This post could also be called “Why you should never mix different drain cleaners?” and the answer is because it can have catastrophic results!
Drain cleaners come in essentially 3 forms:
- Caustic: These contain lye (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) or caustic potash (potassium hydroxide, KOH). In this case, it’s the hydroxide ions that initiate the reactions to clear the blockage. These products work better to clean fat or soap-based substances
- Acid: Typically, these contain high levels of sulphuric acid (H2SO4) or hydrochloric acid (HCl), which unclog a blocked drain by increasing the concentration of H+ ions. Attracted to the clog substance, the reaction releases heat, in turn melting the congealed grease.
- Oxidising: The main ingredient in this type of drain cleaner is usually bleach (sodium hypochlorite, NaClO, and other peroxides and nitrates), which oxidises the material clogging the drain.
Sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide is a dangerous mix
When cleaning drains, it’s essential to use only one product and not to mix different chemicals. For example, the reaction between sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sulphuric acid (H2SO4) generates salt (sodium sulphate, Na2SO4) and water (H2O).
2 NaOH + H2SO4 -> Na2SO4 + 2 H2O
This may not seem dangerous at all, but this reaction is highly exothermic, generating a considerable amount of heat. This means by mixing a caustic-based drain cleaner (with sodium hydroxide) and a more acidic product (with sulphuric acid), there’s the risk that hot water will gush out of the drain and potentially cause severe burns to the face and hands. Also, as it is unlikely that you managed to mix the two products in exact stoichiometric proportions to use all of the NaOH and H2SO4, the water gushing out will not only be hot, but in will contain left-over acid or base, which can worsen the burns.
Mixing sodium hypochlorite and hydrochloric acid is also risky
Sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid is not the only dangerous reaction involving inadequate use of drain cleaners. Mixing a cleaner with hydrochloric acid (HCl) with a bleach-based product (containing sodium hypochlorite, NaClO) can also have risky consequences. The reaction generates water and salt (sodium chloride), which are harmless, but it also produces chlorine gas (Cl2). This gas can be extremely irritant to the throat and eyes, even in very low concentrations.
2 HCl + NaClO -> Cl2 + NaCl + H2O
If you ever wondered why bottles of drain cleaners state clearly and in big letters NOT to mix different products, now you know why.