A blocked toilet is a nightmare, literally. And for some reason it often seems to happen when guests are on their way, when the Estate Agent is heading over with some possible buyers, or when we’re just heading out in our best clothes for a special evening.
How to unblock a badly blocked toilet: protect, prepare, plan!
It’s so easy to panic when a toilet is blocked, but taking a few moments to protect, prepare and plan can save a lot of problems down the line.
- Protect the surroundings – don’t use your best towels to soak up toilet water, and don’t try to sop up any overspill with toilet paper. Instead, use old towels or old sheets or newspapers to soak up spills and protect the bathroom floor. Protect yourself with rubber gloves and wear old clothes.
- Prepare to unblock – start by opening the bathroom windows or switching on extractor fans to remove any unpleasant smells. Put a bucket nearby to dispose of any material blocking the toilet that you need to extract rather than pushing down the toilet, such as wads of toilet paper, or substantial objects that have been dropped into the bowl.
- Plan – ask if anybody has dropped or put anything in the toilet – you’d be amazed how many three-year-olds have put strange items in the toilet ‘to see what happens’. Then collect your tools and supplies.
Tools and supplies to unblock your toilet
Apart from what we’ve already listed, you may need:
- A plunger (see tips below on choosing the right plunger)
- Plumber’s snake or coat hanger (you may need two coat hangers to unblock your toilet)
- Wet and dry vacuum cleaner
- Baking soda and vinegar.
Before you unblock a toilet, make sure it won’t overflow
Before you start unblocking, it’s important to ensure the toilet won’t overflow. There should be a shutoff valve in the pipe coming out of the wall behind the toilet.
- Turn it clockwise gently but don’t try to shove or over-tighten it. If it doesn’t want to move, often because you live in a hard water area, spray a little penetrating oil on the valve to loosen it.
- If you have an older toilet you’ll need to deal with the float as you won’t have a valve. Take the lid from the toilet tank – the float is the thing that looks like a ball that sinks down when the water level drops and triggers a reaction that opens the water valve to refill the tank.
- Use a coat hanger or piece of wood to keep the float upright so the tank can’t keep refilling when flushed.
Before moving onto more extensive measures, take a good look in the toilet bowl to see if any kind of obstruction can be seen. You can also used your well-gloved hands to feel around inside the bowl and up the U bend to see if you can find anything causing the blockage. If you can remove it, do so, putting it in the bucket. If you can feel an obstruction but can’t remove it, move on to using the plumbers snake or coat hanger.
How to unblock a toilet using a plunger
If you haven’t found an obstruction that you can remove manually, it’s time to try moving onto a rubber plunger. While this is often the simplest way to unblock a toilet, it can often be ineffective simply because you’re trying to use a sink plunger to unblock a toilet! Toilet plungers have a fold out flange that folds up into the plunger cup when not in use – plungers without this flange are for sinks. The flange creates a secure seal, which speeds up the process, by completely covering the hole. A toilet plunger should also be completely submerged in water to work, so if the toilet isn’t full of water, you may need to add some using the bath, or sink, and your handy bucket.
Place the plunger under the water, completely covering the pipe. Slowly and firmly push down to create a seal, then pull up to create a vacuum to dislodge the blockage. Repeat this activity, increasing the speed with which you work, and expect to continue for at least 15 minutes. With any luck you will find that the water drains and the blockage is either sucked out or dissipated. If the toilet drains but the blockage doesn’t go away, fill the toilet with more water, back to its standard level, and then start plunging again. Stubborn clogs, especially those composed of hair and/or moist toilet wipes, can require several rounds of plunging.
Toilet plunger tips 1
You can soak a toilet plunger in hot water for five minutes before use to soften it, which means it makes a better seal and will tend to perform more effectively. Your bucket and ordinary hot tap water are perfectly adequate to soften the plunger.
Toilet plunger tips 2
Once you’ve used your plunger, obviously you have to clean it. The easy way is to wash it off in the toilet while flushing the toilet a few times. This also serves to keep any blockage moving away from your property into the mains drainage which has a bigger bore. To disinfect a plunger that’s been in contact with nasty stuff, pour household bleach and washing liquid into the toilet bowl, put the plunger head in the mixture and swirl around for a few minutes then rinse as above, using the toilet flush.
No plunger to unblock your toilet? Use a wire coat hanger
This is why we suggested you might need two wire coat hangers – one for the ballcock if you have an old-fashioned toilet and one to serve as a plumber’s snake. This is useful if you know there’s an actual, tangible obstruction in the toilet pipe but you can’t reach it with your hands. Straighten out the coat hanger and fold it in two. If you want, you can tape an old rag to the end that you’re going to insert into the toilet pipe. Make sure that you’ve taped it securely – you don’t want to add to your problems by losing a piece of rag in an already blocked toilet. Push the straightened hanger down into the toilet pipe and wiggle it around to clear, or cut through, any blockages. You may find you come up against a solid obstruction in which case you can try pushing against it until the water flows freely again. If you use the coat hanger method and can’t find a blockage, you will need to move into using a chemical drain cleaner.
Or you can use a wet/dry vacuum cleaner
If you have an old wet/dry vacuum cleaner you can use it to try to unblock a toilet, but we don’t recommend doing this will brand new and/or much prized household equipment – you really don’t know what you’re going to suck up and it could mean you’re never happy to use that particular vacuum cleaner again.
Begin by putting the vacuum cleaner nozzle into the bowl to suck out any remaining water. Once that is done, turn off the vacuum and push the nozzle gently a few inches into the toilet bowl and down the pipe. Use an old towel to block the gap between the nozzle and the edges of the pipe, creating a vacuum. Turn the vacuum on and, with any luck, it will simply pull the blockage out of the toilet.
How to unblock a slow-draining toilet
If you’re confident it’s not a hard object (like a child’s toy or a phone, which are common toilet blockers according to emergency plumbers!) you can try using ordinary household items to create a home-made drain cleaner to unblock the toilet.
Pour a mug of baking soda and two mugs of ordinary vinegar into the toilet bowl. Stand back while doing this, and ensure you have good ventilation as the chemical reaction will fizz ferociously and can make your eyes water and your nose run. Where possible leave overnight to dissolve any organic blockage. Next morning, fill your kettle and boil it until you have three litres of hot water. Pour into the bucket and aside for five minutes to cool somewhat, then pick up the bucket of hot water, very carefully, and pour from waist height into the toilet bowl. Adding the water from a height can create enough pressure to push down an already loosened obstruction.
In an emergency, if you don’t have baking soda or vinegar, you can try using hot water and shampoo. Simply pour a good half bottle of shampoo into the toilet bowl and then add the hot water from waist height. Leave overnight or as long as possible and – again with luck – you’ll find you have an unblocked toilet. Alternatively, you can purchase a commercial drain cleaner, but remember these are very harsh chemicals so use exactly as suggested.
And if you’re wondering how to unblock a toilet full of poo – this is the best approach to take. The alternative is the plunger route, but this also requires you to remove the offending material and put it in a bin bag so that you can dispose of it. That’s got to be a last-case scenario when all else has failed.