When your toilet is completely stopped up, getting it cleared again is your highest priority. If you are unfamiliar with this common plumbing emergency, the biggest question you may have is, “How do I unclog a toilet when nothing works?”
There are multiple ways to unclog stubborn blocked toilets – choosing the correct plunger and using it the right way, solutions from your kitchen, drain snakes, augers, and finally, calling a licensed and experienced plumbing specialist.
A clogged toilet is more than just an inconvenience. If the bowl overflows, the results can be disastrous – damage to the home, difficult and possibly-expensive cleanup, and even health hazards.
But there is good news – just because you have tried everything that YOU know to do does not mean that the situation is hopeless. Read on to learn how to unclog a backed-up toilet when nothing else works.
Types of toilet clogs
Not every toilet clog is created equal. There are several reasons why your toilet might be clogged, and knowing the difference can help you find the right remedy. Even better, understanding the cause of the clog can help you prevent it from happening again.
This is perhaps the biggest cause of occasional clogs – someone puts too much toilet paper into the bowl. The water from the flush is not enough to move the mass of wet paper.
Educate everyone, both children and adults, about what an acceptable amount of toilet paper is.
NOTE: Although the jury is still out about whether or not it is better for the environment to flush used toilet paper or throw it in a trash can, flashing is much more sanitary.
Trying to flush the wrong product
One of the more widely-held misconceptions is that all personal hygiene cleansing products are safe to dispose of down the toilet.
But products like paper towels or wipes – even those that are supposedly “flushable” – can cause significant problems and even damage to your plumbing. They are absolutely NOT flushable.
In fact, a recent study tested 101 single-use hygiene products – including 23 that were marketed as “flushable”, and none of the wipes safely broke down and dispersed in the sewer lines.
Understand that your toilet is not the same as a garbage can. Items such as hair, cotton swabs, napkins, baby wipes, disposable clogs, and feminine hygiene products are not designed to be flushed.
A blocked trap
Almost every toilet has a curved pipe that allows waste to float out of the home and at the same time prevents sewer gases from entering the home. On most toilets, this is known as S-trap.
Sometimes, the shape of the pipe makes it difficult for excessive solid waste and paper to pass through, creating a blockage. A problem is that even when you seemingly clear a clog, revenue often remains. These partial blockages can slowly worsen and form an even greater clog than the original.
Whenever clearing an S-trap blog, take extra care to ensure that all waste has passed through. Use an auger to break up any solid mass.
A failing low-flow toilet
Low-flow toilets are good for the environment and your wallet because they reduce water waste and lower your monthly utility bill. But when they start to wear out and need updating or replacing, flushes will lose the force needed to push waste through the pipes.
Replace the interior tank mechanisms or the entire toilet, as needed. If you have never done this before, this is a job that should be handled by a plumbing professional.
Your home plumbing system is more than just water and drain pipes. Homes also need ventilation pipes to release noxious sewer gases through vents in your roof. This ventilation system also increases your toilet’s flushing power.
If the ventilation system is obstructed, your toilet can lose the power it needs to move waste matter, resulting in frequent or stubborn clogs.
To remedy this problem – or even to just verifyy it – someone needs to go on the roof to check the event while someone else flushes the toilet. Since climbing on the roof can be dangerous, you should always hire a plumber who uses safety equipment and carries insurance.
A damaged sewer line
Another serious problem that can make your toilet back up is if your home’s sewer line is damaged or blocked. The most common cause of this damage is root intrusion that has punctured your sewer pipe or caused it to collapse.
If your main sewer line is compromised, you may have problems with multiple toilets and drains. At worst, blocked sewage can back up into your home or even onto your neighbors’ property.
Raw sewage is an environmental and health hazard. For this issue, always call a local plumbing professional.
Local versus deep clogs
When dealing with a serious blockage, one of the major considerations that determine how it should be dealt with is whether it is a local clog or a deep one.
As the name implies, a local clog is one that is located within or near the toilet itself. Minor local blockages are often easily within your abilities as a homeowner.
To determine if the clog is local, turn on the water in the sink or shower closest to the toilet. If the water drains freely even after several minutes, that is a strong indication that only the toilet is blocked.
Deep drain clogs, on the other hand, occur further down your plumbing system. When this happens, not only will it be harder for you as a homeowner to fix the problem, you may not even be able to locate it.
Deep blockages are almost always far more serious than local clogs and require professional services.
Choosing a plunger
If you are like most homeowners, the first tool you grab to unclog a toilet is a plunger. Normally, a plunger is an easy and free way to handle most blockages.
But what you probably did not know is that toilet clogs are different from sink and drain clogs. Therefore, clearing them requires using different plungers.
There are two main types:
Flat-bottom plungers – As you might guess, this plunger has a flat bottom and looks kind of like an inverted bowl. It works best on flat surfaces such as drains or sinks.
Flange plungers – These plungers have a flange that extends from the cup into the opening at the bottom of the toilet bowl. They are specifically made to clear toilet clogs.
All plungers create a vacuum within the blocked drain. This vacuum clears a clog by forcing it forward or backward. But for this to work, the plunger must make an air/watertight seal around the opening.
