If you really want to know how to use a plunger correctly in order to unclog a toilet, sink or floor drain, you need to humble yourself. It seems like something we all should know how to do instinctively. I mean, it looks so easy. Like a golf swing.
But if you’ve ever seen me golf, you know I’ve made my share of disasters on the greens. There’s a lot more to know about plungers than you think. And having these plunger tips in your back pocket could save you a lot of burst pipes and waste water damage in the future.
Table of Contents
- How Does a Plunger Work?
- Parts of a Plunger
- The Basic Types of Plungers
- How to Use a Plunger
- How To Clean A Plunger
- More Plunger Tips
- What Do I Do if My Plunger Doesn’t Work?
- Recommended Plungers
- Call 1-Tom-Plumber for Help
How Does a Plunger Work?
A plunger is a tool that is used to unclog drains. You can find one in nearly every bathroom across America because it is so incredibly useful. It was invented by John Hawley in 1874.
There are many styles and types, but the most basic plungers can be described as a short or long stick (a handle made of wood or plastic) with a rubber cup attached to the bottom. The rubber cup is placed over a drain to create a tight seal. The user then “plunges” the drain by moving the handle up and down. This motion creates both pressure and suction on the clog, forcing it loose.
The first modern plunger was invented by John S. Hawley in 1875. He added a flattened rim two years later. Hawley called it a vent-clearer and force cup. Today, the plunger is also called a plumber’s friend or plumber’s help. If you’ve ever used one, you’ll understand why.
Parts of a Plunger
If you want to know how to use a plunger, it’s a good idea to know each of its parts and how they’re designed to function. Here’s a quick primer.
The handle, or shaft, is the piece that you hold and control your plunger. It is usually made of wood or plastic, but sometimes metal. For most people, wood handles seem to be the best for strength and comfort. It should be held vertically (straight, in line, with the drain opening) when plunging with an up and down.
The handle length varies depending on the manufacturer. But their’s no trick to this. Just pick the size handle that you seem most comfortable with. You might consider a shorter handle if you’re working in a smaller space like in a kitchen sink. But there’s really no right or wrong when it comes to size of handle.
The plunger cup is the piece that you place over the drain. It looks like a ball that has been cut in half and stuck on a stick. Its purpose is to create an air-tight seal so that water can be effectively forced up (by suction) and forced down (by pressure). This up and down motion which creates suction and pressure is what unclogs the drain.
Like the length of handles, there are different sizes of plunger cups. The most common are approximately 4.75 inches, 4 inches, and 3 inches. Again, there’s no right or wrong so choose the size plunger with a cup that seems suitable for most of your jobs.
The flange is the piece (usually rubber, sometimes plastic) that folds in and out from the bottom of the cup, kind of like an accordion. The extension is designed to be placed into the drain of a toilet. This provides a better fit and extra pressure while plunging. When folded back in, the flange disappears, making it look like a standard cup.
But we recommend you don’t use a plunger with a flange for anything but your toilet. Let’s face it, you don’t want to use the same plunger for kitchen sinks that you use with your toilet. Health risks from cross-contamination can occur.
The Basic Types of Plungers
Actually, there are quite a few different types of plungers. Some are highly specialized for specific applications. Others are advanced models designed to automate the plunging process.
The two kinds of plungers we explore below are the most common in today’s homes. But they are often mistaken for one another and applied incorrectly. This creates a lot of unnecessary work that too often yields bad results. In fact, these plungers have two very different purposes, so knowing which one to use is an absolute must.
1. Toilet (or Flange) Plunger
The toilet plunger — also called a flange plunger — is exactly what it sounds like: it is designed specifically to unclog toilet drains. It does not work on flat-surface drains like those in your kitchen sink, bathroom sink, or basement floor.
Unlike the standard sink plunger below, the toilet plunger has an added funnel-like piece that extends out from its cup (see “3 Parts of a Plunger” above). This flange inserts into the toilet drain, not just on top of the drain. This allows the plunger to create a better seal in a toilet drain. The tighter the seal, the more effective the plunger.
2. Sink (or Cup) Plunger
This is the plunger you probably think of first. Simply a handle with a rubber cup, it’s the most popular and common plunger found in homes. Unfortunately, it’s also the most misunderstood and incorrectly used.
This plunger is designed only to unclog drains located on flat surfaces — such as in kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, tubs and showers, and basement floors. Although you can use them on a toilet, there’s a good chance you’ll have to work harder for less effective results. A toilet bowl drain is curved so it can’t form a proper air-tight seal.
3. Other Types of Plungers
Here are more plunger types you may want to look into:
- Accordion plungers — This plunger has a cup/flange system that looks like an accordion, usually made of hard plastic. It’s best used for sink, tub, and shower drain clogs. But the flange can pop out to be used on toilets too. These hard plastic plungers are typically a bit harder to use and can scratch surfaces.
- Automatic plungers — Although more expensive, these do the hard work for you quickly and easily by sending a burst of CO2 into your drain.
- Beehive plungers — Best for wide drains on toilets, the cup/flange design make this look like a beehive hanging from end of a stick.
How to Use a Plunger
Finally, we’ve learned pretty much everything there is to know about plungers. It’s time to answer the question you came here for. Here’s how to use them correctly on toilets and other drains.
1. How to Plunge a Toilet
First things first. Don’t flush if you see a clogged or backed up toilet. This will only make the situation worse and could overflow waste onto your floors. Here’s what to do instead:
- You’ll need a flange plunger, rubber gloves, and a rag towel.
- If there is too much water in the bowl, remove with a small bucket until the water level is just above the cup of your plunger. This will save you from making a huge mess.
