Clogged Toilet Question
September 17, 2010 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm troubleshooting, DIY, a clogged toilet. Here's what is happening. What does it mean? (BTW, I have barely any experience with toilets, and while I have plumbed for a summer, I do not have any real knowledge of household plumbing).

Our house has two bathrooms that are side-by-side, practically mirror images. Each bathroom has a bath, sink and toilet. Toilets in both are blocked. We have snaked both of them to the end of the snake that we own, but no luck. They are both with standing water and disgusting material, and plunging does nothing to clear the line.

When we run the faucet in either bathroom, the sinks do not back up. But, when we run the faucets, water bubbles will come up in the backed up toilets, and in one of the bathtubs, dirty water will come into the bathtub. It will not, though, come in through the second bathroom on the left (which has only a stand-up shower). Gradually, the water will go down, but in one of the toilets, it falls almost entirely, while in the other toilet, it stays about half full.

We are calling a plumber, but I also wanted help in knowing what it means when you have (a) a clogged toilet in two rooms, (b) that a regular snake does nothing to clear and (c) water bubbles coming up through the toilet when you turn on the faucet?

I cannot in my mind visualize why the faucet water would run fine, the toilet would be clogged, but the bubble would push through. I'm guessing that the water from the faucet is pushing air out of its way as it moves through the pipes, and rather than that air going ahead of the water force, the air is getting pushed back up through the toilet lines?

Finally, what information should I give the plumber? Is this probably something far beyond DIY?
posted by scunning to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Step one, if you want to continue trying yourself, is to check if your vent stack is blocked in some way.
posted by ssg at 7:55 AM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and FYI, I was also wanting to know what is the next step in diagnosing this problem, assuming that the person had the skills and tools to do so? I am calling the plumber, as I said, but I was curious about the overall cause of the problem.
posted by scunning at 8:00 AM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks ssg - I'm googling it now. Is checking the vent stack something that I can do without a lot of plumbing experience, or is even that something I need to start contacting a plumber for?
posted by scunning at 8:03 AM on September 17, 2010

I'm sorry to say this sounds like roots in your main sewer line. Water can get through, but slowly, and if you try to drain too much at once it backs up into the tub. A toilet flush puts a lot more water into the sewer, all at once, than a sink can.

There's a small possibility that it's something weird (i.e., a Barbie or similar object) that got flushed down the toilet and is blocking the sewer somewhere past the place where the toilets join. But my money's on an expensive excavation and replacement of your sewer line (~$1500ish IIRC when we had ours done). Sorry.

When I had this happen to me last year, the plumbers had a remote camera they used to diagnose the problem, and they pulled roots the thickness of my forearm out of the pipe. Sewage is like candy-coated crack to trees, and this happens over time. Our plumber installed a "cleanout" pipe so they wouldn't have to dig next time; we'll see if it helps in 10 years or so.
posted by richyoung at 8:05 AM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is checking the vent stack something that I can do without a lot of plumbing experience

You would probably need to be able to safely get up on your roof, which is likely your easiest access to the vent stack.

I think you have a clog (which is allowing some partial flow, which is why things slowly drain) downstream of where the two toilet pipes come together. Your sinks "drain" -- but because of that downstream clog the water backs up into the bathtub (which is lower than the sinks, obviously). The clog could be just out of reach of your snake (best case), or could be a broken sewer pipe out in your yard (worst case).

Some plumbers have fiber optic camera units that they can send down your drain pipes, which are super helpful to figure out if you just have a tough clog or if you have something more exciting going on.
posted by Forktine at 8:09 AM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: richyoung - So if this was your house, who would you immediately call? I don't want to go directly with the most expensive approach, but I will pay that if possible. Is it worth contacting the plumber first, or do I need to contact the specialist?
posted by scunning at 8:09 AM on September 17, 2010

All the fixtures connect in some order to a common drain line. Yes, you likely have a clogged line which is nearly always roots. My guess is the bathtub and the 1/2 full toilet are close to last in order, so the water from other fixtures backs up into those first. The blockage is farther down the pipe than your snake can reach. Call Roto-rooter or similar and prepare to pay at least a couple hundred bucks. Or, you may be able to rent a 'professional' power snake and DIY, but I don't recommend it from what you describe.

