Plungers, an Introduction

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Heather says:

This won’t be the world’s most glamorous post on Home Ec 101, but real life is hardly as exciting as we wish.

Into every homeowner’s life a little aggravation will fall. Sometimes that aggravation occurs in the form of a plugged drain. That clog can occur in almost any plumbing fixture: toilet, tub, sink, or shower.

Have you ever noticed as adults there are many things we’re just supposed to magically know? Filed under that heading is the fact that there are actually two kinds of plungers.

Sink plungers and toilet plungers both operate on the same principle, when compressed the bell forces water or water and air into the drain, hopefully creating enough pressure to move a clog along. Even renters should have both kinds of plungers on hand. You could call your landlord and wait for him to get around to fixing the problem or you could take just a few minutes and get back to normal life, without the clogged toilet.

Knowing how to plunge a toilet can also make a certain social situation significantly less awkward. Have you ever been at a friend’s house or gone to a party and been the unlucky person to discover the clogged toilet AFTER you’ve done your business? That’s a little slice of fun, isn’t it? It’s much less humiliating to ask to borrow a plunger than it is to have to have the friend take care of the matter. Whatever you do, don’t be the jerk that just quietly abandons the clogged toilet for the next person to find.

How to plunge a toilet.

The plunger on the left is a toilet plunger and should only be used for plunging clogged toilets. Note that the toilet plunger features a cup at the base of the bell.

When a toilet has a minor clog, a plunger is the first choice. Fit the cup into the bottom of the toilet bowl. The cup’s job is to force the pressure into the trap, which is where most clogs occur. The trap is the bend in the pipe that keeps water in the bowl, but sometimes the pressure of a flush isn’t enough to move everything along. When the cup is seated as securely as possible into the bottom of the toilet, press down hard, the goal is to try to create a seal -don’t splash- and compress the bell of the plunger. Depending on the rigidity of the rubber, you may have to use a little strength here. This may take a few tries, but the force should be enough to break up any clogs caused by excess toilet paper and those supposedly flushable, but really aren’t a good idea to actually flush, feminine hygiene products.

If you can’t clear the clog in a few minutes of plunging, a plunger will not solve your toilet clog. If the clog doesn’t budge, you may need to break out the big guns of clog removal, a plumbing snake.

How to plunge a clogged sink.

If your clog occurs in a kitchen sink, your best bet is the plunger on the right. The flat bottom is designed to fit over the entire drain. If you have a double sink, you need to block the drain of the other side with a stopper or rag, held securely in place.  Additionally, if you have a dishwasher, you’ll have to clamp the dishwasher drain hose.


Both of these are routes for the pressure to be released. Without adequate pressure, you aren’t going to move a simple clog along. (Difficult clogs won’t budge even with significant pressure).

Once the escapes have been blocked, place the plunger over the drain. Get as good of a seal as possible and then compress the bell. It may take several plunges, but the pressure is typically enough to break up clogs caused by too much organic matter in the trap of the pipe. Once the water flows, run plenty of hot water through to move any straggling bits along.

If you can’t clear the clog within a few minutes. You may want to try dismantling the J or trap beneath the sink. (That post is coming in the near future).

How to plunge a tub.

Just like when preparing to plunge a sink there an escape path to take into consideration, this time it’s the overflow drain. The overflow drain is usually behind a metal plate above the drain / below the faucet. Unscrew this plate and then cover the hole behind it securely before plunging. Then proceed to plunge just as you would with a clogged sink.

*NOTE* If you used a chemical drain product before reaching for the plunger, you MUST wear eye protection and gloves. Chemical drain cleaners are extremely caustic and can cause blindness. Make sure they are stored properly.

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15 thoughts on “Plungers, an Introduction”

  1. I just had an impossible toilet clog earlier this week, someone flushed multiple papertowels. It literally took 2 hrs of plunging, to no avail. Then I read to put a 1/4 cup liquid dish soap and some boiling water in the bowl. I did this, waited about 5-10 minutes, plunged once, and the clog was gone! A miracle!

  2. A technique I use for clearing a toilet clog is to place the plunger in the bowl and before making the firm seal of the cup SLOWLY press down to release some of the air trapped in the plunger. Then slowly bring the plunger handle back toward me which allows some of the water to be drawn into the plunger. At that point I make sure to position the plunger cup for a proper seal.

    Next (slowly at first then getting somewhat faster) work the plunger back and forth in an up/down motion. This action creates an alternating lift/compress action to the water in the trap which is usually enough to dislodge the clog. During this process you will feel resistance in the plunger handle and notice a change when the clog has released.

    It is important to have enough water in the bowl to cover the plunger or at least an inch or so above the point of contact with the cup seal. This normally is not a problem since most of the time the water level is high or almost overflowing (hence the need for this entire exercise).

    Once the clog has cleared, I like to do a couple of extra flushes to ensure that everything is back to normal. Today's modern toilets are designed to be water efficient but the downside is reduced water flow in the drain line. In older homes that have cast iron drain line as opposed to the current PVC (plastic) pipe this sometimes leads to a clog that develops over time. From time to time I will fill a bucket with water (2.5 gallons or more) and pour it in the toilet to provide a "good flush".

  3. Very good timing with this plunging topic. I had to plunge the toilet the other day and then wondered to myself what is the best way to store/clean the plunger after use? Anyone have an answer to this, one that isn't totally disgusting? Same question goes for the toilet brush for cleaning? I have my ways, but I doubt they're the best.

  4. Another tip – after just paying a plumber $80 to dislodge the Nutcracker ornament my 3 year old flushed to heaven – he used a toilet auger, a snake which he said can be purchased at Home Depot for abotu $50. In our home, definitely worth the investment.
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  5. An additional tip:
    Putting a little dishwashing liquid around the rim of the plunger before using it helps create a better seal.

  6. Now if only I could deal with our “ever-clogging” toilets without having to spend the money to replace them. We moved into our home 1.5 years ago and the previous owner was a contractor. I’m sure he used left-over builder grade toilets in all the bathrooms (we’ve found that to be with other things in the house that he “upgraded” and were done with cheap materials. Anyway the toilets are horrible and clog with minimal amount of waste in the toilet. I swear a rabbit could go in there and it would clog up. We are plunging the toilets almost daily, they are just horrible. And it takes forever to unclog. I have even used the recommended technique above with the dish soap and boiling water and it didn’t help at all. Having to replace all the toilets in our house is an expense we don’t want to deal with right now, but it has to be done soon. Lesson? Don’t buy cheap toilets. I really don’t know what causes this issue other than the toilets themselves. The water pressure in our house is fine and the water level in the toilet seems adequate too.

    • I just replaced all of our toilets with Toto Drake toilets. The cost of the toilet is $380 but it’s worth it as I was plunging the toilets a couple times a week.


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