Flushing the toilet. It’s a trivial everyday action—until the day when the normal result isn’t seen, and the normal sound isn’t heard. The water from the tank spills into the bowl. . . but instead of spiralling down, it starts filling up. Anxiously, you watch as it approaches the lip… What to do?

Unblocking 101

Obviously, the toilet is blocked. You first need to make sure the obstruction is affecting only the toilet or its drainpipe. To check, turn on the tap in a nearby fixture (e.g., sink or bath). If the water drains away properly, then the toilet is the problem. You want to attack that problem using a toilet plunger: in most situations, you’ll succeed in dislodging whatever’s clogging the pipe.

Get the right plunger

The proper plunger for unblocking a toilet isn’t the reddish-brown “cup” type, which is best suited to sinks and washbasins. A toilet plunger is typically black, and has a flange that extends into the bowl’s exit hole, made of more flexible rubber to provide a better seal with the sides of the bowl. That seal is key to achieving enough suction to dislodge whatever it is that’s clogging the toilet.

How to proceed:

  • Lower the plunger into the toilet bowl (remove some water, if necessary, to avoid making a mess).
  • Centre the plunger with the flange in the exit hole and push down until a good seal has been made.
  • Pump vigorously several times, and then remove the plunger in a quick, clean motion.
  • If the bowl still doesn’t empty, repeat the above steps.

If the clog clears, push the flush handle to make sure everything is working properly again. All that remains is to thoroughly rinse the plunger.

Use a snake, if need be

If plunger action won’t clear the clog, you’ll need to use a drain auger (often called a plumbing snake). It consists of a flexible metal coil with a crank handle at one end. At the other end is a corkscrew-like attachment designed to dislodge the obstruction. You need to be careful using an auger, because the metal can scratch the toilet bowl’s porcelain finish.

How to clear a clog with an auger (plumbing snake):

  • Insert the corkscrew end into the toilet bowl exit hole and down into the drain.
  • Feed the snake down until you feel it come up against the obstruction, then turn the crank handle to break up the clog.
  • If this doesn’t work on the first try, repeat the operation.

After the water drains away, push the flush handle to make sure the toilet is working properly again. After doing its job, of course, the snake will need to be thoroughly cleaned.

Call in reinforcements: i.e., a plumber

Toilet still clogged despite your valiant efforts? Other popular unclogging methods (e.g., various products, pumps) probably won’t work either. At this point, the problem is best solved by a professional.

The plumber will start by trying tools like an auger to unclog the toilet. If the initial attempts fail, he or she will have to remove the toilet, and check whether a hard object (e.g., a child’s toy or hairbrush) is blocking the drain. Once the object is removed, the problem will be solved.

The issue could also be an obstruction in the drainpipe between the toilet and a larger collector line. This type of blockage usually occurs when not enough water is flowing into the bowl when you flush. This may be because there is not enough water in the toilet tank. In modern toilets, the water level should be one inch (2.5 cm) below the fill line (or overflow pipe). To increase the level, adjust the control screw on the water inlet valve, inside the tank.

If the clogged toilet is in the basement, the cause may be a low-flush toilet connected to a drainpipe with certain undesirable characteristics. Choosing a low-flush toilet is, of course, recommended as an environmentally friendly option. But if you install one in a basement where the drainpipe has an insufficient slope, or is made of old, rough cast iron, this could cause flushed materials to build up inside the pipe.

For more information, see our Tips & Tricks instalment on low-flush toilets.

Putting an end to clogs!

Often, prevention is the best cure! Follow this advice to keep clogs from happening in the future.

  • Don’t use toilet paper that is too thick, and don’t use too much paper at a time. Avoid toilet deodorant tablets, which can come loose from their mounts.
  • If your toilet clogs, you can avoid further problems by calling a professional immediately. If you notice slow-flowing water when you flush, you should do the same.

Our thanks to Steve Lenghan, President of Plomberie Fury, a CAA-Quebec Approved Supplier, for his contribution to this instalment of Tips & Tricks.