How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain With a Plunger

  • 01 of 03

    Why Clogs Happen

    Clawfoot bathtub in custom designed bathroom.
    David Papazian / Getty Images

    Next to the kitchen sinkgarbage disposal and toilet drains, the tub drain gets the most abuse of any drain in the home. We load it up with hair, soap and hair care products, along with the occasional razor blade cartridge. Over time, the drain gradually clogs until you find yourself standing in the tub taking a shower with several inches of dirty water lapping at your ankles. Yuck. You can easily unclog your bathtub drain with a basic plunger, but you have to seal the overflow drain first. 

    Continue to 2 of 3 below.
  • 02 of 03

    Seal the Overflow Drain

    Female foot in the bath
    An overflow drain remains open to prevent overfilling the tub. Image Source / Getty Images

    The challenge with fixing a bathtub drain with a plunger is that tubs essentially have two drains. There's the familiar one at the bottom of the tub that you close to fill up the tub. There's also one higher up on the wall of the tub, in line with the faucet spout and the bottom drain. This is called an overflow drain. You may never have noticed this because many of them look like a solid metal disc rather than a perforated drain cover. If you look under the bottom edge of the disc,...MORE you'll see that it has an opening. This is a secret passage where the water can go if you're filling the tub and then completely forget about it. Some overflow drains have visible holes or other features, but they all do the same thing. 

    The water entering the overflow goes into a pipe that feeds into the main tub drain. This presents a problem when you need to plunge the tub. Plungers work on suction power, and the overflow drain (which doesn't close, for obvious reasons) acts as a big air vent that kills the suction. Therefore, you must seal over the overflow opening before getting to work with the plunger. The best way to seal an overflow is by covering it with duct tape. 

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  • 03 of 03

    How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain

    High Angle View Of Toilet Plunger On Floor In Bathroom
    A standard cup plunger is the best type for tub drains. Stephan Kaps / EyeEm / Getty Images

    Once you've completely sealed the opening in the overflow with duct tape you are ready to clear the clogged drain:

    1. Remove the stopper of the bottom (main) tub drain. You may have to unscrew it or turn it back and forth a little while pulling up.
    2. Fill the tub with about 1” to 2” of hot water (not cold). Hot water helps dissolve soap in clogs.  
    3. Place the cup plunger over the drain so the entire lip of the cup seals against the tub surface. The cup seal is critical because that's what creates...MORE suction and loosens the clog with the action of the plunger. 
    4. Using quick, forcefully strokes, push the plunger down, then pull up, repeating 5 to 6 times. Maintain the cup seal throughout the 5 or 6 strokes, then pull the cup all the way up and off of the drain with the last stroke. Pumping the plunger forces water down into the pipe, then sucks it back up, forcing the clog up and down along with the drain water, ultimately breaking up and loosening the clog. 
    5. Repeat the same process as needed until the drain starts to flow freely.
    6. Remove the duct tape from the overflow, and replace the drain stopper.