Two Ways to Unclog a Toilet

Man sticking toilet plunger in toilet bowl
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Few things are more nerve-wracking that 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 typically is no cause for alarm, and it's usually fairly easy to fix.

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 trap configuration built into the porcelain toilet bowl is designed to hold standing water and seal against sewer gases from rising up into the bathroom.

But this same bending pathway of the toilet trap that holds water and keeps sewer gas at bay also can cause any objects that get flushed down the toilet to get trapped partway. This can be normal toilet waste, or any variety of foreign objects, from pocket combs to toy cars or crayons.

There are two principle methods for clearing clogs in a toilet: using a plunger, or using a specialty auger tool, known as a toilet auger.

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 three 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, bathtrub, and shower clogs.

The other two types of plunger are the accordion and flanged plunger. These have a uniquely different shape, with a narrowed bottom that is designed to fit tightly into the narrow opening in the bottom of the toilet bowl. This shape allows the tool to seal against the toilet drain opening.

How to Use a Toilet Plunger

  1. Bail out water (or add water) until the toilet bowl is half full. Some water in the bowl is necessary to create the siphoning action for successful plunging.
  2. Cover the area around the toilet in towels to protect the surrounding flooring should water splash out.
  3. Place the plunger in the toilet bowl, lowering the tip completely into the drain opening until it forms a firm seal.
  4. Push down on the plunger with swift, powerful thrusts, sending enough pressure down the drain to loosen the obstruction. 

You may feel the clog push through the drain during this procedure. If you’re unsure whether your plunging efforts have dislodged the obstruction from your toilet drain, add more water to the toilet bowl. If the water goes down the toilet easily, the clog has been cleared. If it doesn’t, try again.

Should a plunger repeatedly fail to remove the obstruction from your toilet drain, you will need to employ a different tactic or call a professional plumber for help.

Clearing a Toilet Clog with an Auger

If repeated attempts at plunging fail to fix your clogged toilet, a toilet auger might do the job. 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 design is especially designed for toilets, as the rubber-sleeve is designed to prevent scratches to the porcelain. Never use a drain snake not intended for toilet use, as the metal auger can badly scratch the fixture.

How to Use a Toilet Auger

  1. Retract the auger cable so that the tip of the cable is at the end of the guide tube.
  2. 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.
  3. Crank the auger in one direction to gradually feed the cable into the toilet drain, until the cable goes no further. Crank slowly to ensure that the cable does not kink and double back on itself inside the toilet drain. If necessary, you may need to reverse the cranking direction to coax the cable through the bends of the toilet drain.
  4. After the auger cable has been fully extended, you likely will have broken through the clog. Slowly pull the auger out of the toilet. Be gentle with this action to avoid scratching the fixture.
  5. Flush the toilet. If necessary, use a plunger to further break up any remaining obstruction.

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. Here are a few tips to keep your toilet drain clear:

  • 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.