How to Fix a Sticky Trip-Lever Bathtub 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 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 horizontal rocker arm that works a pop-up drain plug that fits into the bathtub drain opening. In this case, the plunger device may be a type of spring that connects to the horizontal rocker arm.

Stuck trip lever drain stopper diagram
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Problems With Lift-Bucket Drain Stoppers

A trip-lever drain stopper that uses a lift-bucket plunger can be identified by the absence of a pop-up stopper in the drain opening. 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 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.

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • Screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
  • New plunger and linkage (if needed)

Instructions

  1. First, remove the cover plate on tub's overflow opening.
  2. Extract the connecting rod and plunger through the overflow opening.
  3. Clean off the plunger; debris or corrosion may be preventing it from moving smoothly in the overflow tube. If the plunger is badly corroded or damaged, the entire assembly should be replaced.
  4. If necessary, adjust the linkage to lengthen the connecting rod. This will allow the plunger to fall lower in the overflow tube, ensuring that it seals the drain opening. It may take a bit of tinkering to get the connecting rod length exactly right.
  5. Reassemble the trip-lever mechanism in the overflow opening.

Problems With Pop-Up Drain Stoppers

A trip-lever drain that operates a pop-up stopper uses a slightly different mechanism. 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 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.

Tools and Supplies You will Need

  • Screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
  • New pop-up drain stopper (if needed)

Instructions

  1. Remove the cover plate on the tub's overflow opening
  2. Extract the connecting rod and spring up through the overflow opening. (On some styles, the rocker arm on the drain stopper fits between the coils on the spring; with these, you will need to extract the drain stopper and rocker arm from the drain opening in order to free the spring.)
  3. Clean away any debris on the spring.
  4. If necessary, adjust the connecting rod to lengthen it. This will increase the downward force of the spring against the rocker arm when the trip-lever is operated.
  5. Reassemble the trip-lever assembly in the overflow opening.