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Toilet Backing up Into the Shower or Tub? Unclogging the Sewer Drain

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  • Is sewage coming up through the bathtub or the shower drain every time you flush the toilet?

    It’s frustrating, to say the least. Not to mention gross.

    Obviously, you need to get that thing fixed. First off, all that backed-up water is probably caused by a clogged sewer line. This means you’re dealing with potential exposure to sewer water, which can cause health hazards to you and everyone living in your home.

    On this page:

    A sewer that won’t drain properly requires immediate attention, even just for the attendant health concerns alone. We haven’t even mentioned the overflowing problems that may occur on account of a blocked sewer line. As such, the best option is to call a professional plumber who can unclog your sewer drain for you.

    If you prefer to go the DIY route, that’s fine too. However, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing. The last thing you want to happen is to make things worse.

    Before you start, it’s important that you determine first what’s causing water to back up into your shower drain or bathtub.

    As already mentioned, you’re probably dealing with a clogged main sewer line. And since that’s where all (or at least most) of your plumbing fixtures drain to (via a series of lateral pipes), it’s no wonder that a clog of this nature causes water to back up into your sinks and washers every time you flush. A toilet flush, after all, releases pressure, and some of the water has to go somewhere if something’s blocking the way.

    Causes of Clogs

    Now that you know why water is backing up into your bathtub and shower drains, it begs the question: why do clogs happen in the first place?

    Let us count the ways:

    • Tree roots. Trees depend on water for sustenance, and their roots are bound to grow towards spots where water is located, including, yes, your pipes.
    • Grease. Grease come from a wide variety of sources: dairy products, fat-based soaps, coffee grounds, and more. These substances are frequently fed into the kitchen sink, accumulating and congealing inside pipes over time.
    • Hair. Hair blockages are one of the most common causes of clogged drains. Hair tends to get stuck to PVC pipes if mixed with sticky substances. To prevent hair from entering the drainage system, guard on top of the kitchen and bathroom sink.
    • Dirt. Dirt can come from anywhere, and it’s only a matter of time before they accumulate in your drains and cause clogs. To stop dirt from building up, remove large dirt particles from utensils and clothes before washing them.

    Early warning signs that your sewer line is clogged

    toilet

    Let’s say your shower drains and bathtub are not backing up water yet, that doesn’t mean your sewer line is not clogged. Remember, backed up water is just one symptom (among many) of a clogged sewer line. You’d best be on the lookout for those other symptoms if you don’t want the blockage to get worse.

    Here are other signs your main sewer line is getting clogged:

    • Unpleasant odor is emanating from the bathtub, shower drains, or toilet. A clogged sewer line causes sewage buildup, resulting in foul odor escaping through your plumbing fixtures.
    • Your drains are running slow. All your household plumbing fixtures connect to the sewer line, draining water into the sewer system or a septic tank. A clogged sewer line slows down the passage of water, causing your household drains to run slowly.
    • The toilet is gurgling or bubbling when you run the water in the sink. Trapped air in the drainage system can cause your toilet to bubble or make gurgling noises every time you run water in one of your plumbing fixtures. In other words, it’s one way for your drainage system to “pass gas,” which is triggered when you flush the toilet or run your washing machine.

    How to unclog your sewer line

    If you think your trusty plunger can fix a clogged sewer line, then you couldn’t be more wrong. The sewer line is far too deep inside the drainage system for your plunging to do any good. For one thing, a normal plunger doesn’t have enough heft or power to do the job.

    You need a plumbing snake, otherwise known as a toilet auger.

    First, here’s some basic info about what a plumbing snake is and what it does.

    A plumbing snake is a plumbing tool that can reach down and penetrate drainage pipes to dislodge or remove clogs. It’s what plumbers and homeowners use if a plunger isn’t enough for the job.

    A snake auger is typically a metal shaft with an auger bit at the tip (some have an open coil head at the end). It comes with a flexible cable that you can rotate by the handle, as well as a hollow tube covered by a rubber sleeve to prevent scratching the toilet.

    If you don’t have a toilet auger, you can buy one at your local home improvement retailer for around $20 or so. You can also rent one for a day from an equipment rental establishment in your area.

