In praise of Applied Chemistry and Basic Hazard Management

I’ve always been a bit of a cleaning vinegar or bicarbonate of soda fan when it comes to basic everyday cleaning, because it’s cheap and there’s nowt wrong with a bit of elbow grease. However, having grown up in the 70s when the supermarkets started to fill everybody’s houses with their special pre-packaged chemical cocktails for cleaning, I was never taught most of the old-fashioned usages of the more caustic chemicals. Obviously we had bleach which we were taught to be careful around, and I do think I vaguely remember seeing some cloudy ammonia in the tall cupboard in the laundry once, but I don’t think I was ever taught to use it for anything. In the days before anti-tamper bottle-caps, they were always kept way up high in our house, and no doubt it was much easier to use such things when kids were at school, so I get it, but I wish I’d learnt more about household chemicals as a youngster.

Not knowing about them is why now, in my fifties: yesterday was the first time I’ve ever done a simple Ammonia clean of my oven. I’m a convert. My oven was treated somewhat carelessly in its first few weeks in the house and a nasty layer of grease and tarry residue had been annoying me for years, and had not responded to commercial oven cleaning products. Part of me wishes I’d taken a before picture, but mostly no: too much embarrassment. You’ll just have to imagine.

The inside of a recently cleaned oven

Some bits are even shiny again now!

There’s still some residual crud in a few spots, but it took 3 reiterations of the ammonia cleanse method to get it this far. I plan to wait at least a week before giving it another go to see if I can get rid of the last (might even get myself a new oven light globe again).

Hazard management:

Do not breathe the fumes! A whiff or two as you place the ammonia to vapourise in the warm oven won’t hurt you, likewise when you open the oven door in the morning to let the fumes dissipate before you start the wiping/scrubbing (for which you need good kitchen gloves with no holes in the fingers). Just make sure the kitchen is empty of other mammalian/avian life when handling ammonia directly.

Anyone else got some favourite basic chemical hacks to share?

Categories: Life, Science, work and family

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2 replies

  1. Plain old bar soap works much better than detergents in the following situations: getting tannin stains off tea and coffee mugs; cleaning stainless steel to a good shine; washing delicate fabrics like silk or linen. The things to remember are:

    • Wherever possible, use the hottest water you can stand to do the cleaning, and if you’re using soap on glassware, rinse and dry immediately afterwards.
    • Soap jelly is an easier form for many cleaning purposes, and it’s pretty simple to make. Just put about 1/4 of a block of Velvet laundry soap (or two “tail ends” of bathroom soap) into a standard 500mL jar – think of the ones you get pasta sauce and meal base sauces in; Dolmios jars, Kan-Tong jars, etc – and top up with the hottest water available. Boiling water is good. Leave it to cool enough to pick up, and shake the jar a bit to mix. Then leave it to thoroughly cool, and put the cap back on. You should have a jelly-ish solid which can be scooped out as required.
    • To use soap jelly to clean tannin-stained items, put about 1 teaspoon of soap jelly per 1 cup of water into your vessel – so 1 tsp each for cups or mugs, 2 – 6 tsp for a teapot – and then top up with boiling water. Leave to cool. Once your item has cooled, tip out the soap mixture, and you’ll find the majority of the tannin stains should just wipe off with a cloth.
    • To really get a good shine on stainless steel cutlery, wash with soap jelly in the water.
    • To get a good shine on a stainless steel sink, or stainless steel cookware or appliances, use soap jelly with steel wool, or a good quality scourer. Gumption brand cleaner will also have the same effect, if you’d prefer that.
    • To wash delicate fabrics with soap, dissolve the soap in hot water before diluting to an appropriate temperature for the fabric. If you need a fabric softener, a vinegar rinse (about 1 tablespoon vinegar per litre of water) will do the trick.
  2. Oh, one other thing: boiling water works very well as a weed killer in pavement. Boil up the kettle and pour the water over the weed until you can smell it cooking. Then leave it to die off. This weed killer isn’t toxic to the environment over the long term (once it’s cooled down, it’s actually beneficial!) but it’s very good as a way of getting rid of even the most persistent weeds in your paving. Boiling water also has a deterrent effect on ants, if poured onto ant hills – it won’t be as good as ant dust or proper baits, but it’s good in emergencies, such as if you wound up with a bullant’s nest coming up in the middle of the back patio.

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