If you’ve ever had that heart-stopping moment of dropping an expensive piece of jewelry down the sink (or had nightmares about the possibility), or if you have kids who like to play with the toilet, you should know the different ways to save small objects from being rinsed or flushed away forever.
You should rescue items because you value them, of course—and also because doing so protects your plumbing from clogs and other issues.
How to retrieve an item from a sink drain
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Before you attempt to take apart any plumbing, try to retrieve your item from above with either a strong magnet tied to a string or flexible cable (for metals that are magnetic) or a grabber tool with a hook or claw (for things that aren’t). Be sure to go slowly—otherwise, you could accidentally push your lost item further down the drain.
If you don’t have any luck, the next option is to disassemble part of the pipe that connects underneath your sink and look for your lost item. Begin by shutting off the water by turning the hot and cold valves (usually found under the sink) clockwise. Also, consider taking photos or videos of each of the following steps so you can return each part back to where it belongs.
Remove the drain plug or sink stopper
Depending on the design of your drain, this may be as easy as gently lifting and twisting it from above. Or you may have to unscrew the rod and pivot nut (found underneath the sink) that holds the stopper in place.
Do this carefully, as your item could be hooked onto the end of the stopper when you pull it out, and shaking it could dislodge the object and allow it to fall back into the drain.
Check the p-trap
If your item fell deeper than the sink stopper, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper by unscrewing the curved, U-shaped pipe—known as the p-trap—found beneath the sink.
Clear the area under the sink and place towels or a bucket to catch any water that remains in the pipes. Then loosen the nuts on either end and gently tug down. Inspect the interior for your lost item. While you’re at it, put on some gloves and remove any accumulated debris that may be clogging your sink.
Call a plumber
If your object wasn’t in the p-trap, all may not yet be lost, but you should call a professional for help. Do not attempt to disassemble your sink’s plumbing any further, and do not turn the water back on until they have exhausted your options.
How to save an item that’s been flushed down the toilet
As with a sink rescue, there are a couple of simple solutions for retrieving items dropped down the toilet before you get into disassembly. Start by turning off the water using the shut-off valve (located behind the toilet where it connects to the wall). Next, don a pair of long rubber gloves—ideally up to your elbow—and eye protection in case of splashing, and place towels around the toilet bowl.
With your gloves on, reach into the opening to feel around for your lost item. Assuming the toilet hasn’t been flushed, the object may be sitting within reach. Be sure not to dip any exposed skin into the water.
If you don’t feel the item with your hand, you can use a plunger, which may dislodge it enough to pull it toward the surface of the opening so you can reach it, or use the grabber tool/drain snake described above to fish around. Finally, if you have access to a wet/dry vacuum, you may be able to suction the object out.
If your item was actually flushed down the toilet, it may be lodged in the toilet trap or deeper in the plumbing. You can empty the tank by flushing it a few times once the water has been shut off, disconnecting the supply line, and unbolting the toilet from the floor in order to poke around inside the waste opening. However, you need to be able to replace the toilet correctly once you’re done. At this stage, it may be best to contact a plumber, who can also search deeper into your pipes.
How to prevent dropping items down drains in the first place
Prevention is the best protection, as they say, so you may want to consider a few steps to make your drains and toilets safer. First, keep your toilet lid shut anytime it’s not in use to avoid accidentally dropping items into the bowl. If you have kids, install a child safety lock to prevent them from playing in the toilet.
For your sinks, consider a drain strainer to replace the stopper or plug—a strainer will catch anything you drop before it falls down the drain, and it’ll keep debris from clogging things up.