How to Plunge a Toilet the Right Way
Toilet clogs happen, and keeping the best tool for the job close at hand will rid your problem fast and prevent costly plumber visits. Guests will thank you too, even if they never mention it.
For expert advice on the right way to plunge a toilet, we spoke to plumber Toni Shala of Rite Plumbing and Heating in New York City; Jeffrey Kertanis, who works as a school plumber for the board of education in Vernon, Connecticut; and Doug Mahoney, senior staff writer at Wirecutter and author of our guide to the best toilet plunger.
For tougher clogs:
Ideally, no more than five or 10 minutes. One plumber told us that if plunging goes on any longer, it's time to try a toilet snake or call an expert.
All bottom-discharging toilets have an internal portion called a trap, which is a curved pathway in the outlet pipe that is designed to hold water and block sewer gasses from escaping up into your home. But those sharp turns can create a bit of a traffic-flow problem, particularly for solid items. Not surprisingly, this is where most toilet clogs occur.
If the water is rising in the toilet after you’ve flushed, quickly turn off the water to the toilet itself to prevent a mess: Just lift the lid of the tank and pull the float up, or give a clockwise turn to the angle valve by the floor.
Plungers designed for toilets look distinctly different from the half-cup style of a sink and tub plunger. Toilet plungers have a narrow flange on the end that helps secure a tighter fit around the bottom of the bowl.
In our guide to the best toilet plunger, Doug built a transparent toilet-drain mock-up and jammed a foam ball down the trap to simulate a clogged pipe. No plunger outperformed the Korky 99-4A Max Performance Plunger.
The Korky plunger's distinctive T-handle grip naturally aligns your arm as you plunge, making it easier to use a powerful stroke with less wrist strain than you’d get with a typical straight handle. The Korky plunger was able to move the foam ball down the pipe at a rate of 2 to 3 inches per plunge. None of the other plungers could even budge it. You can read more about Doug's testing process in his guide, but suffice to say the Korky 99-4A Max Performance Plunger is the one we want on hand in an emergency.
Korky makes a version that comes with a stand designed to hold the plunger, but Doug found that the MAXClean Universal Plunger Holder Drip Tray is a better fit and easier to clean.
A plunger may seem like a fairly intuitive tool to use, but there's a process that makes the job much more effective.
First, fill the plunger cup with water before you start plunging, because you want to use water pressure to dislodge the clog. If the cup is filled with air, your first thrust will likely result in a blast of air pressing out of the sides of the cup, causing messy splash-back.
Tipping the plunger on its side as you lower it in the water should fill it, for the most part. If possible, do a gentle first plunge to help remove any remaining air out of the cup and bring in more water. This motion offers the added benefit of trying to pull the blockage up toward the bowl, instead of further down the pipe, which many experts say is the best technique.
Whether you should plunge vertically or at an angle depends on the shape of your toilet drain. You might see conflicting advice online, but in Doug's tests, certain toilets required that he shifted the plunger around a little to get a tight seal. Sometimes plunging worked when he held the handle vertically, other times an angle provided successful results.
Lastly, start slow and add force as needed. Several gentle pumps will usually work better than a couple of hard pushes. If your clog is going to come out, it should happen in less than 10 minutes. If not, it's time to move on to a snake or call a plumber.
A toilet snake, sometimes called a toilet auger, pushes and pulls the obstruction instead of relying strictly on water pressure. These tools can handle tasks that plungers can't, such as a wedged toy. The downside is that they can be awkward to use and difficult to clean, so they’re impractical for most people, but they’re the preferred tool for pro plumbers. If you decide to try a snake yourself, we recommend the Ridgid 59787 3-foot Toilet Auger. It has oversize handles on both the sleeve and the wand, making it easy to hold and maneuver.
Augers are large and difficult to store, but you can also usually rent one from your local home-improvement or hardware store. Shala warned us that it's best to have watched someone use a toilet snake before trying it yourself, because it's easy to angle it wrong and cause unsightly scratches to the bowl of your toilet. "Then you have to replace the whole toilet because it's going to look disgusting," he said.
First, retract the snake all the way inside its tube so that the barbed tip is touching the curved plastic bowl guard. Hold the snake vertically and insert the tip carefully into the bowl so that the metal tip doesn't scratch the porcelain (remember, it's very easy to scratch the porcelain). Then use the handle to push the auger into the toilet outlet and crank it to work the end around the curves of the trap. You can also use a back and forth motion, hopefully releasing your clog. (This video shows our pick in use.) If nothing has happened after around 10 minutes of snaking, it's time to throw in the towel and call an expert.
If a plunger did the trick, finish with a cleansing flush to rinse it off. Then you can put a bit of bleach in the toilet bowl and swirl the plunger around to disinfect. If your sewage empties into a septic tank, consider using an oxygen bleach like OxiClean instead, or spray the plunger with a disinfectant after you’ve rinsed. You could also let the plunger air-dry in its stand first and then use a spray disinfectant.
Augers are a bit more complicated. Since they’re so long when extended, your best bet is a hose and a patch of lawn. Once the auger is clean and dry, storing it is a challenge, but if you have a garage or shed, we’ve gotten by with just shoving the whole rig in a garbage bag and hanging it on a nail.
Shala said that a common clogging culprit he sees on the job (perhaps not surprisingly) is perfume caps that have fallen into the bowl and gotten wedged. They don't come out with a plunger or a snake, and his team ends up having to uninstall the entire toilet in order to retrieve them. Jeffrey Kertanis sometimes works in schools and said he encounters apple slices and children's toys.
Aside from kids purposely shoving things down the commode (one Wirecutter editor once had to fish a lemon out that his son had wedged in), blunders are inevitable. One simple tip—keeping your toilet's lid down whenever it's not in use—can prevent a lot of stress and wasted time when it comes to non-biological obstructions. And if you have young children, consider a toilet lock.
This article was edited by Harry Sawyers, Brittney Ho, and Sofia Sokolove.
Ellen Airhart is an associate writer at Wirecutter, where she covers cleaning and emergency preparedness. Please email her with your biggest messes and most anxious thoughts.
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