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How to Unclog a Toilet

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Unclogging Your Toilet

Eventually, nearly every homeowner has to deal with a clogged toilet. Of all the household plumbing disasters you'll ever have to deal with, a toilet overflowing with sewage has to rate as one of the worst. The mess is bad enough, but the worst part is that until you get it fixed, you have nowhere to go to the bathroom.

The good news is that, unless you have sewage backing up into bathtubs or sinks, a clogged toilet is a problem you can usually handle by yourself, without the help of a plumber. Here are a number of different methods for clearing a toilet obstruction.

Before You Begin

It's crucial that you act at the first sign of a clog. Resist the temptation to keep flushing the toilet and hope the obstruction will go away. Wait a moment. If the water goes down, it’s probably safe to try again. If the water doesn’t go down immediately this time, or if the water goes down but leaves solid material in the bowl, don’t take the chance on another flush. If you do, you run the risk of releasing more water into the bowl than it can hold, resulting in an overflow.

If it’s too late, and the water is already getting too high, quick action may still prevent an overflow. Lift the lid off the back of the toilet and grab the large round ball. That’s called the float. Pull up gently but quickly. This will temporarily stop the water from flowing from the tank into the toilet. If you have a helper on hand, the helper can hold the float while you work to unclog the toilet. If you are working alone, you can probably gently prop the ball on the edge of the tank until you are done. Just be careful not to yank too hard, and don’t force anything. Once you've finished clearing the obstruction, gently lift the float from the edge of the tank and guide it back into place. When you turn the water back on, the tank will automatically fill to the proper level.

Turn off the Water Supply

The last thing you need for a while is more water. That’s why it’s a good idea to turn off the water supply to the toilet tank. Typically, the toilet cutoff valve is located behind the toilet, beneath the tank, slightly to the left. It’s usually a chrome-plated football-shaped valve with edges that are scalloped to provide a good drip. Once you’ve located the valve, turn it off just like you would turn off a tap. The rule of thumb in the U.S. is “right is tight and left is loose.”

Turn the valve to the right until it stops. Don’t force it. If your toilet was installed a long time ago, or if it was installed by an unskilled do-it-yourselfer, it may not have a cutoff valve of its own. If this is the case, your best bet is to turn off the main water valve. These are located in different places in different homes, so you will have to do some legwork to find yours. Look on the bright side. If you ever have an emergency that requires you to shut off the water to your house, you won't have to waste precious time looking for the cutoff valve.

Use Proper Protection

Before you go any further, put on a heavy shirt with long sleeves and a pair of heavy long pants, then take a moment to slip on a pair of rubber gloves. You are going to be coming into contact with some pretty nasty stuff, so it’s just good sense to put an impermeable barrier between you and the biohazardous waste that lives in your sewage lines. Gloves and protective clothing will also come in handy if you end up having to use a chemical clog remover.

Now that you’ve taken steps to protect yourself, do the same for your floors. Spread plastic garbage bags on the floor around the toilet, then add a thick layer of newspaper, paper towels or shop rags on top to catch any splashes or spills.

Let Yourself Vent

If you are lucky, your clog is a nice, clean one and your toilet is full of nothing but clear water. Most of the time, though, a clogged toilet smells terrible. Although sewage can potentially release toxic gases, you are probably not in a great deal of danger from a clog that has just happened. It’s still a good idea to turn on the exhaust fan and open a window to let in fresh air. If you end up using any chemical drain openers, ventilation will no longer be optional, though.

These chemicals are toxic and potentially dangerous and should never be used without adequate ventilation. If you end up needing chemical help and can’t ventilate your bathroom, you will have to call in a professional plumber.

Try a Little of the Old Soft Soap

If you know the clog was caused by a solid object that has fallen into the toilet, skip this method and the next one. If it’s an ordinary clog caused by a buildup of softer matter, sometimes dish liquid and hot water will resolve it. Heat a tea kettle until it whistles, or just bring water to a boil in a regular lipped saucepan. Porcelain is delicate and cracks easily, so be sure to let the water cool slightly until it is about as hot as a cup of coffee before you pour it in to your toilet bowl.

