How to Fix a Sticky Trip-Lever Bathtub Drain Stopper

Trip lever tub drain plunger
Photo from Amazon
Overview
  • Working Time: 30 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $0 to $20

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. Some drains have stoppers that are spring-loaded, operated by a push of the toe or by hand, while others use a trip-lever mounted on the bathtub's overflow plate. 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
The Spruce, 2018 

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

For Lift-Bucket Drain Stoppers

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

For Pop-Up Drain Stoppers

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

Instructions

How to Fix a Lift-Bucket Drain Stopper

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 drainpipe opening.
  1. Remove the Cover Plate and Stopper

    Back out the mounting screws that hold the overflow cover plate onto the overflow tube. Carefully remove the cover plate and extract the connecting rod and plunger through the overflow opening.

  2. Inspect and Clean the Plunger

    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.

  3. Adjust the Linkage

    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.

  4. Reassemble the Stopper

    Insert the stopper and drain linkage back down through the overflow opening. Reattach the cover plate to the overflow tube. Turn on the water and operate the stopper several times to make sure it is working properly.

How to Fix a Pop-Up Drain Stopper

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.

  1. Remove the Cover Plate and Plunger

    Back out the mounting screws that hold the overflow cover plate onto the overflow tube. Carefully remove the cover plate and 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.)

  2. Clean the Spring

    Clean away any debris on the spring at the end of the stopper linkage. In many cases, a build-up of hair and soap scum can cause problems with the stopper.

  3. Adjust the Connecting Rod

    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.

  4. Reassemble the Stopper

    Insert the stopper linkage back down through the overflow opening and attach the cover plate to the overflow tube. Turn on the water and operate the stopper to make sure it is working correctly.