Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Wednesday's Workbox - Washtime Blues Fixed!


As I stood in the kitchen this morning finishing the washing up, I listened to the jolly gurgling of the water flowing freely down the sink and was minded of the fairly recent problem we had when the drain was blocked, and the water wasn't draining away at all!  It is at times like that when I am reminded of just how lucky we are, in the Western world, to have the privelige of proper sanitation in our homes - running water, sinks, drains and all the other conveniences that go with this.  Of course, for many people in the world, even basic needs such as proper shelter, clothing and food are not always met, even today, and the idea of having water that drains away from our homes must seem like an impossible luxury for them.  We're very lucky indeed - but sometimes its only when these priveliges are temporarily suspended, when they go wrong in some way, that we really think about just how fortunate we are.  That is what I thought today, as I emptied my washing up bowl!  Having a blocked sink was quite a challenge - but I was so pleased when we were able to unblock it that the stress was almost worth the pleasure once it was working again, and I was prompted to be grateful for a privelige that usually, I take for granted. 

No harm done - but just how did we deal with our blocked sink?  Here are some suggestions for dealing with this common domestic problem - in ascending order of severity!

Mostly the best way to treat a blocked sink is to avoid it happening in the first place.  Whether it is your bathroom sink or, as in our case (and more frequently in my experience) the kitchen sink, the easiest solution to addressing blockages is to avoid putting anything down the sink (the plug hole, I mean) that will cause it to become blocked.  It sounds obvious, but it's easy to forget what you are doing, when you are busy cleaning up after a large meal.  Don't put anything down a sink that won't dissolve in water.  In the kitchen, this especially means fat - from cooking or from foods that are left on plates.  Scrape plates into the bin before washing up and if necessary wipe down with kitchen paper as well.  Pans that have had fatty food cooked in them (such as bacon or a roast joint for example) should be allowed to cool before dealing with.  I usually wipe down our cast iron frying-pan (it isn't used much, these days, mainly just for dry-frying bacon) and wipe it with kitchen paper, rather than washing it at all.  In fact this is what chefs do - it is called seasoning the pan, and cast iron frying pans and corn stick moulds should never be washed in soap for this will remove the seasoned coating necessary to make the food cook evenly.  For our roast meats, I line the roaster with foil before using it, and then afterwards drain any liquid into a bowl and allow the pan to cool before removing the foil, and therefore, most of the fat, with it.   The leftover liquid I put in the fridge overnight, and then when it has solidified, I simply dispose of it in the waste bin.  That way no grease or fat is going into the washing up, or down the sink. 

Our washing machine drains through the same plumbing system as our sink does - in small English apartment blocks like the one we live in, this is quite common as there is not usually a separate laundry room - the washing machine is in the kitchen, usually right next to the sink.   Becuase of the use of lower temperatures to do laundry, this means that residue from the washing does not drain away as well as it would have when we used to put our washing machines on at higher temperatures.  I'm also careful with the laundry products too.  These are now designed to be efffective even at quite low temperatures but I do find that powder (which we tend to use over liquid, as it is cheaper) can leave a thick soapy residue that does not dissolve well.  To avoid this, I dilute the amount of powder that I am going to put in the machine in a little hot water - the extra heat means it does dissolve, and I then put it in the drawer of the washing machine as if it was liquid, not powder.  I also use a water softening tablet, which keeps the whole washing machine running well and also helps the powder to dissolve.  This works out the cheapest option for us, without compromising the effectiveness of the products I am using. 

To prevent blockages I have started now putting boiling water down the sink each time I finish washing up.  This helps to flush away any residue in the pipes, and also keeps everything clean.  I follow this with a little bleach (I use bleach as well as washing up liquid when I wash up - just a drop each time - this is how I was taught to wash up as a wee girl.  I get through quite a lot of bleach as I use it for many cleaning projects around our home!).  I also flush down half a bag of soda crystals (like these ones) once a week, just to keep everything running smoothly.  These can also be used for minor blockages. 