Direct a generous squirt of dish liquid into the toilet and pour the water in after it. Although traditional wisdom has held that the water should be poured from waist height to increase the force with which it hits the clog, doing so can cause splashing and burns, so it is important to hold the kettle or saucepan as close to the clog as possible and to pour slowly and carefully. Leave the whole mess alone for a while. After 10 minutes, check back to see if the clog has cleared. If the water hasn’t gone down, it’s time to try the plunger.

Plunge Right In

if you already have a plunger, even if it’s one of those tiny pink ones that are designed to unclog a sink, try what you have on hand first. If it doesn’t work and you have to buy a plunger, don’t waste money on one of these or its larger cousin that is designed for toilets. Get the kind that’s made of black rubber and shaped like a ball or like a regular plunger with a big rubber flange that looks like a cuff on the bottom. The point of using a plunger on a toilet clog is to push water into the drain forcefully enough to rock the clog so that you can loosen it and, ultimately, clear the drain.

For this reason, the greater the volume of water the plunger will hold, the better. The simple, bowl-shaped plungers are much less effective at directing the water down the drain and tend to allow forceful spurts of filthy water to shoot out the side of the toilet bowl and all over you or your floor.

The key to effective plunging is to work slowly and smoothly. Run hot water over the plunger head to soften the rubber to help it create a seal more easily. Put the plunger into the toilet bowl, submerge it and allow it to fill with water. If there isn't enough water in the toilet to fill the plunger, add some. Cover the drain opening with the entire plunger, then press firmly. Gently pull up on the plunger handle. You should feel some resistance. If you don’t, start over.

Pull a little harder to create suction on the clog, then push the plunger in firmly. Repeat several times until the water begins to drain. You will hear a gurgling sound as the clog begins to give way. Remember, the point of plunging is not to force the clog down the drain, but to rock it back and forth and allow it to begin to break apart. For this reason, it is important not to push with too much force. If the water drains but the clog remains, flush the toilet and repeat the process as many times as you need to until the clog breaks up and flushes.

Put this in Your Pipe and Poke it

Sometimes a clog is too solid to be plunged away. If you can’t get water to flow around a solid clog, punching a hole in it and allowing water to run through it may be the key to breaking it up. As long as the clog is at or very near the drain, a straightened wire hanger will often do the trick. Just be careful not to scratch the delicate porcelain of your toilet bowl with the wire hanger. Push the end of the straightened hanger into the drain and try to punch it through the clog.

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Often, the clog will break up once you’ve dug into it with the wire. If the clog doesn’t break up entirely, if you can manage to pierce the clog with the hanger, you may be able to use it to pull the clog out of the drain. If the hanger doesn’t work, you have nothing to lose by trying to remove the clog with a plumbing snake.

Launch a Snake Attack

A plumbing snake, also called a "flexible cleaning tool" or "closet auger," is a specialized, flexible auger that can be fed through the labyrinth of curves in your toilet drain to clear deep clogs. You can rent or buy them at plumbing supply stores, hardware stores and home improvement stores. Although there are several different plumbing snakes on the market, most of them will scratch your toilet bowl and leave a permanent steely gray scratched area on your porcelain.

So, unless you plan to replace your toilet soon, make sure you get a closet auger. These are designed specifically to clear clogs in toilets, also known as water closets. You can rent an electric snake, but the ones that are marketed to do-it-yourselfers typically come on a reel and are operated by a crank. Put the end of the snake into the drain and begin feeding it into the drain until you feel the clog. Twist and push the coil through the clog until the water begins to drain from the bowl.

If the snake encounters a hard clog, such as a toy or small pill bottle, you will likely have to remove the toilet and run the snake up the bottom of the toilet to get at the clog. Unless you feel very confident about removing the toilet, this is the time to call a plumber.

Suck it Up

If you've had no luck with the snake but you don’t think you have a hard object clogging your toilet, you may still be able to suck the clog out with a wet/dry vacuum. First, suck the water out of the toilet with the vacuum. Then put the end of the hose, without any attachments on it, a few inches into the drain.


Create a seal around the hose by stuffing wet cotton towels around it. Press the towels into place and turn on the suction. If you are going to be able to physically remove the clog yourself, it will loosen under the force of the vacuum cleaner. If your clog is still wedged into place, you will have to dissolve it in order to get it out.

