Monday, January 31, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: clogged toilets and the economies of doing it yourself

What's this?  No philosophical wanderings?

Not this time.  This is where I spend a fair amount of my time: staring down into the business end of a toilet.  Urinals get some time too, but by their nature aren't as susceptible to this kind of problem.  Not immune, and more on them later.

So: the loo.  The John, the can, the crapper, the head.  Many names.  Right now what you're calling it is "That #$%^$# thing is stopped up again!"  First thing you need to do right now is STOP FLUSHING.  If the clog shifts and blocks things up entirely, suddenly where you simply had a bowl that filled and slowly emptied, you now have a bowl that fills, and overflows onto the floor.

That's icky.

Some will tell you that you need to know what's down there.  Well, don't you believe it.  For one thing, if it's a toilet in your home you can be pretty sure of what's down there, unless there's a small child in your home.  More on that later, too.

If it's the typical, ahem, organic clog then you can break out the plunger with some confidence.  Poo isn't especially robust, physically.  The plunger's action forces water back and forth with more velocity than just flushing can deliver, and more pressure.  If the blockage is complete, flushing just fills the bowl, sometimes with disastrous nasty results.  But for the plunger to work, you need some water in the bowl.  The water is what the plunger pushes on top of the clog in an effort to make it move.

To use the plunger properly, put the rubber head down into the water, tip the handle to one side to let as much air out as possible.  Try not to get splashed because that's, you know, gross.  Seat the plunger's head at the bowl outlet, and compress it fully.  Don't be afraid to lean your weight on the plunger, the toilet is designed to support you when you're sitting on it.  It can take quite a lot.  This will squeeze the last of the air out of the plunger - more splashing.  Be ready for it.  Let the plunger back up gently, so its head completely fills with water from inside the bowl.

Now give it a firmer thrust, straight down.  Seat the head firmly to prevent losing the pressure you develop, and PUSH.  Don't give it everything or else you wind up with a big nasty splash.  Let it back up.  Repeat.

Is the bowl emptying?  Can't tell?  If the water level is low enough, you might risk refilling it by flushing.  You know how low the water gets when you flush, and then it gurgle-gurgles at the end - if it's as low as that, you can probably safely push the lever to refill the bowl.  You want to keep the plunger's head covered with water.  If the water is leaving too quickly for you to keep pushing, then you're probably done.  Lift it up and flush with the plunger out of the way; if the action looks right then you're done.

Did somebody send too much tissue down the hole?  No sweat.  A couple of pushes with the plunger should send that through.  Tissue is designed to hold its strength just long enough for you to get done with it, then disintegrate in the water.

That wasn't tissue, believe me.
Okay.  That happens too.  Still gotta get it moving through the pipe, though, so keep it up with the plunger.  Again, give it the firm PUSH and let it bottom solidly at the bottom of the bowl.  Hold it.  Let it up.  If there's enough water in the bowl, try giving three solid pushes in a row, boom boom boom.  Go much more than that and you can wind up with a serious splashing situation, which is usually best avoided.  Try it again.  Try it again.

Is there a pattern here?
You bet! The biggest mistake people make is they stop trying.  If it takes you an hour to get your toilet unclogged, you're still ahead of the curve.  The last time a plumber came by your house, did you part with less than $100?  Probably not, not when the legendary "trip charge" is $65.  That's the money they bill you just to come to you, before they even start the clock for charging by the hour.  So if it takes you an hour, and saves you $100, compare what you save to what you earn at your day job.  If you don't come out ahead doing it yourself, then by all means call the plumber.  Your butler can deal with him.

How long is long enough to work on this?  It isn't pretty work.
The longest I've ever worked on a toilet is two hours.  It was seriously clogged with foreign objects.  More on that later.  And no, it's not pretty work but it has to be done.  The alternative is you stop using a toilet.  How long can you go in that condition?

Okay, so how long is long enough in most cases?
The vast majority of clogged toilets can be cleared in under fifteen minutes.

Well, I've been plunging away at this thing for thirty minutes.  I'm tired, and had to refill the bowl several times.  It fills, but drains v-e-r-y slowly.  When I plunge it, it goes down, but it doesn't flush. It just fills, then slowly drains.  NOW WHAT?
That's what I call a foreign object clog.  Feminine hygiene products, paper towels, toys (small children, remember) make it past the first bend so you can't see them, but they get hung up somewhere else.  Then everything else you try to flush after that just piles on.  Plungers generally can't power through a mess like that, especially toys.

Now you need a toilet auger, also called a closet auger.  Go to your favorite hardware store and ask the guy in the plumbing department about them.  You don't need the extendable 6' model; the regular three-footer will do the job.

Now you've got me buying stuff.  Tell me again why I shouldn't call a plumber?
Plumber = $100.  Toilet auger + new plunger = $40, maybe.  And the plumber costs that much every time you call him; the tools you buy one time and you own them.  They're on hand every time you need them, no delay and no extra charge after the initial purchase.

Okay, about the auger, then?
First, resign yourself to a few scratches at the bottom of the toilet.  I've never seen a toilet auger that didn't leave a mark or two.  They're not bad, but they're a fact of life.  The rubber pad around the crook of the auger at its base just can't seem to prevent them all.

Crank handle at the top, auger's business end at the bottom.  Springy business end goes into the water, into the outlet, and start cranking.  Don't just twirl it expecting it to feed itself, you've got to push sometimes, pull back sometimes.  Sometimes you're going to need to finesse it to make it go around a bend, just be patient and keep trying.  You're working your way through a blockage, and you should expect the cranking to become very difficult, maybe impossible.  YOU COULD DAMAGE THE AUGER if you're not careful.  When you get a lot of resistance, unwind the cranking a little, and try to pull the blockage out.  Chances are good you've snagged it and can maybe pull it out.  It might get pulled out a bit at a time, so be prepared for that too.

If it feels like you're making some progress, pull out the auger and try to get some water through there.  If you don't feel confident about pushing the flush handle, fill with a bucket from the tub.  Switch the plunger in, too - you'll learn the feel of what a completely blocked toilet feels like, how it resists against the push.  Keep trying.

I've done all that and it's still clogged.  Can I use chemicals now?
No!  Don't use drain chemicals in a toilet.

What were you saying about urinals before?  How do they get clogged?
Minerals accrete out of the waste stream and stick to the inside of the pipes.  You can periodically treat with CLR or Lime Away to try to prevent it, but once the clog happens you're back to the old standbys. Try plunging a clogged urinal and using a urinal auger (like a toilet auger but smaller), and if that doesn't help, you're going to need a plumber.

I thought you said don't use chemicals...?
Special case, roll with it.  You probably don't have a urinal in your home so don't sweat it too much.

Plunger's no help, I wound the auger into kinks, and it still won't flush.  What was that about working for two hours?
The worst one I ever dealt with, I had to pull off the floor to finally get it cleared, and it was a foreign object clog - a little toy Bullwinkle Moose in a little car.  Bullwinkle and his car were jammed in tight; ultimately I wound up replacing the toilet.   If you're comfortable pulling the toilet off the floor, then all I've done is entertain you during your lunch break, because I have nothing new to tell you.  You already know how all this stuff works.

If you're not comfortable pulling the toilet off the floor, then I recommend you call a plumber.  If he'll let you, watch what he does.  Don't bug the man, but watch him.  Check out or buy a book or two on the subject, you can do this stuff.  It's not hard.

Wash your hands when you're done.

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