Nothing will ruin a trip to the cottage quicker than a clogged toilet, particularly if you know you’ll have to pay a premium to get a plumber in from town to your neck of the woods. Every reasonably handy cottager should know a few tricks and have some key tools on hand to deal with this disgusting, yet almost inevitable chore.
But first, plunging 101
Most people know that a plunger is the primary tool to use when trying to unclog a toilet. But you may not know that there are toilet-specific plungers. A standard cup plunger with a cup on a wooden handle is actually designed for sinks and shower drains.
The wide, flat bottom doesn’t enable you to get an air-tight seal around the drain at the bottom of the toilet bowl.
A flange plunger, on the other hand, has a narrower base that fits snugly into the drain.
How to plunge properly
Before you begin, if the water level in the bowl is close to the lip, you’ll want to scoop out some of the liquid out before you start sloshing things around.
Many people erroneously think that you’re trying to push a clog through the trap. In fact, you’re trying to use suction to pull the blockage back into the bowl. To do so, place the plunger in the bowl over the drain hole, making sure it’s seated below the waterline. Vigorously push down on and then release the plunger, keeping it pressed below the waterline. Repeat a dozen times or so before lifting the plunger out of the water. That action will clear most basic clogs. If not, repeat a couple more times before moving on to the next tool you should have in your plumbing tool kit: a toilet auger (a.k.a. a closet auger or toilet snake).
A toilet auger has a rotating handle on one end connected to a long, springy cable with a hook on the bottom. There’s a protective cover near the base of the tool that you rest on the bottom of the toilet bowl so that you don’t scratch the porcelain. Set the auger in place, and then turn the handle clockwise and the pointed end will slowly wind its way through the trap in the base of the bowl. Once you get to the end, slowly pull back on the handle. If there was a foreign object—such as a pen or a kid’s toy—that was causing the blockage, the auger will pull it out.
But wait, I don’t have a plunger!
What if you’re reading this because you’re at the cottage, with a clogged toilet, and no plunger or toilet snake on hand? There are a few other methods that might help you get things flowing again. First off, we advise against using any chemical drain cleaners. These toxic concoctions can negatively impact the bacterial action in your septic tank.
There are other items you might have around the cottage that you can try instead. First, try a simple mix of hot water and dish soap or shampoo. Pour ½ cup of soap into the bowl and add some hot water. Just make sure you don’t use boiling water, which could cause the tank to crack. Let this mixture sit for half an hour or longer, and hopefully it will help loosen the clog.
The next step is to trying baking soda and vinegar. Sprinkle about 1 cup of baking soda around the base of the bowl, then pour in a couple of cups of vinegar. The idea is for the mixture to fizz up and hopefully break up the clog. Again, you’ll need to let this sit for a while before you try flushing the toilet. (Be sure to remove some of the liquid first so you don’t overflow the bowl if the clog doesn’t clear.)
Still no luck? A wire coat hanger can work as an improvised toilet auger. Untwist a hanger and straighten it out. Wrap a bit of duct tape around the end so you don’t scratch the inside of the bowl and then try to feed it down the drain and into the trap, wriggling it around to break up the clog.
If none of that works, it’s either time to call in the plumber or head into town to upgrade your plumbing tool kit. And you might also want to add an item to your DIYer’s to-do list: build the Cottage Life outhouse, a completely clog-proof toilet.