How To Handle A Clogged Toilet Like A Pro (And Avoid Making The Problem Worse)

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There's nothing like a home plumbing emergency to send the entire family scrambling for towels, tissues, and even old blankets. Having a toilet overflow isn't just frustrating–it can be devastating for you, the homeowner, especially if it isn't handled correctly. Some minor clogs can be handled in short notice, while others need the attention of a talented plumber. Learn how to handle a sudden clog in this tongue-in-cheek look at everyone's worst nightmare, the clogged toilet.

The Toilet Traffic Jam

It happens to even the best of homeowners. You're using the washroom, and your day is going great. You're probably thinking of the grocery list, what game you'll catch on television this weekend, and just why the kids are suddenly so quiet.

Suddenly, you realize your attempt to flush is failing. You immediately ponder whether the kids are being so quiet because they've flushed something that really isn't meant for the toilet. Or, maybe you've just managed to encounter a very typical clog. Either way, your heart sinks as you watch the water rise up in the bowl.

Step 1: Don't Panic—And Don't Forget Your Towel

In the words of the semi-famous Ford Prefect from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Don't Panic." Staying calm will help you to move more quickly, preventing further damage. Place a few thick towels or even numerous rags directly around the base of the toilet, as this can help to confine overflow.

Tip: Choose towels and/or rags wisely. If your toilet contains excrement or sewage when it overflows, any towels that soak up the water will need to be either tossed out or sterilized.

If the water stops just shy of the bowl, breathe a sigh of relief. This means that your problem isn't as serious as it could be. Knock on the nearest wood surface if you're superstitious, and then skip to section 3.

If it continues to rise, you'll need to shut off the main source to prevent further overflow; check out section 2 for information.

Step 2: Stopping the Tsunami

Clogged toilets will frequently begin to overflow if there is no passage for the water through the piping. If this happens, reach down behind the toilet and turn the water off from its connection. In some homes, this may be under a sink or inside a cupboard, but the majority of bathrooms will have a metal shut-off valve close by. If you aren't familiar with the bathroom you are in, look for an oval-shaped handle, a circular wagon-wheel shaped ring, or a small bar attached to a pipe.

Tip: Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey applies to most valves, so try turning it to the right first. If this seems to accelerate the fill, try the other direction–although left-tightening connections are very rare in the United States.

If the toilet isn't overflowing, and you can see it draining very slowly, simply don't flush again and move on to the next section.

Step 3: Making Use of Your Trusty Plunger

Get out your trusty plunger and gently but firmly plunge the bowl. Try to ensure that your plunger fits the bowl securely; a plunger that is too big or too small for the plumbing will be ineffective. Your goal is to place it directly over the exit hole inside your toilet. If you can't see well, just do your best to feel it out with the tip of the plunger.

One or two times is plenty to start with; the goal is to see whether it begins to move, or whether the issue becomes worse. If you get movement and the water begins to drain, plunge a few more times.

Tip: If the bowl seems to fill even higher, stop where you are. This is a sign that your piping is badly backed up, and further plunging can result in raw sewage backing up all over your bathroom floor. Call a plumber immediately for assistance with issues like this.

If the water has drained, try flushing again. If the bowl floods again, attempt to plunge once more until it re-drains. You may need to do this several times in order to clear a really badly clogged pipe.

Section 4: When It Still Won't Flush Properly

Occasionally, you'll get a toilet that plunges okay, but quickly refills and insists on draining very slowly. Before you toss out your throne and a number of expletives, try a few of the following actions. There's plenty that can be done to amend this:

  • If you have hard water, try using calcium, lime, and rust remover. Pour at least a cup into the bowl and allow it to sit for thirty minutes. Flush and/or flush while plunging, if necessary.
  • Try using a chemical snake to remove partial clogs. Drain cleaners can be very effective when used on clogs that still have some movement. 
  • If all else fails, you can use a plumbing snake to try and manually break up the clog. It's potentially messy, but can help when nothing else does.

Warning! Because each of these actions has the potential for serious unwanted side effects, many homeowners opt to contact a plumber directly at this point. Of the three choices above, treating for hard water tends to have the least amount of risk. Both chemical snakes and manual snakes can increase the pressure inside your plumbing greatly, and this can occasionally cause old or rusted piping to crack. This is especially true in extremely cold weather.

If you aren't confident in your ability to excise the clog, don't feel that you've failed. Sometimes, only the assistance of a plumber will do. It's far better to recognize this than to turn a simple clog into a sewage backup that results in thousands of dollars worth of damage to your home. Before taking any further action, turn off the water to the toilet at the shut-off valve mentioned earlier in the article. This will prevent leaking, pressure builds, and other potential issues while you get the advice you need, even if you're only dealing with a slow-draining toilet. Contact your local plumber to schedule service immediately afterward.