Fixing Your Toilet: 4 Do-it-Yourself Strategies to Spare the Cost of a Plumber

If only “toilet troubles” were solely the province of classic television or movie comedies! Many of us recall chuckling at the sound of Archie Bunker’s trademark “flush,” not to mention Al Bundy brandishing his reliable, red-rubber plunger on Married… with Children. And (for all you movie-trivia buffs) can you identify the “foreign” character who became comically confused when the telephone coincidentally rang just as he’d pressed the toilet handle (in the 1984 flick All of Me)?

Unfortunately, for the real-world homeowner there’s nothing funny about a troublesome toilet, especially when it totally clogs at the most inopportune moment. Even if you’re an experienced handyman, that situation’s at least mildly vexing. But if your home-maintenance knowledge is meager; and if your “emergency” budget is already depleted (perchance from such outlandish stuff as fueling your car or heating your house), a stubbornly clogged toilet is almost enough to send you over the proverbial edge, especially when you contemplate how much some “blankety-blank” plumber “took” you for the last time he crossed your threshold.

But have you really tried every possible “amateur” means of unclogging that toilet? Before I did some serious Googling, I’d ignorantly assumed that using either a plunger or an auger would generally be the best method to try first. But then I tried a third “quick-and-easy” approach which actually seemed to work much better for a recent, unusually stubborn clog. [See “Strategy #3” below.]

What follows is my own informal, rambling “checklist” of strategies for the utterly unskilled homeowner to consider for unclogging a toilet.

Strategy #1. First, of course, there’s the aforementioned rubber plunger. But if yours is merely a “sink” plunger (traditionally red and shaped like a simple suction cup), consider replacing it with a veritable “toilet” plunger, which is traditionally black and has an important “flange” providing a superior “seal” in the bottom of a toilet bowl. Actually, given that that “flange” is collapsible or retractable, a so-called “toilet” plunger can function about equally well for sinks. Therefore, it’s not absolutely necessary to own a “sink-style” plunger like the one that ol’ Al Bundy comically brandished. [See the following Wikipedia page for a photo of both types of plungers:]

Although I myself have generally had my best luck by plunging forcefully downward up to about 24 times, it’s important to note that some authorities advise that it’s at least as much the “upward” motion (as the “downward”) that helps to dislodge the clog. In fact, reportedly too much (or too forceful) “downward-motion” plunging can potentially worsen the situation by forcing the clog downward even farther and tighter. What’s more, reportedly, way too much (or way too forceful) plunging could eventually weaken important seals and cause leaking around the bottom of your toilet, etc. Therefore, I’d advise you to think twice about simply continuing to plunge your toilet if it hasn’t worked after many, many repeated attempts. In such cases, it just might be time to proceed to trying “strategy number two”.

Strategy #2. If mere plunging doesn’t avail, using a “toilet auger” might. [IMPORTANT: Lest you seriously scratch or damage your toilet, don’t try using just any old “drain auger” or “plumber’s snake”. You’ll need the type that’s specifically designed for flush toilets (sometimes still called “water closets”). These handy, reusable tools are available for perhaps seven or eight dollars at Lowe’s or Home Depot (if not Wal-Mart). Review the “Auger Varieties” section of the following Wikipedia article:]

Note that they’re fashioned to feed a rather short, highly flexible, snakelike metal auger through a modest length of hard, “J-shaped” tubing or sheathing. A plastic “boot” on the auger’s bottom end is designed to protect your toilet’s visible porcelain finish from getting scratched. Assuming that your toilet’s clog is merely within the bowl’s built-in trap, a toilet auger’s relatively short length of snakelike cable is generally sufficient to reach and dislodge or penetrate the clog.

Follow the few-and-simple instructions (that accompany such an auger) carefully. Note that you should turn the upper “handle” or “crank” clockwise, not counterclockwise. The first time you try using one of these gizmos, you might initially find it well nigh impossible (and frustrating) to actually get the auger to snake “downward then upward and then downward again” through the “S-shaped” curves hidden within your toilet bowl. As you position the “J-shaped” tubing above the toilet bowl, you might have to slightly vary its (forward or backward) angle relative to the bowl. In any case, don’t let yourself become unduly impatient such that you end up trying to force things too much. Yes, you might have to apply more than a little force to get that “snake” to go all the way through the aforementioned S-shaped curve; but this is a situation where patience is just as important as persistence.

