Few things are more nerve-wracking than a clogged toilet that overflows its rim and spills water onto the floor around the toilet. But while it can require quick action, a clogged toilet typically is no cause for alarm, and it's usually fairly easy to fix. Most clogs can be overcome with a plunger, provided you use the right type. For really tough clogs, such as a sponge or other object stuck inside the toilet, the best tool for the job is a toilet auger.
How Toilets Get Clogged
Although it's not immediately apparent, every toilet bowl is constructed with a built-in trap configuration that is part of the porcelain fixture. Like the P-trap you see beneath your bathroom sink, the toilet trap is designed to hold standing water to seal the trapway and prevent sewer gases from rising up into the bathroom.
But this same bending pathway can trap objects that get flushed down the toilet. This can be normal toilet waste, or any variety of foreign objects, from pocket combs to toy cars or crayons. Most clogs (especially normal toilet waste) can be cleared with a plunger. But if plunging doesn't work, try a toilet auger before calling a plumber or removing the toilet.
Clearing a Toilet Clog With a Plunger
In most cases, toilet clogs can be cleared with the proper use of a plunger—but not just any plunger. There are two common types of household plunger. A cup plunger is the most common type, featuring a rubber cup with a flat rim attached to a handle. It is designed for clearing sink, bathtub, and shower clogs.
The other type of plunger is a toilet plunger, also called a flanged plunger or closet plunger. This type has a uniquely different shape, with a narrowed bottom that is designed to fit into the hole in the toilet bowl and a larger cup that seals around the outside of the hole to create a good seal.
- Add water to the toilet bowl, as needed, until it is about half full. Some water in the bowl is necessary to ensure a seal around the drain opening.
- Make sure the flange (the narrow portion) at the bottom of the plunger cup is extended. The flange on many toilet plungers can be folded up into the cup to use the plunger for sinks and tubs. It should always be extended for toilets.
- Lower the plunger into the bowl at an angle so the plunger cup fills with water as you lower it; this increases the plunging force. Fit the cup over the hole in the bowl so the flange is inside the hole and the cup seals around the outside of the hole.
- Push down on the plunger with swift, powerful thrusts, sending enough pressure down the drain to loosen the obstruction. Maintain a good seal throughout the motions. When the plunger comes up, it creates a suction effect that helps loosen the clog; when it goes down, it pushes the clog down the drain.
- Pull the plunger out of the hole after five or six thrusts. If most of the water is gone from the bowl, you've probably cleared the clog.
- Remove the lid from the toilet tank. Flush the toilet to see if the clog has cleared, but be ready: If the bowl looks like it will overflow, quickly reach into the tank and push down the flapper (the rubber flap that covers the hole in the bottom of the tank). This stops the flow of water to the bowl to prevent an overflow.
- Repeat the plunging and flushing process, as needed, until the clog is gone.
Clearing a Toilet Clog With an Auger
A toilet auger consists of a cable that runs through a long hollow guide tube with a sweep elbow at the bottom, protected by a rubber sleeve. At the top of the auger, a hand crank is attached to the cable. This tool is especially designed for toilets, as the rubber sleeve prevents scratches to the porcelain. Never use a drain snake not intended for toilet use, as the metal auger can badly scratch the fixture.
- Retract the auger cable so that the tip of the cable is at the end of the guide tube.
- Insert the guide tube into the toilet, so that the sweep elbow rests at the bottom of the bowl and the cable end reaches into the drain opening.
- Crank the auger clockwise while gradually pushing the cable into the toilet trap, until the cable goes no further. Crank slowly to ensure that the cable does not kink and double-back on itself inside the toilet. If necessary, you may need to reverse the cranking direction to coax the cable through the bends of the toilet drain. After the auger cable has been fully extended, you likely will have broken through the clog.
- Slowly pull the cable back out of the toilet. Be gentle with this action to avoid scratching the fixture.
- Flush the toilet to make sure the clog has cleared.
When to Call a Plumber
If both a plunger and an auger fail to remove the clog from your toilet, you will probably need to call a plumber, as it is likely the clog lies beyond the reach of the auger. If you see water backing up into other drains in your home when the toilet flushes, this can be the sign of a serious problem in the main drain line.
Preventing Toilet Clogs
The most effective way to treat a clogged toilet is to prevent it from clogging in the first place.
- Limit your use of toilet paper. If necessary, you can flush in increments to avoid overloading the drain.
- Ensure that every product you flush down the toilet is intended for toilet and septic use. Avoid flushing heavy paper products, such as paper towels, wet wipes, and feminine care products. These items may do more than clog your toilet—they may cause significant damage to your entire sewer system.
- Help kids understand that only toilet paper is allowed down the toilet.