Inadvertently clogging the toilet -- or discovering too late that it’s already clogged -- is one of the more embarrassing plumbing mishaps. And it can also be a tricky one to address because there are so many potential causes.
The good news is that most toilet clogs can be avoided altogether with an ounce of prevention, and many more can be cleared up with just a minute or two of vigorous plunging. But for those other, more difficult causes, you may need to call upon your local plumbing pro.
Here are a few of the most common reasons why your toilet might be clogged:
You Flushed the Wrong Stuff
The toilet is for disposing of human waste and toilet paper -- and that’s it. You’re taking a risk whenever you flush anything outside of those parameters, like tissues, cotton balls, cotton swabs, dental floss, feminine products or diapers. If these things get caught somewhere in the drain line, they won’t break down and move on like toilet paper can. So resist the urge to flush anything else, and if you have children in the home who might be tempted, be sure to talk to them about what’s flushable.
A Jam in the Trap
All drain pipes have something called a trap -- a u-shaped bend in the pipe that remains filled with water. That water acts as an important barrier against foul odors that might otherwise waft into a home from the sewer line. Your toilet’s trap is great at getting this job done, but unfortunately, that bend in the pipe also makes a good place for a clog to develop. Even if you’ve been careful about what you flush, something like using too much toilet paper can create a clog there.
If you take the lid off your toilet tank, you should see a round rubber gasket at the bottom. This is the flapper, and it opens during flushing to allow the water in the tank to flush down into the bowl. If the flapper doesn’t open fully, you may get a weak flush, which can cause clogs by failing to push the contents of the bowl far enough down the drain pipe. This is easy to fix -- the flapper is usually attached to the flush arm with an adjustable chain, so move the chain a few links to shorten it and try a test flush.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Water-conscious homeowners have been buying low-flow toilets for years, but the early versions weren’t as powerful as the ones you can buy today. And just as with the flapper example above, the first low-flow toilets may not always flush hard enough to push the contents through. If you’re consistently having trouble with one of these models, it may be time to consider an upgrade.
Hit the Roof
When your toilet won’t flush, it’s possible that the clog isn’t in the drain pipe, but in the toilet’s vent. Plumbing fixtures typically vent to a home’s roof to allow fresh air into the plumbing system, where it replaces the vacuum of air created when water drains. When this vent becomes clogged with leaves or debris, it can cause slow, gurgling or stopped drains, even in the toilet. This job is best handled by a professional, because the vent will need to be cleared out from the rooftop opening.
Down the Line
If the source of the problem isn’t in the toilet, the drain pipe or the vent, it must be in the sewer line. This is often a worst-case scenario if a problem occurs in a section of sewer pipe located under private property, because it often involves digging up the yard and racking up several hours of labor. Sewer line problems aren’t always caused by what’s flowing through the pipes; tree roots can put pressure on these lines over time, leading to a break. To find out what’s going on in the sewer line, request a camera inspection from your local plumber.
A toilet clog isn’t the end of the world, but if you don’t know the cause or can’t clear it on your own, help is only a phone call away at your local Benjamin Franklin.