How to Unclog a Toilet

A toilet in a modern bathroom.

Everyone knows that feeling of panic watching the water in a clogged toilet slowly start to rise, inching its way up to the brim. It can happen to anyone at any time, as drains become clogged for different reasons, and may even be the result of buildup over time. Sure, that Lego piece that was thrown in without you knowing could be the culprit, but rather than wasting time on finding who to blame, take charge against messy overflow with these simple ways to unclog a toilet.

Step 1 – Turn Off the Water

This is the easiest way to stop the bowl from filling up so you can determine the best way to get at the clog. Most toilets will have a shut-off valve close by, usually on the wall behind the toilet on the same side as the handle, near the floor. Turn this football-shaped knob to the right like you would with any tap to stop water flow and voilá!—you’ve successfully prevented a water massacre without having to shut off the water to the whole house (or to other water sources in the bathroom). If there is no shut-off valve or it looks too corroded to safely turn, remove the tank lid and close the rubber seal called the “flapper.” This will seal over the hole at the bottom and prevent any flow of water into the bowl.

Step 2 – Be Patient

Gravity can work its magic on a stubborn clog. A bowl full of water will eventually place a certain amount of pressure on an obstruction if it’s not too serious. For instance, clumped toilet paper or other organic material can break down by itself over time. This may take a while, but, depending on how patient you are, you can try adding hot water (never boiling as it may crack the porcelain!) and a decent amount of dish soap to help the process along. Some also claim that one cup each of vinegar and baking soda will stimulate a clog to dissipate. These are tricks you can try if you don’t have a plunger around—but seriously, you should probably invest in a plunger!

Step 3 – Plunge Away!

Most clogs will disappear after a good plunge. Plungers are handy to have somewhere in the bathroom, either hidden away underneath the sink vanity or kept behind the toilet. Place the rubber mouth of the plunger over the drain hole inside the bowl and remember to be gentle with the first push as the rubber gasket will still have air in it and may spray up at you with too strong of a push. On the second and third pushes you can be more aggressive, and this is usually when you start to hear a sucking sound and can tell that things are moving. If nothing happens after a series of plunges with breaks in between, it may be time to move on.

Step 4 – Use a Snake

Much like the serpent they are named after, a drain snake will slither its way down the drain to physically get at a stubborn clog either pushing it forward or breaking up debris. They are usually fairly thin, making them easy to twist and turn, and are particularly good at either pulling up mats of hair or breaking up sticky particles that aren’t reacting to gravity’s force. Be careful when using a metal snake as they can scratch porcelain; I suggest using a plastic one instead and applying a firm but gentle amount of pressure to the clog only in the part of the drain you can’t see.

Step 5 – Try a Toilet or Closet Auger

The toilet auger is a handy tool to invest in and basic models will cost the same as a plastic snake or plunger. The curved design of this device is meant specifically for toilets and works to dislodge the demon in your drain as you rotate and extend the flexible cable by hand crank. It is a strong and safe way to clear a clog and will not scratch porcelain.

Step 6 – Liquid Drain Products

Liquid drain removers are available at most hardware stores, but I suggest for environmental and budget-friendly reasons to try the other steps first. While one bottle usually costs less than 10 dollars, if you experience more than two clogs, then purchasing a plunger, snake, or auger is already more cost-effective in the long-run. Additionally, while some products are phosphate-free and claim to be safe for pipes and septic systems, it’s better to keep chemicals out of water systems. If you are in a desperate situation, by no means should you ever consider using regular drain remover meant for sinks, for example, as these will definitely cause issues and possibly permanent damage to the pipes used in your toilet.

A stubborn toilet clog is something everyone will experience from time to time. Make sure others in your household know where the plunger, auger, or snake is stored and, most importantly, show them how to turn off the water supply to the toilet to save everyone from a potential bathroom disaster. Being prepared with the right tools for the job will help you undo the damage with confidence.