Let it Digest

If your clog consists of hair or an object, enzymes won’t be able to touch it. But if the clog is made up of toilet paper and waste, as most toilet clogs are, or of grease or something similar, enzymes can digest the bulk of the clog overnight and clear your obstruction. You want a product that is designed to keep a septic system in good working order. You can usually find these in the drain opener section of a hardware or building-supply store. Just follow the instructions that come on the box.

Blow it Out Your Pipes

At this point, you may be wishing you had called the plumber yesterday. On the bright side, you have nothing to lose by turning your toilet into a miniature baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano. If you are lucky, you might even get rid of that clog at long last. You will need a one-pound box of baking soda and a 16 ounce bottle of ordinary white vinegar. For this job, you don’t want to use the generic vinegar. You’ll need a high acid content, so stick with a national brand this time. Pour a standard sized box of baking soda into your toilet bowl, then slowly begin to pour the bottle of vinegar in.

Pause whenever the solution begins to foam too high, then continue as it settles down a bit. Next, add a gallon of hot tap water to the bowl. The chemical process caused by the vinegar and baking soda solution helps to dissolve some types of clogs. Like the enzyme method, this process requires a good deal of patience. Although the solution may work within a few hours, it may take overnight to clear your toilet. If the process doesn’t eliminate your clog, and you can afford to wait a little longer to use the bathroom, you can repeat the process and gradually whittle away at the obstruction.

Better Living through Chemicals

At this point, you probably need a plumber. If you can’t afford to wait for one, or if you can’t afford a plumber at all, as a last resort you can try a chemical drain opener. However, if you previously tried the vinegar and baking soda trick, don’t use a chemical drain opener. You can buy drain openers at grocery, hardware or discount stores. Chemical drain openers are rough on the environment and potentially hazardous to humans and pets, so avoid them when you can.

If you think there is any possibility you have a solid object stuck in your drain, don’t use a chemical drain opener. Call a plumber or take the toilet up and manually clear the clog. In addition, always follow the manufacturer's instructions and use only products that specifically state they are for toilets, and never mix two or more products. Most drain opener products are not suitable for toilets, so carefully read the package. Be sure you cover any exposed skin and wear your gloves. In addition, you should add some eye protection, since these products are caustic and can cause serious injury.

Once you’ve added a chemical drain opener to your bowl, do not attempt to use a plunger again. Plungers, by their very nature, forcefully shoot out large amounts of liquid. This could be very dangerous if that liquid is a toxic, caustic drain opener.

Throw in the Towel

If the chemicals don’t work, the do-it-yourself stage is over. Once you have put caustic chemicals into your toilet, it is very dangerous to plunge it or attempt to unseat the toilet. If none of these methods worked for you, the problem may be deeper in your pipes. It’s time to call in a professional.

Cleanup

Whether you successfully removed the clog or not, you’ve undoubtedly made a mess. If you are counting on the plumber to clean things up when he or she is finished, think again. Typically, the plumber will only clean up any mess he or she actually made, and it’s a rare plumber who does more than simply neaten. Everything that came into contact with sewage will need to be cleaned with a household disinfectant, including the toilet, floors and possibly the walls. The tools you used will need to be disinfected or thrown away, as well.

Prevention

A little prevention can keep you from ever having to kneel on the bathroom floor with your arms around the toilet again. Don’t flush large wads of toilet paper, tampons, baby wipes, dental floss or cotton swabs. Over-the-toilet shelves or cabinets are the answer to an organizer’s prayers, but things fall from them into the toilet and cause chaos inside your pipes.

Move anything that could possibly fit into the drain of your toilet into the medicine cabinet, and get rid of any small bathtub toys. Pets are especially good at dropping or knocking things into the toilet, so keep them out of the bathroom if possible.

What You Will Need

  • Plunger
  • Newspapers or paper towels
  • Rubber gloves
  • Eye protection
  • Heavy long-sleeved shirt
  • Heavy long pants
  • Household disinfectant
  • Toilet brush

Optional Items

  • Dishwashing liquid
  • Tea kettle or saucepan with a lip for pouring
  • Wire hanger
  • One-pound box of baking soda
  • 16-ounce bottle of vinegar
  • Plumbing snake
  • Chemical drain opener labeled suitable for use in toilets

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This page was last modified on 3 August 2013, at 17:41.
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