If there’s one thing you should be able to count on, it’s that the toilet should flush properly when you need it to. But life isn’t fair, toilets clog, and to make matters worse -- they can overflow.
Preventing raw sewage from spilling over onto your bathroom floor can be failsafe, but only if you know what to do and have the proper tools at arm’s reach. If your toilet is prone to clogs -- or if you just want to be prepared for the worst -- this emergency protocol is critical.
Stop It at the Source
No matter the cause, if a toilet is overflowing, the most urgent action is to stop the flow of water into the bowl. In many bathrooms, the best place to do this is at the toilet’s main shutoff valve.
You can probably see a water line leading from your bathroom wall to the toilet, as well as a hand-crank valve somewhere along that line. If you don’t see this hardware, it’s possible that your toilet’s valve is hidden behind wall or floor tiles, in which case you should talk to a plumber about modifications to provide this access. Short of shutting off the main valve to your home, the toilet valve is the only way to fully stop the flow of water!
Closing the valve when an overflow is imminent will stop the bowl from filling and grant all the time you need to clear the clog. But besides accessing it, actually turning the valve can be challenging when it matters most. Since this valve usually stays open, often for years, it can be sticky -- and may even rust in an open position.
Be proactive and give your toilet valve a few turns back and forth today. If it’s stubborn, spray it with a little lubricant until it turns freely. Going forward, close and reopen the valve every time you clean your bathroom. It only takes a couple of seconds, and it will help make sure you can close the valve in an emergency.
The Backup Plan
If your toilet is actively overflowing and you can’t get the shutoff valve to budge, your next stop should be the inside of the toilet tank. Carefully remove the lid and set it aside.
The first part to check is the flapper -- usually a hinged rubber disc covering a hole at the bottom of the tank. If the flapper is open, reach in and close it manually. This should stop the flow of water.
If the flapper is not open, or if it won’t stay closed manually, find the float ball. This is the component that floats on the surface of the water and stops the tank from filling at a certain level. If you manually lift the float ball to the top of the tank, the water will shut off.
This is can create a precarious predicament if no one is home to help you. If lowering the float ball causes water to continue flowing into the bowl, you may need to prop the float ball up or hold it in place while you fight with the shutoff valve with your spare hand.
Get Things Flowing
Once the overflow has been prevented, the final step is to clear the clog. If you have a toilet plunger, preferably one with a toilet flange, that should be your go-to tool. If you don’t have one, pick one up today -- a clogged toilet is more a matter of “when” than “if”.
And for clogs that you just can’t clear, or for any other plumbing emergencies, the most failsafe option of all is to contact a licensed, local plumber.