Smarter: 👀Weird Things Found in Toilets

Water flushes down toilet bowl Photo: Getty Images

This week I’m talking about the unsung hero of the house—the toilet—and what you can do when yours gets clogged. Also in this issue: Should you wash your face twice a day, and what does the H2O button in Toyota’s hydrogen-powered 2021 Mirai do?


THE BIG STORY:

‘What Goes Around Comes Around’

It’s hard to forget your first toilet-plunging. It stays with you, longer than you’d like. Mine happened in my 20s, on a day when my roommate called for me in a tone I can only describe as barely contained fear.

I have to confess: Prior to that incident, I had been privileged enough to have never seen a toilet nearly runneth over. But when you’re faced with the challenge of an overflowing toilet, you rise to the occasion, don’t you, because you don’t want the human waste to rise higher. I’ll spare you the grisly details, reader, and just say my victory was relatively swift. I came, I saw, I plunged.

Seeing as my experience was enough to be forever etched in my memory, what about plumbers, who have to deal with unclogging people’s toilets on a daily basis? What Lovecraftian horror scenes have they had to see in their careers? I asked a few plumbing services about the most bizarre items they’ve ever removed from a toilet or drain. Here’s what they told me.

Get Smarter

“Rocks.” Glasses, makeup, and action figures are also weird things Salvatore Vigilante, owner of Vigilante Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, a plumbing company based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has seen unclogging toilets. There’s also that one time when his worker pulled out pouches of chewing tobacco a son wanted to hide from his parents.

“Diamond engagement rings.” “Put it this way, if something is small enough to flush down a toilet or fit inside a drain, pipe, or sewer, we’ve probably recovered it,” says Paul Abrams, the public relations director at Roto-Rooter Plumbing & Water Cleanup, the nationwide firm. 

The unusual items Roto-Rooter has found really run the gamut: a prosthetic eyeball, diamond engagement rings in the dozens, a dummy hand grenade, Barbie doll heads (huh), $400 in coins flushed down a single toilet (what). 

But speaking of weird items, perhaps the wackiest thing I have ever seen in a toilet is the “waste” our very own testers at CR put in toilets to gauge how well they flush. It’s not real poop (fortunately), but curious items chosen to stand in for various forms of fecal matter: sponges, some of which are weighted with screws, water-filled condoms, and polyethylene balls.

toilet being flushed with sponges, water filled condom, and white plastic balls

GIF: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports GIF: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports

To simulate a particularly difficult load, testers put toilets through the challenge of flushing down 160 polyethylene balls, seven sponges, and two water-filled condoms in three flushes. For every toilet, they also cut up sponges into 1¼-inch cubes and study the distance the cubes travel in a drainline after each flush, says Chris Regan, who oversees CR’s toilet testing.

3 blue sponges being flushed down toilet for testing

GIF: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports GIF: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports

It’s a meticulous process, and toilets that are unable to flush all that simulated waste or push waste far enough into the pipe after multiple flushes might face clogging issues in the future. In our ratings, toilets that are able to push waste farther down in the pipe test are noted under “Resists drainline clogs.” You can also check how well the toilet models score for solid-waste removal in CR ratings so that you’re buying a toilet that is less prone to clogging. 

Beyond our ratings, Chris, who’s an engineer, personally looks for toilets with 2⅜-inch or larger trapways (the trapway is the S-shaped pipe in your toilet where wastewater flushes away from the bowl into the waste system) when he’s shopping for a toilet. He also looks for toilets with the largest flush valve, the device inside the tank that allows the water into the bowl, opting for the 4-inch flush valve, rather than the standard 2-inch.


DOUBLING DOWN

What should you do if your toilet gets clogged? 

Water is your friend.

You can prevent a clog from happening in the first place. Try holding down the flush lever or button through the entire flush, which allows more water to be used when you are asking the toilet to do a particularly “heavy workload,” says John Galeotafiore, a 30-year CR veteran who manages product testing of over 30 health and home categories, including toilets.

And if you don’t have a plunger at hand, sometimes quickly dumping a few gallons of water into the toilet bowl can clear a clog, John says.

Use the right kind of plunger.

