical drain cleaners.

  • Heat Chemical drain openers cause chemical reactions that release heat. If those chemicals splash in your face or on your arms, you can be burned or injured.

  • Harmful Gas Sometimes the smell will tell you chemical drain openers have been used. Be on the lookout for strange odors. If chemical drain openers are mixed with ammonia, chlorine gas may be created. Chlorine gas can be fatal.

  • Damage to pipe If the chemical drain opener does not remove the obstruction, it can remain in the pipe and may also damage it. Be aware of this possibility: it raises the chances of you being exposed to harmful chemicals.

  • Damage to equipment Some chemical drain openers may cause breakage or damage to drain or sewer cable. A drain or sewer cable is a steel wire which has been tightly wound, which results in microscopic cracks on the inside of the wire. These cracks do not affect the life of the cable under normal conditions; however, if the cable is exposed to chemicals in the pipe, damage or breakage may result. Acids can enter through microscopic cracks in the cable and cause cable failure. Crystallization of the wire is also possible. In high enough concentrations, acids can break the cable in minutes. Caustics can also cause cable damage, but in a different way: they can cause severe pitting of the wire. The pitting can cause wire fatigue and the strength of the cable will be reduced, so breakage is possible.

Minimizing the risk of chemical drain openers

  • To your health and safety To prevent injury due to chemical drain openers, you should always wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE). You only have one set of eyes, so protect them with quality, certified eye protection. A full face shield is an even better option, and some technicians prefer them because of the added protection. Next, your hands will be in contact with the contents of the drain, so protect them with a good-quality nitrile glove. (If you’re using a mechanical drain cleaning machine, you’ll also need heavier-duty gloves to protect from serious injury. Read more in the PPE section.) Your skin should always be covered, so coveralls are a must. If the chemicals soak through your coveralls, remove them immediately and then rinse the exposed area for at least 15 minutes. When working around chemicals, splashing should be kept to a minimum. Proper ventilation is also required in the work area.

  • To your equipment To help minimize cable breakage caused by some chemical drain openers, put a lightweight oil or lubricant on all cables. Clean your cable each time a service call is completed. Some technicians disinfect their cables and machines after each usage to kill the microorganisms picked up during the job.

Chemical drain cleaners can pose a serious risk to drain cleaning technicians. But if you approach every job with care and caution, and follow safety procedures, you can minimize your risk of injury.

This post first appeared on the Spartan Tool blog.

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