On preview, we all agree.....
posted by TDIpod at 8:17 AM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks TDIpod. I just spoke with a plumber on the phone, and he suggested the opposite of what you said, though. He recommends (this is my paraphrasing) ruling out what I can by exploring the vent stack with a garden hose (a stiff one) first, then an electric rental snake of some kind that I can get somewhere around town. I need to do more research on this exactly, but it seems like - and correct me if you think I'm under-estimating the value of this - if I were to do that, it's the lowest cost choice I have right now before me because the outlays are not large (he mentioned $30-50 for the rental), the time costs to me are not large, and the overall experienced needed is not large.

Do you think, though, from what I've described that I would discover anything substantive by doing it at all? That is, the benefits of me doing that first exist? I don't want to do it if the facts of what I've described definitively rule out that anything I could do with the vent shaft exploration. I can't think of an analogy off the top of my head, but what I'm saying is, if an expert hears those points I said, are they going to say, "I'm 99% sure that nothing can be done with the vent shaft" or are they going to say "I'm 20% sure that nothing can be done with the vent shaft". If the former, then I don't want to try since it's pointless, but if the latter then I'd like to try.

I have a busy schedule right now, but at the same time, when these problems happen in our house, I try to make them teachable moments so that I'm forced to learn more about my house. But some things obviously are just not going to justify the time costs it's going to take for me to learn anything.
posted by scunning at 8:24 AM on September 17, 2010

Let's make some assumptions here. First, let's assume that it is a clogged main line. If that is the case, do you know if there is a cleanout at either the back of the house or in front? At the back of the house, look for a cap, maybe 2 to 3 inches in diameter with a square knob sticking out of it, down low on the back wall. It might be covered with a little bit of stucco (western house) but it should be visible. Out in front, there might be a similar cap, about 4 inches in diameter, sticking up in a flower bed near the house. If either of these things exist, unscrew the cap and see if stuff comes gushing out. This is a good sign of a clogged sewer lateral. If that is the case, rent an industrial-sized snake and see if you can open up the clog.

Or, in the alternative, ask a plumber to do this.

If there are no cleanouts visible, ask one or more neighbors if they have found one in their yards and see if they can show you where to look in your yard.
posted by Old Geezer at 8:42 AM on September 17, 2010

seconding roots in the sewer line. You can either get it roto-rootered every few months, or you can spring for a new sewer line. We did the former for a while, and then did the latter. Our sewer line was orangeburg, and our new pipe is much sturdier PVC.
posted by luvcraft at 8:45 AM on September 17, 2010

Your cleanout may also be in the basement of your house under a panel, assuming that you have either a basement or a cleanout. If you do have one and get roto router or someone to snake it out, be prepared for horrible things to back out of it (that is, clear the area around it and make sure you have a mop and bucket on hand).

Also, are you sure that the snake is not doubling back on itself or coming up through toilet number 2 as you snake toilet number 1? While trying to get at a clog in our bathroom, I thought I had run out of room until I noticed the auger I was feeding into the sink was sticking out through the tub drain.
posted by Jugwine at 9:48 AM on September 17, 2010

I didn't see any mention of what type of sewer system you have, but if you have a septic tank your symptoms could be caused by a full tank that needs pumping out; usually a pretty straightforward and reasonably priced procedure.
posted by TedW at 11:07 AM on September 17, 2010

Sorry to disappear on you, scunning, busy day. There's no reason to hurry to get the expensive work done as long as you're okay living with your sewage backing up into your tub. Take your time and make sure it's really a problem. But it's very likely going to turn out to be the expensive situation we're all suspecting.

And yeah, Old Geezer's right that you may already have a cleanout installed, which can save you some dough. And TedW's right that all of our advice gets flushed down the toilet if you're using a septic field instead of municipal sewer lines.

I forgot to consider the possibility that your system is different from mine.
posted by richyoung at 8:32 PM on September 17, 2010

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