    Snake into your toilet

    First, you need to put on a pair of “ugly gloves.” “Ugly gloves” are covered with a hard plastic material that makes it easier for you to turn the cable while it’s being inserted into the drain. Also, unclogging a sewer line could get messy, and you don’t want to muck up your hands in the process.

    Carefully release or unhook the cable from the tube. Once this is done, you should have better control of the cable with the handle.

    Pull the handle up and then insert the auger into the toilet. To avoid damaging the toilet’s porcelain finish, make sure that the tip is pointing directly into the drain pipe as you do this. Push the handle down and then rotate it clockwise. Once inserted, see that you’re only able to see the housing, not the end of the auger cable. As you continue to crank the handle, the cable will go deeper into the toilet’s drain pipe.

    The way to the sewer line is not a straight line so expect the cable to get stuck temporarily at times. During these instances, reverse the cranking action to pull the cable back. Once you’ve found a clear path once again, rotate the handle clockwise to feed the cable into the drain pipe again. If you can’t go any further, chances are you’ve already reached the clog.

    To remove the clog, pull the auger’s handle up while cranking it clockwise. This causes the blockage to wrap itself around the cable. Next, pull the cable out of the drain pipe. After the entire length of the cable has been pulled out, you should see the dislodged muck that caused the blockage around the auger tip. If there’s none, simply repeat the process until you get favorable results. Flush the toilet once again. If it’s draining water properly this time, then you’ve successfully done the job!

    Don’t have a snake? Here are other ways to unclog your sewer line

    Buying or renting a snake auger costs money. Worse, using it correctly requires a steep learning curve. Some just don’t have the stomach for it, because let’s face it: reaching down the insides of a toilet bowl is gross work.

    Thankfully, there are ways to unclog your sewer line without requiring a snake auger. While these methods won’t be as effective, giving them the good old college try might just do the job.

    Method 1: Run hot water from the tap

    A fair warning: This method will only work if you have a partial clog, so only use it if the water is still draining down the sink when you flush the toilet.

    Turn the water heater on before running the water in the sink. Let the hot water run for at least 10 minutes to give it enough time to break down what’s causing the clog. If you don’t have a water heater, simply pour a few cups of hot water into the toilet bowl and then flush it.

    Method 2: Use a chemical drain cleaner

    Hot water not doing the job? Then it’s time to improvise by resorting to chemicals. You can buy a chemical drain cleaner in the nearest department store in your area. Since you’re dealing with chemicals, it’s important that you follow closely the instructions on the package. Bear in mind, however, that most chemical drain cleaners can only break down a portion of the clog.

    Method 3: Use high-pressure water

    If none of the previous methods is working, maybe high-pressure water is the solution you’re looking for. This is also a better and cheaper option if you already have a pressure washer lying around.

    You will need a sewer jetter for this. And don’t worry, a sewer jetter costs much less than a snake auger.

    A sewer jetter, otherwise known as a “hydro-jetter” or “water jetter,” is a flexible hose with a jet nozzle at the tip, which can be fed into the main sewer line through a manhole outside your home.

    The nozzle at the end has front-firing jets that can break down and dislodge clogs, as well as back-firing jets that can push the hose through the pipes (requiring less physical effort on your part). The jetter also clears the sides of the dirty pipe as the nozzle goes further.  At the other end is a coupling that can be screwed into your pressure washer’s trigger gun.

    Hot tip: Make sure that you read and follow the detailed instructions that come with your equipment. And don’t forget to put on a pair of electrician gloves. Remember, you’re dealing with electrical equipment and it always pays to be safe.

    Hot tip #2: If you don’t have a pressure washer, use a garden hose instead. Screw a high-pressure nozzle at the end and then run the water into the sewer line until it breaks up the clog.

    Method 4: Use a force-ball plunger

    A normal plunger is not going to work, so why not use something that… forces the issue?

    A force-ball plunger might just do the job.

    Here are the steps to unclogging a sewer line with a force-ball plunger

    Step 1: Cover your drains with duct tape. This prevents water from backing up while you’re using the force-ball plunger, directing the pressure on the clog instead.

    Step 2: Insert the ball-plunger into the toilet bowl. Run the water and then pump away. Once the water in the toilet starts to drain, pour around 3 gallons of hot water into the bowl to help break down the clog.

    Common mistakes to avoid when unclogging drains

    You’re pulling out all the stops to unclog your sewer line, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

    Quite a lot, actually.

