The perils of industrial strength acids.

Forty-eight years ago, I learned a valuable lesson as a plumbing apprentice. I had just begun my career in the mechanical trades when I was dispatched to lend a hand cleaning a kitchen sink drain in an apartment building. 

The building had 12 apartments on three floors with kitchens aligned vertically so that each 2-inch cast iron stack served three kitchens. The gentleman on the third floor had been fishing and brought home a bunch of fish that he proceeded to gut and descale in his kitchen sink while washing the scales and guts down the drain. No garbage disposal, so the swirling mix of guts and scales went down until they didn’t. That’s when we were called in. 

You would think this a simple matter of plunging, but to no avail, so we next employed a hand auger. When that didn’t work, we amped up our game by utilizing a powered auger with interchangeable heads. The lead technician instructed me to first use the retriever head in the hopes we could capture and retrieve some of the junk as evidence. 

There was hardly any resistance and the 7.5-foot sectional cables passed smoothly into the drain. A bit of additional resistance was felt with each passing foot, but as this was all new to me, I didn’t know what that indicated. And just like that, the retriever head and cable appeared outside the kitchen window twisting about like a whirling dervish! 

Cables pulled back, I was instructed to replace the retriever with the drop-head corkscrew attachment, which yielded the same results. We knew within a few inches where the sanitary tee would be, so during the next several attempts I was instructed to run the sewer machine in reverse so the drop-head would be more inclined to turn downward. No dice. 

After repeated attempts, it was time to relocate to the almost flat roof to run the drain cables straight down the vent pipe into the impacted fish debris. This time we got a bit smarter and I was sent to the kitchen to yell out should the cable turn to come up-line into the kitchen sink, which is exactly what happened time and again. 

Plop, Plop

Well we all know where this job is headed: Due south. The bosses aren’t going to be happy about how long it took; the customer is going to balk at paying such an “outrageous bill” when they believe it should be a fraction of the total billed; and the third floor tenant is antsy because we’re killing time he could have spent fishing. 

I am dispatched to the nearby wholesaler to pick up two gallons of Drain Snake, which was industrial strength hydrochloric or sulfuric acid “for professional use only.” The lead tech then pours both gallons of acid down the roof vent instead of the sink “because it can turn stainless steel sinks permanently black” he said. 

We then retreated to the third floor kitchen because the rooftop fumes were quite obnoxious, and in hindsight, very unhealthy to breathe. I was shocked by how hot the cast iron drain line side arm extension serving the kitchen sink had become: Quite literally too hot to hold. The acid was reacting with the organic matter, which generated considerable heat. And we waited…

Suddenly, we heard the rush as the clog, followed closely by the two gallons of acid let loose to cascade the three story vertical drop! Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is. As plumbers, of course we filled the single-bowl stainless steel sink with hot water to dump that load and wash away any remaining loose particulate fish-related matter and ensure the P-trap’s reassembled slip-joint washers would not leak. 

We cleaned up the work area, rolled up our drop cloth and proceeded to descend the center hallway wooden stairway. No denying folks are coming up or down the stairs in that old building as the wood creaks and groans under foot. 

Not So Clean Getaway

On the first floor, we headed for the exit and darn near made a clean getaway when the first floor apartment door violently swung open and the tenant, a barmaid in a tough beer-joint, burst forth spewing a string of profanities, some of which I’m pretty sure I’d never heard before! In between the profanity-laced tirade, something about a turkey started to become clear. 

In no uncertain terms, we were summoned to her kitchen and there in the porcelain (hers was the original kitchen before apartments were created) sink laid a defrosting turkey. The only problem was the bathtub-like ring of remnants from the acid bath the partially submerged bird had taken. Its discolored skin now fallen away and partially dissolved flesh clearly illustrating the foul fowl was inedible from the halfway point downward. 

You didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what had happened, Watson. The fish guts and scale had plunged the three-story free-fall only to jam up just below the sanitary tee serving the first floor branch-arm to her sink. The aforementioned water-test to ensure all was right with the third floor sink had managed to push the standing acid slurry up that branch arm and partially fill her sink’s bowl. The acid did its duty by eviscerating the bird and, after some unknown period of time, had once again dissolved the fish mass in the drain stack, allowing everything to disappear — but not without a trace.

The first floor barmaid hard-core tenant field-dressed us on the spot. “You owe me a turkey.” We promised her the company would buy her a new bird. As we had anticipated, both of our bosses were less than pleased about the time involved. 

As the apprentice, I had been volunteered the duty of telling them about the turkey and that we had obligated the company to buy the tenant a new 15-pound bird. And we thought the barmaid was angry? Good grief! While they argued about which one was to go purchase the bird and deliver it to the madder-than-a-wet-hen barmaid, we beats feet out of the shop onward to the next service call.

Live and Learn

Over the years, and in the school of hard knocks, I learned to use acids as the very last resort due to the inherent dangers associated with industrial strength acids. You only get one set of eyes — use a full face safety shield, safety glasses and waterproof gloves — d’oh! 

Ask if the homeowner(s) or maintenance personnel have used any drain cleaners — like lye, which can react violently with drain cleaning acids. Survey the area first — will an uncontrollable reaction cause the acidic slurry to back up onto surrounding floor coverings, resulting in you buying new flooring? Don’t set the acid bottle cap on the kitchen sink or vanity countertop or you might just be buying them a new one (one of our employees did that on a marble countertop — very expensive lesson as it left a permanent ring). 

Acid to clear a main drain stoppage? We had to pay for a new basement bathroom tub because a knuckleheaded new employee poured multiple gallons of acid down the stack’s cleanout rather than retrieve the sewer machine from the shop (and that gets you fired too!). 

And lastly, don’t ever stand under a cut-apart multi-story drainage stack watching for the flow when a clog lets loose, and don’t ask me why I know that!

Work hard, smart and warm wishes for a happy new year to you and yours!  

This article is also available at: