When you live with a septic tank and are concerned for the environment, the use of modern cleaning compounds may be something that worries you. But are the alternatives safe, and do they work?

The uses of baking soda alone as a cleaner have been discussed in a previous article, but there are a number of other possibilities as well.

One standard “non-toxic cleaning kit” is baking soda (sodium bicarbonate); washing soda (sodium carbonate); white vinegar; liquid soap or a detergent if you have one you are happy with; and tea tree oil. There are of course variations on this theme, but this one covers most of the range of normal cleaning activities. There are a number of other websites providing simple, straightforward guides to making your own cleaning products, so for one of the many available, try looking here.

To understand the workings of some of the formulations, a little revision of year 10 science always helps. One of the standard “green cleaners” is a mix of baking soda and vinegar, just like you use in those lovely volcano models for children – fill up the hole in your model with baking soda, pour on vinegar and watch the eruption. Exactly the same procedure is frequently recommended for cleaning sinks, drains, toilets, buckets and benches, but what exactly is going on and does it help? Entertainment is one thing; a clean loo is another.

The process involved is the good old “acid plus carbonate produces a salt, plus water and carbon dioxide.” In this cleaning mixture, the acid is vinegar (acetic acid), and the carbonate is our baking soda. The result is lots of fizz (the carbon dioxide bubbling through the mix), water (which we don’t notice) and a “salt”, which in this case, is sodium acetate. I remain more than a little confused about the merits of mixing vinegar and baking soda together before pouring them into toilets, drains, buckets etc to clean them, because sodium acetate is mainly famous as a seasoning (as a complex with acetic acid, it is food additive E262, frequently used as the salt and vinegar flavouring in chips, at least in the USA). Other than that, it is used as a concrete sealant, a neutraliser of sulfuric acid waste streams in the textile industry, and as the active agent in chemical heating pads often sold in outdoor shops. Toilet cleaning does not figure heavily in its uses. For an amusing comment from a fellow sceptic on the cleaning front, try this.

When you pour baking soda down the drain, add vinegar and put the plugin for a few minutes, it’s mostly the carbon dioxide doing the work. The vigorous fizzing helps to dislodge the gunk stuck to the walls of the pipes. The same process helps clean the scum off the toilet bowl, and the excess acid you almost certainly add will help kill bacteria directly as well. So the idea is that baking soda and vinegar may be helpful as drain cleaners, and by direct production of carbon dioxide on dirty surfaces, but probably not much help at all as premixed ingredients, unless you want your loo to taste of salt and vinegar flavouring...

And of course, the reason vinegar is used as a mould killer is that it’s an acid. Acidity and alkalinity are measured on a scale of 1 to 14, with very acid being 1 and very alkaline being 14. The neutral pH is 7, and we maintain our blood pH at around 7.35. Most living cells don’t really like being soaked in liquids like vinegar, with a pH of about 3, and moulds, however much you hate them, are just living cells.

Precisely because these compounds often have pH values that are a lot different to our body’s optimum, they can irritate the skin and the eyes. Even though you are using relatively non-toxic substances, it still pays to wear gloves, particularly if you are prone to eczema or dermatitis, and avoid splashing stuff in your eyes – it will hurt!

There is also one final word of warning, involving the use of bleach. Chlorine bleaches are unpleasant, but commonly used and often very effective cleaners. However, never use chlorine bleaches in combination with either vinegar or ammonia. They can generate some extremely toxic chemicals. To reinforce the warnings and explain the chemistry involved, see here for how bleach and vinegar generate chlorine gas, much used in World War 1 trench warfare, and here for how bleach and ammonia form the even more startling chloramine and hydrazine.

Aside from that, enjoy the benefits, both financial and ecological, of making and using your own simple household cleaners.