    While going the DIY route can cost you less, you could make the problem worse if you’re careless or not following the proper procedures.

    Here are the most common plumbing mistakes you need to avoid:

    1. Using the wrong chemicals

    The worst thing you can do when unclogging drains is to use de-clogging solutions that have a high concentration of acid or lye. They not only cause damage to your PVC pipes, but they can also be harmful to your health. Overusing chemicals can also cause significant damage to your drainage system’s essential components, which can lead to costly repairs.

    2. Applying too much water pressure

    I know, I know. We did suggest using water pressure to unclog your sewer line, but that doesn’t mean you can pressurize those clogs to your heart’s content. If the clog is too thick or too tough, all that water will just back up through other plumbing fixtures, possibly soaking your bathroom and kitchen. In other words, you should know when to stop. Apply too much water pressure in your drainage system and it might damage your PVC pipes.

    3. Using the wrong tools

    Don’t even think about using that metal coat hanger. For one thing, it can’t go deep enough to reach the clog in the sewer line. Don’t use spoons or anything that shouldn’t go in there. After all, those objects may fall inside the drain, complicating things further.

    4. Taking apart your pipes

    Just because you know how to disassemble your pipes doesn’t mean that you should do it. Pipe systems are very complicated, and pulling them apart may cause problems that are beyond your skill level. If the clogs are too substantial for regular methods to do any good, the best solution is to call a professional plumber.

    How to prevent your drains from clogging

    Once you’ve unclogged your drains, the last thing you want to happen is for them to get clogged again. You may already have an idea what caused the clog in the first place, and chances are you have every intention to avoid committing the same mistakes.

    However, there may be other potential mistakes that you may not be aware of. In this section, we go over the precautions you can take to prevent your drain from getting clogged again.

    Filter out things that might cause clogs

    This is obvious but still bears emphasizing. If you want to prevent your drains from getting clogged, you must be careful about what you’re allowing to get in there. Put substances that contain grease, fat, or oil in a mulch pile instead of allowing them to enter the drainage system. Installing a drain grate or a catch basin can prevent solid objects like hair and coffee grounds to get into the drains.

    Run hot water and other de-clogging liquids after every use

    Running hot water through the sink after every use can keep grease, fat, and oils from building up on the surface of PVC pipes, ensuring that the coast is always clear, so to speak.

    You can even do better by pouring a de-clogging agent in the sink before chasing it down with hot water. These agents include:

    • Baking soda. Baking soda doesn’t only break down clogs, but it also absorbs unpleasant odors.
    • Vinegar. The acetic acid in vinegar is great at preventing the buildup of dirt, grime, and scum inside the pipes. Pour 1 cup of vinegar and wait for 30 minutes before following it up with hot water.

    Don’t dump hygiene products down the toilet

    Stop throwing wipes, sanitary napkins, and other hygiene products into the toilet. The only hygiene product that you can dump in there is toilet paper and nothing else.

    Getting Help from Pros

    toilet in a modern bathroom

    If trying the above methods did diddly squat, then it’s high time that you consider the notion of hiring a professional plumber to unclog your sewer line for you. When all is said and done, hiring a pro is always the wisest choice.

    But now you’re left with the task of making sure that you’re hiring someone who can perform the job well and who will charge you a fair rate.

    As a general rule of thumb, homeowners should gather as many quotes as possible before choosing a contractor to do the repairs. The more quotes to choose from, the better your chances of landing a contractor who can address your needs best at the most “fair” price.

    However, getting quotes means having to scour the internet for a list of available contractors within or near your area. This means having to as for referrals from family and friends. This takes time you may not have. And some contractors do charge for quotes, so you better have some money set aside for this.

    Thankfully, there’s a better option.

    How would you like to receive up to 4 quotes from competing contractors all in one fell swoop?

    All you need to do is fill out the form on this website! Once submitted, contractors who fit your criteria will be contacting you with their quotes in no time.

    Have we mentioned that you can receive these quotes for free?

    To top it off, you’re likely to receive competitive quotes just for the simple fact that they know they’re competing with other contractors.

    As the old adage goes, competition breeds excellence.

    More importantly, no commitment is required. You’re free to refuse any of the offers if none of them is to your satisfaction.

    Ready to have your clogged drains fixed once and for all? Fill out the form now!

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