Q&A / 

Caring for Water and Drain Lines

DEAR TIM: The water in my kitchen sink drained slowly for a period of months. Last week it stopped draining completely. A plumber discovered the drain line was clogged with grease. I can't believe this happened as I have been very careful about wiping out my cooking pans. The plumbing service call was very expensive. Are there things I should do on a regular basis to prevent clogged drain lines? Are there other preventative maintenance things that should be done for my water supply lines?Pamela S., Twin Falls, ID

DEAR PAMELA: As much as I hate to say it, I don't think you were careful enough. If you are connected to a septic system, your nightmare may be just beginning. Grease can and does wreak havoc on both the septic tank as well as the drain lines in the leach field. Never pour any grease down any drain line that is connected to a septic system. If you are on a city sewer, grease can still cause problems as over time, as it can completely clog the large diameter sewer line that leads from your home to the street.

Flushing out sink drain lines can be as simple as filling them with warm soapy water. Photo by: Tim Carter

Flushing out sink drain lines can be as simple as filling them with warm soapy water. Photo by: Tim Carter

Many years ago, my mother taught me a trick that really works to stop grease from coagulating in drain and city sewer lines. I knew that bacon grease and other greases turned into a hard slick mass once cooled so I was shocked one day as I saw my mother pour a large amount of bacon grease down our kitchen sink. What I didn't see is that minutes before she had squirted a generous amount of liquid dish soap into the skillet. She then added lots of hot water and mixed the grease with the soap. After pouring the solution into the sink, she let the hot water run for about one minute. Mom was using her training as a pharmacist to emulsify the grease.

The soap simply surrounded individual droplets of the grease and suspended them for their journey down to the sewer plant. I have done the same thing for years at my own home and can tell you for a fact this method works. Several years ago I had to cut into my kitchen sink drain line to relocate it for a minor basement remodeling job. The inside of the plumbing drain line had absolutely no grease buildup.

Many people are unaware that plumbing drain lines and water lines can benefit from simple and periodic maintenance. Drain lines are simple to maintain. The first thing you need to understand is that it takes quite a bit of energy to move solid objects from your home out to the septic tank or the city sewer line. Often the journey is 100 feet or more. If the main building drain line under your slab or basement and in your yard has minimal pitch, the friction inside the pipe can slow the flow of water. A bigger problem can be too much pitch. If drain lines have too much slant to them, the water in the pipe can actually outrun the solids and leave them behind to accumulate. One quarter inch of fall per foot of run in drain lines provides for excellent drainage.

It is a great idea to fill all sinks to the brim with water once a month. Pull the stopper up and let the water out of the vessel. The volume of water and the hydrostatic pressure of the large volume of water will completely fill the drain line in the wall and possibly the drain stack. This rushing water helps to keep the drain lines squeaky clean.

To achieve the same results for the primary vertical drain stacks and the buried building drain under your floors, you must fill all sinks, tubs, etc. in the house at the same time. With the help of family members and friends, pull the stoppers in all fixtures at the same time and flush all toilets simultaneously. This massive slug of water will help to keep your primary drain line clear of obstructions.

Water supply lines need little care but the shut off valves to sinks and other fixtures do need maintenance if you expect them to work when you need them. It is a great idea to exercise valves every six months. This simply means closing a valve and then reopening it. If the valve has a traditional stem, this may cause a tiny leak around the valve stem. Simply use an adjustable wrench and tighten the packing nut to stop the leak. If you want to avoid valve stem leaks, I suggest you install ball valves whenever possible. Ball valves cost just a few dollars more than standard valves. But because of their internal design, they allow for full water flow. Ball valves also are much more reliable than traditional washer-type valves.

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