This story is part of, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
It's one of those situations no one wants to deal with: You're at someone's house and the toilet has clogged (even worse if it's during a busy holiday party). But even if you see a plunger, don't reach for it -- there's an easier, cleaner, better way to unclog a toilet without that icky thing. All you need are a few household items that are easy to find.
We'll explain a method to unclog a toilet that's not only less gross than using a plunger, but also more effective. All you have to do is grab some dish soap, hot water and a bucket -- then let chemistry take it from there. Yes, the plunger-free approach is really that easy! Here's how to make it happen.
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Everything you need to unclog the toilet is probably right in the bathroom
Again, you'll need just three supplies that can be found in almost any bathroom: soap, hot water and a vessel for transferring water to the toilet bowl. Dish soap, hot bathwater and a 5-gallon bucket work best, but if secrecy is paramount and leaving the lavatory would blow your cover, a few pumps from a hand soap dispenser and some hot sink water in a small plastic waste bin will do just fine.
First, get the water in the sink or tub running hot -- like, as hot as it will get. Don't outdo yourself -- no need to boil any water. At those temperatures, you could crack the porcelain or worse, injure yourself. Just let the tap water get as hot as it can and you'll be within range.
While you're waiting for hot water, go ahead and clear everything off the floor -- scales, bathmats... pets. You're going to be very careful to avoid any spills, of course, but better to be safe than soggy.
Let chemistry do the work, but be careful
Your objective is to get the liquid in the toilet bowl as hot and soapy as possible, as fast as possible, without letting it overflow. This is the step that requires the most finesse.
If you've already tried to flush the clog down a second time and the toilet bowl is positively brimming, add the soap directly to the toilet and then pour in as much hot water as you can -- if you can.
If you've got plenty of clearance, however, go ahead and mix up the soap and water first, then pour the soapy brew into the bowl as swiftly as you can. In a perfect storm, the heat and soap will lubricate the clog while the force of the water will push it through. That said, hopefully your reflexes are quick, because you may need to abruptly stop pouring if the clog doesn't immediately dislodge.
A note on the soap: You really can't overdo the soap at this point. You're not going to agitate the solution all that much, so the bowl likely won't erupt in a suds volcano should you go overboard with it. I'm not saying you have to pour the whole bottle of soap in there, but I'm also not saying you shouldn't. Catch my drift?
Don't stir the toilet bowl, no matter what
Whatever you do, you don't need to stir it up to get the hot, soapy water blended in with the cold, dirty water that was there first. Science is going to take care of that for you via a process called osmosis. If the clog doesn't budge after your soap-water tsunami, your next move is simply to be patient.
Most toilet backups aren't 100% blocked, so there's a good chance yours will drain slowly at first. Keep an eye on the water level and, as it drops, continue to add more hot water to keep it full. If the clog isn't too stubborn, the added pressure of a full toilet bowl plus the lubricating quality of the soap should help usher the backed-up matter through pretty quickly.
If all else fails, just give it more time
The worst-case scenario is that the clog is wedged too tightly in place and the above steps don't push it down right away. If that happens, you don't have to call a plumber or head to the hardware store just yet.
Try giving it some time to let that hot soapy water work on breaking up the clog. Walk away, close the bathroom door, and wait 30 to 60 minutes before you check on it again. When you do, you may be pleasantly surprised to find your problem has disappeared down the drain.
That may mean blowing your cover if you've been trying to unclog the toilet incognito. In that case, the best you can hope for is to not become the butt of any future jokes.
Good luck with that, too.