Because a flat-bottom plunger cannot create that seal within the bowl, it is not particularly effective at clearing a clogged toilet. Toilets need the specialization of a flange plunger.
The Right Way to Use a Plunger to Unclog a Toilet
As with any tool, there is a right way to use a flange plunger when unclogging a toilet.
If the toilet is full of liquid, bail it out with a small bucket or dipper until the water level just covers the cup of the plunger.
Extend the flange by pulling it out of the cup.
Put the flange into the toilet drain and push down until the cup of the plunger makes a good seal. Make sure that the cup is completely covered by water.
Keeping the handle of the plunger in line with the toilet drain, start “plunging” by pushing down and pulling up. Start gently to avoid splashing contaminated water.
Push down and up, several times for 20 to 30 seconds.
For the best results, strokes that are smaller and faster work better at dislodging clogs than long, forceful ones.
The technique matters more than the force. In fact, if you plunge too hard, you can damage or even burst old pipes or connections.
You may repeat these steps several times if necessary.
Note: To avoid dangerous cross-contamination, never use the same plunger that you used on a clogged toilet on your kitchen or bathroom sinks.
Sometimes, your “plumber’s helper” also needs a little bit of help. Let’s take a look at some other things that you can do to unclog a blocked toilet. For each of the following, wear rubber gloves and remove as much liquid and solid matter from the toilet bowl as you can. You want the bowl as empty as possible.
Dish soap: The plumber’s secret
The ordinary dish soap you use every day is formulated to dissolve grease and organic material. That means it can also loosen up the human waste that may be causing the clog.
Pour one-half to one cup of liquid dish detergent into the toilet drain.
Slowly add hot water to the bowl. It should be very hot, but not boiling. Put at least a gallon and up to the entire bowl full.
Wait. In most cases, the mixture should start dissolving the clog within just a few minutes and the toilet will flush.
Even if the toilet only drains slowly, that is still an excellent sign of progress. Just repeat the process and let the soap mixture set and work longer.
Note: We must emphasize NOT to use boiling water, which can damage connections and pipes, resulting in expensive leaks.
Baking soda and vinegar: Using chemistry to unclog a toilet
A simple mixture of two kitchen staples is another handy trick used by both plumbers and savvy homeowners who want to unclog a stubborn toilet when nothing else seems to work.
Pour one cup of baking soda into the toilet, and then add an equal amount of white vinegar.
This should instantly trigger a chemical reaction. You will hear fizzing, sizzling sounds.
As the bubbles form and expand, they will dissolve much or all of the clog.
When the sounds of the chemical reaction stop, you should be able to flush the toilet like normal.
Again, if the only result is the toilet drains slowly, that is still progress. Simply increase how much vinegar and baking soda you put in, and let it sit even longer.
Snakes and augers: Clearing the toilet clog mechanically
A slightly messier option is to clear the clog manually with either a drain snake or an auger. While both of these plumbing tools clear the blockage in similar ways, there are a couple of differences.
Both a snake and an auger use a flexible metal cable that is inserted into the toilet drain in an attempt to dislodge an otherwise-immovable clog. You can either punch through the blockage or grab it and pull it out.
Although a snake can be used to clear a clogged toilet, it is not the best option. Snakes are smaller in diameter and are typically used on sinks, where the line is less than 2 inches. Augers, on the other hand, can clear pipes up to 3 inches in diameter – such as your toilet drain.
For best results when using an auger, remove the toilet completely and insert the cable directly into the drain pipe. When you feel resistance, that will tell you that you have reached the clog.
The snakes and augers that are suitable for most homeowner-level clogs are generally most effective for local clogs. If it is a deep clog that needs longer cables or a motorized feeder, that is a different level of obstruction that should only be tackled by an experienced professional.
Shop vacuums: Sucking doesn’t suck
Although it’s not the most elegant solution, using a powerful shop vac to suck the obstruction out of the pipe can work where other methods have failed.
After emptying the toilet bowl as much as possible, insert the vacuum’s suction hose as far into the toilet drain as possible. Then, wrap a heavy-duty plastic trash bag around the hose, taking extra care to not cover the end of the suction nozzle.
When you turn on the vacuum, the bag will collapse into the space between the hose and the toilet drain opening, creating an airtight seal that concentrates the suction.
You can leave this in place for several minutes, and it will suck out both liquid and solid matter into the vacuum’s tank.
(I, the writer, can personally vouch for the effectiveness of using a shop vac to unclog a severely-blocked toilet. Not only has this method removed many an obstruction, it even sucked out a television remote that one of my children said they had lost.)
The shop vac method works even better when you combine it with other unclogging tricks. For example, if you have already loosened the obstruction with dish detergent or baking soda and vinegar, the clog will come out even easier.
What about chemical drain openers?
No matter how tempted you are, never – repeat NEVER – use a chemical drain opener like Liquid Plumber or Drano on a clogged toilet.
These products contain caustic chemicals that can cause severe injuries, blindness, or even destroy your plumbing.
If none of these methods or combinations of methods open your stubborn clogged toilet, call a reputable local plumbing professional.