Pass along these tips for homeowners to prevent cleaners and running toilets from wreaking havoc on their onsite systems.

The problem with many toilet cleaners is they contain corrosive ingredients: sulfates, sodium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite (bleach) or phosphoric acid. Also, toilet tank tablets or gels that contain antibacterial agents such as chlorine or bleach should not be used. 

Tub and tile cleaners often contain emulsifiers along with antibacterial, disinfecting and sanitizing products. 

Typical rust removers contain a wide range of concerning chemicals for septic systems, including very strong bases, emulsifiers and surfactants. Tell homeowners they should become label readers and chose the least toxic option and only clean the bowl when needed.

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In addition, toilet bowls are notorious for adding hundreds of gallons of clean water when the flap either leaks or stays open. Consider recommending a device in the toilet that will prevent a running toilet, particularly for rental and commercial properties. One example is the Fluidmaster Sentry Toilet Tank Fill Valve. Basically it will only allow one tank of water to exit if the seal is leaking, and it also has a water-saving roller clamp to make sure the right amount of water goes into the bowl with every flush. 

Cleaning alternatives
If your customer wants to buy a product, the Environmental Working Group rates products for bathroom cleaning:

Soap and water, or baking soda for scrubbing soap scum and toilet bowls, work for most bathroom cleaning needs. Lime and hard-water deposits can sometimes be removed with hot white vinegar. Vinegar is a weak form of acetic acid and will dissolve the lime deposits.

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Scrubbing shower tiles with a toothbrush of baking soda-water paste will help remove mildew and its stains.

For rust or iron removal one of the most common natural remedies is to use pumice stones. These can be found in most hardware and home improvement stores and are inexpensive. It will require a bit of “elbow grease” to use this method, but it is environmentally friendly and non-caustic.

There are many online recipes for homemade bathroom cleaners you can share with customers who want to use safe products. Here are a few examples:

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Tub and tile cleaner
Sprinkle baking soda on a sponge.
Add vinegar and apply. Rinse.

Rust remover
Sprinkle salt on rust and squeeze lime over salt.
Let sit one hour or longer, depending on amount of rust.
Scrub and rinse clean.

Toilet bowl cleaner                                                                                                     
Mix 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 cup vinegar.
Pour into basin. Let sit for a few minutes.
Brush, then flush.

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Scouring powder
Mix 1 cup baking soda and 1/4 cup vinegar.
Apply with damp sponge.
Let stand for a few minutes. Rinse well.

Soft scrubber
Mix 1/4 cup baking soda and plant-based liquid soap to form a paste.
Apply with sponge. Wipe clean.

About the Author
Sara Heger, Ph.D., is an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is education chair of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association (MOWA) and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA), and serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Send her questions about septic system maintenance and operation by email to

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