If you find that your sink is running slowly, most times this can be rectified by pouring a whole bag of soda crystals (as above) down the plug hole and following it with three or four kettles full of boiling water.  You may need to do this in stages else the soda crystals will not dissolve all at once.  Nine times out of ten, this has unblocked our sink for us over the years.  You can also use a mixture of soda crystals and white (spirit) vinegar (this is the cheapest sort of vinegar to buy - don't confuse it with white wine vinegar, which isn't so cheap - and certainly don't confuse it with white spirit which is something else altogether and shouldn't be mixed with other cleaning products).  Be careful when you do this - although the soda crystals are not dangerous, they can irritate your skin, and when you pour the vinegar down the sink after the crystals, they will fizz up - it's quite exciting, but just be sure to avoid letting the mixture get in contact with your skin or eyes). 

If these measures don't work, you may need to manually unblock the sink.  This is not a difficult job, but a bit messy!  Start by placing a bucket under the u-bend underneath your sink (if you look under it you should be able to see the drainage pipe leading from the plughole, down to a u-bend which then takes the waste water to the outside drain.  Ensure that the sink is empty (if it is completely blocked, and full of water, you must drain it before undoing the u-bend.  If you don't, the sink will drain as soon as you undo it, and the water will gush out all over you!  Believe me - I have done it myself!).  Once the sink is clear, you can proceed.  Usually the u-bend is joined at each end to the pipes above and beside it with a threaded ring which can be undone.  When the ring is loosened the pipe can be pulled away from the pipes it is joined to.  Clean it, and try to clean down the down pipe as far as you can.  This may be enough to clear the blockage.  If you can remove the down pipe as far as the ground, you can try pouring some water into it after you have cleaned it (I use a piece of long curtain wire to do this - it is narrow and bendy and can reach for several feet down the pipe).  If the water flows down OK then you can be sure the pipe is clear, so reassemble the plumbing and then proceed as above with the soda crystals and boiling water.

Sometimes a more persistent blockage has arisen.  This is usually caused by different materials forming a plug somewhere along the pipework and it will need more determined intervention to clear it.  You can do this by two means.  There are many strong chemical products available that can be bought to clear blocked drains.  These are usually highly caustic and should be used exactly as instructed with extreme caution.  We try to avoid using these wherever possible, as they can be very damaging to the environment.  Don't mix products - if one doesn't work, leave it for 24 hours and then re-try using the same product.  Also be careful if you decide to resort to dismantling the plumbing or using the "last resort" which I will come to in a minute.  If there is still residue left from the strong chemicals in the pipework, when you dismantle it, this can bring it into contact with your skin or even face.  Strong chemicals can cause serious burns, so be extremely careful when using them.

If the suggestions above don't work, then I can recommend wholeheartedly one of these.   It is called an auger.  Papa Bear was able to buy one like that pictured in the link above at trade price because of his job, but they can be purchased online for under £10 and I would certainly consider investing in one!  It worked wonderfully on our blocked drain.  You do need to dismantle the plumbing under the sink to do it though, as the cable itself is too large to feed down through the plughole, but after that it is really very simple to use - we all had a turn, and thought it was rather exciting!  You simply place the end of the bendy cable in the pipe, and then, working slowly, feed the cable down the pipe.  When you meet with resistance you must lock the cable so that it can't feed out any further, and then rotate the handle rapidly.  Once the resistance is gone, untighten the cable and feed it down a bit more, then repeat the process.  Do this several times until no more resistance is met.  Then feed the cable back up into the handset, cleaning it as you go, and you are done!

It is really worth trying to fix drain blockages yourself.  Calling a plumber out can cost a lot of money, and generally isn't necessary, unless your pipework is inaccessible, or you have a blockage problem that is caused further down the drainage system.  And remember, prevention is better than cure - fun though it was to use the auger to unblock our sink, we aren't in any hurry to repeat the experience, so since then, we've all been very careful indeed, and I've really made a big effort to make sure that the sinks in our home stay clear - and so far, so good!  Hopefully our washday blues are well and truly fixed - at least for now!