The standard plunger is better suited for unclogging flatter surfaces like a sink than a toilet. So for toilets, it’s best to get a toilet plunger, says Salvatore from Vigilante Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning. It has a taller dome and a flange, a fold-out rubber flap that fits better on the toilet drain opening and allows for easier suction to get rid of clogs.

Standard plunger (left) toilet plunger (right) surrounded by line drawings of pipes

Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Getty Images Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

If the plunger doesn’t work, try other tools.

You can try a toilet auger, also known as a closet auger, says Patrick Cronin, co-founder of Cronin Plumbing and Heating in Weehawken, N.J. A toilet auger is a metal cable that can reach deep inside a toilet to unclog the blockage.

If you want a toilet auger, it’s worth buying one that comes with a rubber sleeve to prevent the cable from scratching the porcelain of your toilet, suggests Liam McCabe, a CR home writer who has ample experience rescuing toilets clogged by his toddler daughter.

You can also try a toilet bowl cleaner or an enzyme cleaner and let it sit in the bowl for a while to help break down the waste. 

But whatever you do, make sure to not do these things:

Use clog removers not designed for toilets. Why? Clog removers meant for sinks or showers might be ineffective on toilet clogs. They might also contain corrosive chemicals that could damage toilet pipes.

Use boiling hot water. Why? While it could unclog your toilet, you might also melt the wax ring, the seal between your toilet and the drain pipe.


CALL OF DOODIE

Season 4 Skill Crane GIF By SpongeBob SquarePants

Source: Nickelodeon/"SpongeBob SquarePants"/Giphy Source: Nickelodeon/"SpongeBob SquarePants"/Giphy

Which one of these can you flush down a toilet? (Answer at the end of the newsletter.)

A. Flushable wipes

B. Tampons

C. Tissue paper

D. Cooking oil

E. None of the above


ASK AN EXPERT

Question: “Is washing my face twice a day too much?”

Answer:

It really depends on your skin type, says Angela Lashbrook, a CR writer who reports on skin care trends and recently explored the effectiveness of slugging, a viral skin care regimen.

You should wash just once a day if you have dry, sensitive, or aging skin. Overwashing your skin will prevent it from producing natural, protective oils, which could cause your skin to grow dryer and more sensitive, and lead to skin issues flaring up.

You can get away with washing twice a day if you have oily, acne-prone skin. Though remember not to wash your face more than three times a day, because that could cause more oil production.

Regardless of skin type, you can follow these general rules when washing your face:

🧴Employ a mild, fragrance-free cleanser (fragrances are a top cause of skin allergies and reactions).

✋Use your fingertips to wash your face, instead of washcloths and sponges, which might irritate your skin.

💧Keep the water temperature moderate. Hot water can cause skin dryness.

😌After cleansing, always apply a moisturizer. Your face will thank you.

Read more of Angela’s tips on how to wash your face the right way here.

Be honest, how many times a day do you wash your face?


INITIATING OPERATION WATER PURGE

@consumerreports Zero emissions? No need to be plugged in? 🤔 It takes a few minutes to fill the Mirai's tanks with hydrogen, as opposed to hours of charging for a typical #electriccar. But the #ToyotaMirai is only available for sale in California because it's the only state with some form of hydrogen infrastructure. #cartok #carsoftiktok ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

THE SHORT ANSWER

Are there dangerous chemicals in your takeout food packaging? Likely yes.


THE PUBLIC HAS SPOKEN

We asked our readers on social media about the weirdest thing that’s ever clogged their toilets. Here are some of the best (or, really, the worst) of what you shared: a plastic toy alligator head, a golf ball, a drain stopper, and fake dog poop (I have questions).


QUIZ ANSWER

Wait What Peter GIF By The Bachelor

Source: ABC/"The Bachelor"/Giphy Source: ABC/"The Bachelor"/Giphy

The answer is E, none of them. If you ever wonder about what to flush down the toilet, here’s a good rule of thumb from Roto-Rooter’s Abrams: Stick to the three Ps: pee, poop, and paper (only toilet paper).

Wipes, even those that are advertised as “flushable,” should not be flushed because it takes them longer to break down and can clog sewer pipes. Tampons and tissue paper are the same. And you should avoid pouring cooking oil down the drain because it will build up and lead to—you guessed it, blockage.


Smarter Owl Icon

"If these toilets could speak, boy, the stories they would spill."



Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."