How to Fix a Stuck Trip-Lever Drain Stopper

Trip lever tub drain plunger
Photo from Amazon

Any bathtub drain stopper that doesn't do its job is an annoying inconvenience. Usually, the problem is easy to fix, though the procedures vary depending on what type of tub stopper you have. A trip lever drain stopper is one that's more tricky than most to fix, due to its somewhat complicated mechanism.

How Trip-Lever Drain Stoppers Work

First, it's important to understand something about how this style of drain stopper works.

The small up-and-down lever you see protruding from the overflow plate on your bathtub is connected to a vertical connecting rod inside the overflow pipe behind the front tub wall. Near the bottom of the connecting rod is a plunger of some kind--usually a weight that works by sealing the drain opening at the bottom of the overflow tube. This type of drain stopper is sometimes known as a lift bucket. Sometimes, however, the trip lever operates a pop-up drain the fits into the bathtub drain opening. In this case, the plunger device may be a type of spring that connects to a pivot arm that moves the pop-up stopper up and down in the drain opening.

stuck trip lever drain stopper
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Lift-Bucket Trip-Lever Drain Stoppers

The trip lever drain stopper that uses a lift bucket plunger can be identified by the fact that the drain opening has no pop-up stopper in it. When problems occur with this type of drain, it is for one of two reasons:

  • The plunger has become stuck in the overflow tube and will not move up and down freely. 
  • The connecting rod linking the trip lever to the plunger isn't adjusted properly, creating a situation in which the lift bucket plunger doesn't drop down enough to completely seal the drain pipe opening.

In either case, the fix here involves first removing the overflow plate on the tub and attempting to free the plunger by extracting it up through the overflow opening. If the plunger is simply stuck, the fix is as simple as just carefully removing it and reinserting it--or replacing it with a new one if necessary.

If the plunger seems to operate freely, then the fix may be to remove the plunger and rod from the overflow opening and adjust the connecting rod to lengthen it slightly. All plunger-style mechanisms have some way to adjust the length of this connecting rod. Lengthening the rod will allow the plunger to descend far enough within the overflow tube to completely seal the drain opening. It may take a bit of tinkering to get the adjustment just right, but it is not difficult. It's also possible the plunger and linkage will need to be replaced entirely; this will become obvious when you remove it and inspect that parts.

Pop-Up Drain Stoppers

A trip lever drain that operates a pop-up stopper is a slightly different mechanism in which, rather than a lift-bucket plunger that seals a drain opening at the bottom of the overflow tube, there is a spring at the end of the trip lever connecting rod. This spring pushes down on a pivot arm that levers the pop-up stopper up into an open position when the trip lever is moved. When the trip lever is moved to the closed position, gravity allows the stopper to drop back down and seal the drain opening.

Problems with this type are usually signaled when the pop-up stopper fails to push up enough to open the bathtub drain—it wants to stay in the closed position constantly. The cause here is usually because the connecting rod attached to the trip lever has become shortened from use. The fix is to remove the linkage through the overflow opening and adjust the connecting rod so it is once again long enough to pivot the rocker arm and lift the pop-up stopper into the open position.