I’m a clean freak. So years ago, before I knew better, I plopped one of those in-tank automatic toilet bowl cleaners into the tank of my toilet. You know, the kind that turns the toilet water blue. It didn’t take long before the toilet starting leaking. We could hear the water running all night.
We called the plumber who replaced the flapper, the piece of rubber that seals water into the tank and allows it to leave when you flush. A part which costs all of about $10. His service call, oh so much more. He told us the reason the flapper had deteriorated and started to leak was the in-tank automatic bowl cleaner. In-tank bowl cleaners that contain chlorine corrode vinyl and rubber parts. For this reason, most toilet manufacturers will not warranty any tank parts if these cleaners are use.
Wired took a look inside an in-tank automatic toilet bowl cleaner: What’s Inside: 2000 Flushes — a Nonstop Potty. What they found follows below. Decide for yourself whether you want to be exposed to these corrosive chemicals and whether they belong in our water system. When the MSDS for a product says “DANGER!”, I’m taking them at their word.
Ironically, you can clean a toilet with urine. No, not by aiming at the stains, but by using hydantoins — organic compounds sometimes employed as anticonvulsants and that can be made from a mixture of amino acids and urea. Chlorinate the hydantoins and they become a magical ingredient — bleach. But watch for “vacation drip”: If you don’t flush for a while (say, while off camping or when you give in to those comfy adult diapers), the chlorine can eat away older rubber valve flappers. And then your toilet might end up running constantly.
Also known as aluminum hydroxide, this is a solid formed when alumina reacts with water. Here it’s one of the salts that helps control the rate at which the puck dissolves, so the bleaching action can last for up to four months — giving you 16 2/3 flushes per day.
Table salt also helps control how fast the tablet dissolves. As a side benefit it may reduce germs by turning the water slightly briny. Unless, that is, you’ve got a salt-loving extremophile in your bowl, in which case you’re gonna need a stronger toilet sanitizer.
Sodium lauryl sulfate
Found in hundreds of bathroom products, SLS is a great foam and lather producer. It is made by combining sulfonic acid with lauryl alcohol and sodium carbonate; the resulting soap-like compound traps greasy particles, which can then be rinsed away.
Cocamide is derived from the acids in coconut oil. MEA stands for monoethanolamine, which is in everything from hair dye to oven cleaner. Together they work as a powerful detergent and another dissolution retardant. Most of the stains in your toilet are going to be from, well, natural organic residues, and MEA is a master at cutting through caked-on organics. It loosens the material so it can be easily washed off with the next flush.
The nonorganic stains in your toilet likely come from hard water deposits. These can grow there like rock candy, eventually needing to be acid-washed or chiseled away. Sodium citrate softens the water by locking up (chelating!) calcium, magnesium, iron, and other metals that might be found in your water supply.
Acid blue 9
The full name of this colorant: N-Ethyl-N-(4[(4-(ethyl[(3-sulfophenyl)methyl]amino) phenyl)-(2-sulfophenyl)methylene]-2, 5-cyclohexadien-1-ylidene)3-sulfobenzenemethanaminium hydroxide inner salt, disodium salt. Whew! So why add blue to a cleaning agent? It’s actually just a marker — when it’s gone, your 2000 Flushes are up.
I don’t remember this warning on the package “WARNING: Do NOT actually use this product in your toilet tank. It will eat the hell out of your plumbing.”
But there it is, an expensive lesson.
- Toiletogy 101: Consumers experience flapper failures; in-tank drop-in bowl cleaners
blamed for troubles
- USA Today: USA Today: Leaks, wasteful toilets cause cascading water loss
- WD-40 Company: 2000 Flushes Blue with Bleach MSDS
- Wired: What’s Inside: 2000 Flushes — a Nonstop Potty