Drains carry waste to the sanitary sewer, control flooding and remove waste products from manufacturing. The first drains were built in the Indus River Valley in 3100 B.C. There are dozens of specifically designed drains for home, business and industry. For most of us, the drains in our homes are the ones we have to clean. Knowing how they work and what to look for is simple once you know a few facts about them.
Ancient drains worked by gravity, linking homes and public buildings like the Roman baths to rivers that carried the waste away to the sea. After the fall of Rome, much of the knowledge of ancient engineers was lost in the West and medieval people constructed open drains along roadways (today called "gutters") to carry wastewater to the river. With the industrial revolution, new types of drains were designed to handle liquid waste from the manufacturing process.
Drains carried waste into rivers until the middle of the 19th century, when the new science of sanitation separated storm water and household or industrial waste into two drainage systems. Sewage was carried through "sanitary sewers" to facilities where sediment would be settled out and the remaining organics would be treated with chemicals to kill dangerous organisms. The 20th century brought new technologies for treating wastewater and new science to begin to address the environmental mpact of wastewater treatment and stormwater drainage.
Modern drains contain a "trap" to stop materials that might accidentally fall in and block them and a "vent" to remove gases, like methane, that are formed by the decomposition of waste. "S" traps are visible under most sink drains and behind toilet bowls. In addition to catching materials that might clog the drain further down, they trap gases that can back up in plumbing or become volitile. Vents carry these gases off and away from the plumbing. Modern household drains use the "S" trap or "D" trap (also named for its shape) and are required by local codes to be vented.
Before using any chemicals to clean a drain, check the "clean out," which is located at the lowest part of the trap on an individual drain or somewhere along the house's main drain to the sanitary sewer. Once this square-topped plug is removed, the drain can be "snaked" with a wire or steel band (available at hardware stores). Floor, shower or tub drains can often be cleaned out by simply removing the cover and removing hair or other material that sits in the first bend of the pipe. Clean traps on a regular basis and flush thoroughly with hot water to minimize the need for dangerous chemicals.
If you have to resort to chemical drain cleaners, check the package carefully to make sure that the chemicals contained in it are safe for the materials (galvanized, copper, PVC) used in your plumbing. Follow directions carefully; most chemical drain cleaners are corrosive and toxic. Keep your face and hands (best to wear eye protection and gloves) away from the drain when adding ingredients and waiting for the chemicals to work.
Not all organisms in the drain are bad--some eat bad organisms. Unfortunately, chemicals kill everything.
Not all clogged drains are due to hairballs and garbage disposal guck. Don't rule out things like tree roots or small animals that crawl into broken pipes until you've had a plumber give you an inspection report.
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