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Unclogging a Toilet

The battle of the snakes vs. the plungers

Ask This Old House Crew
Photo by Matt Kalinowski

I've heard that it's better to use a plumbing "snake" to free a toilet clog than to use a plunger. Is that true?
— Leonard, Harrisburg, PA


Richard Trethewey replies: Not really. Each has its place. But first, let's get straight on the terms. A snake is a long, flexible spring cable with a corkscrewlike tip that chews through and breaks up clogs when you turn the crank on the other end. They tend to be long — 25 feet is common — and they're the tool of choice for unclogging sinks and tubs. But they have a nasty way of scratching the porcelain in a toilet bowl.
A funnel-cup plunger is the first thing to grab when a toilet clogs; its soft rubber cup won't harm the porcelain. Just be sure to plunge it in a way that pulls the clog out. (Pushing the clog deeper into the pipe could make matters worse.) If plunging doesn't work, a closet auger — not a snake — is the tool to turn to.
Like snakes, closet augers have a flexible metal cable with a corkscrew tip at one end and a crank at the other. But the exposed cable is only about 3 feet long and is fitted with a stiff metal shaft. It also has a soft, flexible sleeve at the bent end of the tube to protect the
visible portion of the toilet's trapway and the bowl from scratches.
To use the auger, feed the tip gently into the drain opening. Push down and crank clockwise until the cable resists turning, then crank in the other direction. When the cable tightens up again, crank clockwise until it's as far down the drain as it will go and the auger's sleeve is sitting in the bottom of the bowl. Now pull the handle up as you continue cranking. If it jams, push gently, then pull again. When the drain is reopened, remove the auger. Then use the plunger again and flush to ensure that the drain is running freely.


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