Eventually you should succeed in feeding the entire length of the auger into your toilet bowl’s interior. At that point, continue following your auger’s accompanying instructions, especially regarding removing the augur (i.e., pulling it upward and out of the toilet).

Unfortunately, even the generally effective toilet auger can’t solve all toilet-clog problems. Some clogs are somewhat (or well) beyond its limited reach.

Strategy #3: “Dish detergent plus hot water plus time”.

Repeated Googling led me to numerous suggested methods for “unclogging toilets”; but the below method–which initially had seemed too simplistic to be powerfully effective–surprised me insofar as it recently conquered an unusually stubborn clog that the above #1 and #2 strategies couldn’t vanquish. In other words, after repeatedly and forcefully plunging; and after subsequently using a conventional “toilet auger”, I tried the below approach; and after nearly 48 hours, the toilet had fully returned to its normal, functional condition!

Here’s what I did:

First, I grabbed a squeeze bottle of typical liquid “dish detergent” (Ajax brand, albeit other brands likely could’ve worked just as well), and I put two full squirts into the toilet bowl. I immediately poured one full pot (i.e., about half a bucket) of very hot water [but absolutely NOT boiling or scalding water, lest you damage important interior seals] from waist level into the toilet bowl. I let that sit for several minutes, and then I flushed the toilet once. (If necessary, do a bit more plunging to force the soapy, hot water downward till the bowl is empty.) Then I repeated this procedure two or three more times at intervals over then next 24 hours. I finally just let everything alone for an additional 24-hour period (to let the diluted dish detergent work further on the clog).

Reportedly, such dish detergent will dissolve most excrement and paper (albeit I doubt it would have much effect on hair), especially if it’s followed by the above-described pouring of hot water into the bowl.

In some cases, this approach might not take so long to work. However, in my case it did require nearly two days before the clog had “magically disappeared”. Therefore, it was fortunate that my house has two other toilets I could use in the meantime. For anyone who only has access to one toilet, this strategy might not deliver results soon enough to be feasible.

Strategy #4.


There are at least two general categories of such products. The first category commonly employ some sort of harsh chemical, such as sulfuric acid, to dissolve the clog. The other category involves “enzymatic” or “bacterial” action to dissolve organic matter and toilet paper (however, according to the directions on the bottle, enzymatic/bacterial products are only effective for “partially clogged” or “slow” toilets, not “totally clogged” toilets that must first be “plunged” or “augured” to allow the enzymes/bacteria to reach the clog).

Based on what I’ve read, I’d think twice about using the first (“chemical”) category of product. Some authorities report that such products are either ineffective or potentially damaging to toilets.

Therefore, I’d feel much more comfortable trying, instead, the “enzymatic/bacterial” category. In fact, I did recently try one such product [Enforcer (brand) “Overnite Toilet Care”], which didn’t appear to cause any harm to my toilet and which might have (at least very slightly) improved the effectiveness of each flush. But I’m still somewhat skeptical and uncertain regarding the exact degree of effectiveness that such “enzymatic” products can provide for (virtually) clogged toilets. For I dropped a single square of toilet paper into my toilet tank the other night; there was already a visible amount of dissolved “enzymatic” product in the bowl. After about eight hours, the TP was still intact, alas. Moreover, at about 16 bucks per bottle, that product isn’t exactly cheap. But it or competing products are worth trying.

If none of the above “strategies” avail, you might have a clog located at some point beyond the reach of any of the aforementioned approaches. This would especially seem possible in those situations where not only the toilet but also the adjacent sink and shower/tub are all clogged or slow. It might then be time to go ahead and call the most reasonably priced–yet experienced and reliable–plumber that you can find. Perhaps ask neighbors and friends for recommendations. But in my experience, the phrases “reasonably priced” and “experienced plumber” generally don’t belong in the same sentence. 😉

P.S.: If your toilet is continually prone to slow or imperfect flushing, you might want to hold a small mirror at an angle beneath the toilet’s rims. If visual inspection reveals significant clogging of any of those little water-inlet holes, it could pay you to do some Googling regarding how to improve the situation.

Furthermore, it’s possible that your particular toilet never was designed to provide an extremely strong flush, in which case the aforementioned Al Bundy would surely suggest replacing it with the heaviest-duty, supercharged model available! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 + = eleven