- If you have too little water, add enough to cover the cup of your plunger.
- Get your flange plunger (not the flat cup plunger) and pull out the flange.
- Place the cup of your plunger directly over the toilet drain. Make sure the flange inserts into the drain and the cup has a good seal.
- While keeping the cup sealed over the drain and your handle in line with the drain, make your first plunge a gentle one. This will get you started.
- Then begin quickly and forcefully pushing your plunger down and then up. This down/up, down/up, down/up motion should be repeated up to 10-20 times, or up to 20 seconds.
- Although you can change the motion and force of your strokes, I’ve find that the best results come from smaller but faster plunging motions. Think of a rabbit thumping its paw.
- Repeat this entire process 2-3 times if necessary.
Pro Tips: Be vigorous with your plunges but not aggressive. Being too forceful can weaken or burst your pipes. And throughout the process, make sure the cup is covered entirely by water while you’re plunging. If not, add more.
2. How to Plunge a Sink
These instructions apply to any clogged drain that is on a flat surface, from kitchen drains to bathroom sinks to drains on the floor of your shower or tub.
- You’ll need a cup plunger (no flange!), petroleum jelly, rubber gloves, and a rag towel.
- If you have one, go to the closest overflow drain and stuff it with a rag. This will make your efforts more effective by keeping air from escaping while you’re plunging.
- Place the flat cup of your plunger directly over the drain.
- Make sure your plunger cup is submerged under just enough water to cover it. If not, add more water.
- Make your first plunge gentle to get started.
- Now quickly and forcefully push and pull your plunger (down and up, down and up) about 10-20 times, or up to 20 seconds — but make sure your seal (between cup and sink surface) is never broken.
- As with a toilet, we recommend smaller but faster plunging motions. Think of a rabbit thumping its paw. But you can try other motions that work for you.
- Repeat this entire process 2-3 times if necessary.
Pro Tip: Before you begin plunging, add petroleum jelly around the flat edge of your cup (the part that meets the floor). This will help you maintain a better-fitting seal.
How To Clean A Plunger
After you’ve finished plunging, make sure you clean your plunger. You don’t want any potentially harmful bacteria hanging around your home. Here are 5 quick steps to keep in cleaned and maintained:
- Add 3 cap-fulls of chlorine bleach to your toilet bowl
- Place plunger in bowl and swirl it around for at least 1 minute (2 minutes preferred)
- While keeping the plunger in the toilet, flush and rinse it off in the new water
- Let plunger air dry on some paper towels (or in your tub) before putting away
- Once dry, inspect the cup and flange for any tears, rips, or wear. If you find any, you should throw away and replace with a new one.
More Plunger Tips
- Use the right plunger for the right job. A toilet/flange plumber shouldn’t go in your kitchen sink. And a sink/cup plunger shouldn’t go in your toilet. It’s unhealthy.
- Always wear rubber cleaning gloves (and even safety glasses if you have them) when plunging; you don’t want to get any bacteria on your hands or face.
- Buy toilet/flange plunger for every bathroom. When a clog happens and possibly overflows onto your floors, you need to act quickly. Be prepared with the right tools nearby.
- Buy a separate sink/cup plunger to use in other areas of your home where drains are on flat surfaces.
- Don’t use hard plastic plungers. They are more difficult to use and can scratch the surfaces that you use them on.
- Maintain your plungers after every use. Check your plunger’s cup and/or flange before and after every use. A cracked, ripped, or damaged plunger won’t get you the results you need. If you see a problem, purchase a new plunger…they’re inexpensive.
- Don’t place your plunger in any cleaning chemicals. Toxic chemicals from cleaning products can splash back onto you and cause health issues. If you choose to use chemical cleaners, do so after you’ve used your plunger.
- Don’t over-plunge. If your drains/pipes aren’t in the best condition, plunging too aggressively can damage pipes and cause costly water damage and repairs.
What Do I Do if My Plunger Doesn’t Work?
If your drain is still clogged despite your best efforts, then it’s time to look into these next-step solutions:
- Make sure your plunger isn’t torn, ripped or worn. Replace and try again if that’s the issue.
- If that’s not it, and you still want to DIY (do it yourself), we suggest reading the following articles: How to Unclog a Bathroom Sink, How to Unblock a Drain, Clean Hair Out of Your Shower Drain, and Why Did My Basement Floor Drain Backup.
- Still doesn’t unclog? We recommend that you call a trusted plumber.
Check out these amazon.com affiliate links for related products that we recommend.
- OXO Good Grips Flange-Style Toilet Plunger
- Klean Freak Antibacterial Flange-Style Toilet Plunger
- Rocky Mountain Cup-Style Sink Plunger (9″ handle for confined spaces)
- Supply Duty Cup-Style Sink Plunger (18″ handle)
For most homes, you’ll need two different but very basic plungers: a flange plunger for your toilets and a cup plunger for drains on flat surfaces. To use them, remember to use a straight up approach — your handle should stay perfectly lined up with your drain — and then plunge with a vigorous up and down approach.
Understanding a plunger and how, where, and when to use it will go a long way to reducing any water damage from overflowing toilets and drains. Although now you probably want to plunge away to your heart’s desire, don’t overdue it.
Call 1-Tom-Plumber for Help
Don’t hesitate to contact us or call us at 1-Tom-Plumber (1-866-758-6237) if you’d like help with your toilet, sink, or drain clog issues. Heck, we’ll even leave you with a free sink-style cup plunger after we’re done. We will immediately handle any emergency plumbing, drain, and water damage problem, including excavation of underground water lines and sewer main lines.