How to use a plunger – for fast plumbing fixes

There are right and wrong ways to use a plunger to get that unfortunate unclogging job done efficiently and quickly. Here, the experts advise

Using a plunger
(Image credit: Alamy)

Every now and then you will need to know how to use a plunger. 

It may be that you have been inadvertently pouring fat down the kitchen drain or perhaps there's hair in a bathtub drain. A plunger can help unblock both of these problems. Or, maybe you need to unclog a toilet? Though you can do this without a plunger, this handy piece of DIY equipment can help you do so faster and more efficiently.

However, while you may already own a plunger, did you know there are different plungers, and different techniques for using them, depending on the job at hand?

We asked the experts for their best techniques and tricks. 

How to use a plunger

The basics of using a plunger are: 

Pressing the plunger down over the blockage, forcing air down into the drain below, and increasing pressure. When the plunger is pushed downwards, the water does the same, moving the clog in that direction. 

Pulling the plunger back up by an inch or two to create a vacuum that forces the blockage upwards (and outwards). When a plunger is pulled upwards, the water in the drain is also pulled with it, which begins the clog being loosened. Make sure that you maintain downward pressure on the plunger at all times, even when releasing the plunger from the downward push to the upward pull, as it is key that the seal created by the plunger is not broken around the cup.

And repeat until the blockage is cleared.

Use the advice below to discover which plunger to choose and how to use a plunger in specific cases to release those plumbing blockages fast. If your toilet won't flush or you need to unclog a sink or unclog a shower drain, they will be incredibly useful. We cover how to use a plunger to unclog a bathtub drain, too.

When to use a plunger?

When is it time to grab the plunger? Whenever there is evidence of a clog, it’s a good idea to try out a plunger. While it may not fix every plumbing issue, it’s an easy and convenient first step to take before you call a pro.

When not to use a plunger?

If there's no evidence of a blockage, using a plunger might not get your drains to run freely, and you may need to look for other problems first.

For example, David Cruz, plumbing expert at My Job Quote suggests that before using a plunger on a overflowing toilet, first make sure that the flapper valve is closed, which is located in the toilet cistern (otherwise known as the small tank used to store water for flushing). To make sure this isn't the cause of the blockage, wait about 10 minutes before resorting to the plunger. You should also check the water source hose on the toilet needs adjusting. Again, wait 10 minutes to see if this works, he suggests.

Which plunger for which job?

Before we go into specifics of using a plunger in specific cases, we list the three plunger types our plumbing experts recommend and what to use them for.

Plungers for toilets

All-purpose plungers can be used for toilets, our experts have recommended the flange plunger. This is due to its design, which has a flap inside the cup that folds out to fit in the toilet drain opening, while the cup remains above this area creating effective suction. 

This helps creates a better seal and more efficient pressure, helping you unclog your toilet more effectively. However, this plunger is also ideal for sinks and baths as the flap can fold back into the cup.

This toilet plunger from Amazon (opens in new tab) is highly rated and has a hygienic caddy

Accordion plungers

Accordion plungers have an accordion design and their cups are made of a more sturdy plastic, as opposed to a standard flexible rubber cup. They are excellent for unclogging drains and sinks.

This accordion plunger from Amazon (opens in new tab) has a user-approved commercial effectiveness.

All-purpose plungers

The common household plunger is best suited for flat surfaces such as a drain pipe, bath tub or a shower area. They won't be as effective in toilets but are better than nothing if you have no other plungers to hand.

This mini hand plunger from Amazon (opens in new tab) is highly rated and useful to keep in smaller homes or apartments.

1. How to use a plunger in a toilet

When using a plunger to unblock a toilet, experts from Plumbnation (opens in new tab) recommend using a flange plunger. 'This plunger is especially effective in toilets because of the sleeve-like extension (the flange) on the bottom of the cup which fits into the hole in your toilet bowl creating a more effective seal,' they say.

'Just like with shower and bath drains, you should approach unblocking your toilet by initially filling the bowl with water. 

'Make sure that the flange of the plunger is pulled out from the cup. Place the plunger in the bowl at an angle that means the cup is filled with as much water as possible. The aim here to to create a complete seal around the toilets drain hole with the cup and the flange should be inside the hole. 

'Now for the bit that requires some elbow grease: when the plunger is in position push down on the cup with force, then pull it back up without breaking the cup's seal of the toilets drain hole. Next, simply plunge vertically up-and-down for 20 seconds and check to see if it has worked. If not, just try this method a few more times until you can see some results.

'With any luck your toilet should be easily drained.'

2. How to use a plunger in a sink, bathtub or shower

'When tackling showers, sinks, bathtubs and drains, don't use chemicals as they could easily splatter over clothes or furnishings around the drain. Before using your plunger, seal the overflow drain first in order to submerge the plunger head with water and to create a stronger suction,' say the experts at Plumbnation. You can do this with a wet, wrung-out cloth. 'This may mean filling your shower tray or bath with a bit of water before the unclogging begins.'

David Cruz, plumbing expert at My Job Quote (opens in new tab) agrees that having a good water volume above what you are plunging will produce quicker results. He suggests that the water should at least cover the cup of the plunger if you are unclogging a shower or bath drain. This is needed to create pressure against the blockage. If there it too much water, bail some out until it is at a good level.

With the overflow sealed and the cup submerged, push down and pull up on the plunger maintaining the seal for around 20 seconds. Repeat as necessary.

How long does it take for a plunger to work? 

After around 20 seconds, the plunger will most likely have broken up enough of whatever is clogging the drain/toilet for the water to drain. Repeat as necessary, though. If nothing is working, experts recommend that you may have to snake the drain. Failing that, you may need to remove the P-trap of a drain to clean it, if accessible, or call in a professional.

What to do if the plunger isn't working?

If the plunger isn't working but a blockage is the cause of the problem, a chemical drain cleaner might be the only solution available to you before you call in a plumber. Chemical drain cleaners are incredibly toxic and need to be not only handled with care but used exactly in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. However, they can dissolve stubborn organic matter quickly and dislodge them where a plunger can't. Hair, for example, is a tricky customer but can be dealt with by chemical. 

A more natural option is to use baking soda and vinegar to attempt to unclog the drain. Boiling water and dish soap is another combination that can help, especially when left to stand then used in conjunction with flushing and a plunger. 

Lola Houlton
Lola Houlton

Lola Houlton is H&G's long-term intern. Currently student of Psychology at the University of Sussex, she began writing content for Real Homes around the subjects of children's and teenagers' bedroom, in particular covering the psychology of teens and their approach to tidiness. From there, Lola expanded her knowledge of a broad range of subjects and now writes about everything from organization through to house plants while continuing her studies.