Meta commentary: Much like my post on Hawaiian currency during World War II, this is one of those posts where pop culture entertainment ended up spurring actual research. I thought the end result was interesting so of course I’m sharing.
Liquid Plumr has this neat product called a Foaming Pipe Snake. (The name apparently comes from someone without much imagination, because the result of using it is literally a foam equivalent of a plumber’s snake.) When you dump it in your drain it cleans the organic crap that is gunking up your pipes. It comes in a plastic jug split in half with two separate chambers that pour out of the same opening. The chambers have visibly different liquids in them and a noteworthy lack of foam. The magic happens when you pour them into the drain and they become something different as they mix. (Just like having a kid.)
The dual chambered container and the chemical reaction when the two mixed reminded me of something I read many years back in a war story. In the story one of the armies was using something called a binary chemical weapons. The theory behind these is simple. Take a hollow artillery shell and fill it with two separate chemical compounds separated by a thin wall. Separately these chemicals aren’t that dangerous, but when mixed they become deadly. The stress of being shot from a cannon destroys the interior partition and causes the two chemicals to mix as the shell flies through its trajectory. When it explodes upon landing the gas is spread over a wide area. It’s an elegant system and it really does exist.
The similarity between a deadly weapon system and the drain cleaner sitting on my counter was disconcerting. I assumed the mixture was forming some sort of dangerous acid that had to be kept separate until it safely away from my frail pink skin so I took to Google to investigate. I discovered that Liquid Plumr, and most other drain cleaners, is mostly combination of sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide (street names: bleach and lye*). It unclogs a drain because it’s caustic (acid) and it generates heat when it reacts with water.
* Must resist Lewinsky joke that would have been hilarious 15 years ago…..
I assumed the foaming product would be more potent because of the binary container and because it’s advertised as cleaning your pipe walls in a way the regular stuff won’t. I was wrong. I looked at the material safety data sheets for both products and the only major difference between the regular and foaming varieties seems to be the addition of hydrogen peroxide. My working theory is simple: one side is regular ole Liquid Plumr, and the other is hydrogen peroxide. The regular stuff is heavier than water so gravity makes it flow down the pipe until it hits a clog it can react with, but when you mix it with hydrogen peroxide the foaming action causes it to expand toward the pipe walls so it can break up the gunk on the walls rather than just gravity flow until it hits an obstruction.
This is just a working theory on my part. I’m sure the manufacturer adds some other ingredients, and for legal purposes I don’t advocate any home experimentation no matter how many episodes of Breaking Bad you’ve seen.