How To Unclog A Toilet

Learn how to plunge, the proper way.

So, you have a clogged toilet… now what? With the right plunger, a little elbow grease and some easy-to-follow tips from our experts, you’ll be able to confidently tackle one of those annoying clogs on your own. 

First, let’s discuss why a blockage may develop in our toilets. The most common and obvious reason is the overuse of toilet paper, which typically gets lodged in the trapway or deposits in the sanitary pipe. Flushing any material beyond toilet paper or human waste can also cause serious obstructions to occur. Items such as feminine products, paper towels, cotton balls, baby wipes and “flushable” wipes should never be discarded in your toilet. A general rule of thumb to follow – if it’s not toilet paper, don’t flush it!

You may also be susceptible to more frequent clogging if the sanitary pipe serving your toilet is made of cast iron pipe. Cast iron pipe can start to corrode, which causes scale to develop over time. As scale develops on the inside of the pipe, the once-smooth surface becomes jagged, making it easier for toilet paper/other solid contents to get caught, build up and eventually form blockages.

Types of Clogs

Generally, there are two types of clogs that will stop up a toilet. The first type occurs in the trapway (trap). You will know the clog is in the trap when water in the toilet bowl immediately rises upon flushing instead of creating that “vortex-like,” circular motion you’re familiar with that carries contents out of the bowl. 

Second, the blockage can get lodged down further within the toilet’s sanitary pipe/fittings, typically located in the fitting directly connected to the closet flange but can be up to five feet away depending on how the piping was installed. One way to tell if your clog goes beyond the trap is by checking your sink and tub drains. Often, sinks and tubs drain into the same main drain pipe as your toilet – so if they’re draining properly, it’s likely your clog lives in the trap.

The Right Plunger

A plunger is often the first tool most homeowners reach for when tackling a clogged fixture (and with good reason!) In most cases, plungers do an excellent job loosening or removing blockages in a trap, particularly those caused by toilet paper build-up. A plunger is a simple and straightforward tool, utilizing basic physics to clear clogs. When pushing a plunger down a drain opening, pressure is increased within the pipe. This pressure differential then forces the water/debris within the pipe downward. Pulling back on the plunger will then alleviate pressure in the pipe and permit water to rise and flow in the direction of the plunger. This constant change of pressure via manual force causes blockage(s) to loosen and eventually flow freely down the drain. 

It’s also important to note that all plungers are not created equal. Certain plungers are designed specifically for different plumbing fixtures. For example, a cup plunger that’s made for clearing sinks and tubs. Our technical experts suggest having a flanged plunger on hand when your toilet experiences a blockage. This type of plunger has an additional smaller rubber cup (called the flange) that extends below the larger cup. The flange is inserted into a toilet’s outlet and seals off the end of the P-Trap, allowing for more force to push out a blockage.

A toilet auger (also called “closet auger” or “toilet snake”) may be necessary when an extra tough clog appears and plunging just won’t do the trick. However, most people don’t have one of these augers on hand. An auger is essentially a specialized drain snaking tool designed to go through the toilet trap. It’s inserted into the outlet of the toilet. While pushing and rotating the handle, the tool works its way through the trap, extending about 12 inches into the sanitary line to dismantle and catch nasty obstructions.

Our technical experts do not advise homeowners use the following common household items in place of a plunger or auger, as each of them can compromise the integrity of the toilet, such as melting its wax seal, scratching porcelain finish or harming the user due to human error:

  • Hot water and dish soap
  • Bleach
  • Vinegar and baking soda
  • Makeshift drain snake using a metal coat hanger

Now that we’ve covered many of the basics, grab your plunger and let’s get started! 

Proper Plunging Techniques

  1. Grab rubber gloves.
  2. Turn off the water supply if you notice water in the bowl is rising. This way, you’ll avoid overflow and a potential mess.
  3. If water in the bowl is at/close to the rim, remove enough water, so it does not spill over when a plunger is inserted. It’s recommended that you preserve some water in the bowl, as the extra pressure from the filled bowl can help push the blockage through.
  4. Using both hands, firmly grip the plunger.
  5. Lower the plunger into the bowl at an angle and gently push it over the drain opening (hole at the bottom of the bowl), allowing the plunger cup to create a strong seal around the hole. The plunger flange should rest directly inside the drain hole.
  6. Move the plunger up and down in a “pumping” motion at least five times. Be sure to keep a strong downward pressure while pumping to preserve the seal. Reposition the seal if it breaks loose.
  7. Release the plunger and break the seal to see if the blockage has cleared.
  8. Flush toilet to test. 
  9. If the bowl has not evacuated contents after Step 7, repeat the plunging process as needed. 
  10. If the toilet completes a full flush, then flush the toilet again to get the waste through the system. This helps ensure the waste contents don’t stop elsewhere in the pipe. 

When to Call a Plumber

Tried plunging or using an auger and still can’t seem to get that water moving freely in your toilet? It’s time to call a professional. You’re likely dealing with a large, stubborn clog that has made its way deep into the internal P-Trap and is beyond the reach of the average homeowner’s tools.

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