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How does a trip lever bath drain work?

If your bathtub doesn’t hold water and is always draining — or the opposite problem, it won’t drain at all — you might have an issue with your drain or stopper.

To gain a general knowledge of the wide world of tub drains, let’s start with identifying the five basic types of drain systems:

  • Push-pull or lift and turn. You can identify this plug by the tiny knob on the product’s cap. With this knob, you can easily open or close the stopper by twisting movements. For example, if you lift and turn the knob in one direction, the stopper opens while turning the knob in the opposite direction closes it.  A push-pull stopper looks the same as a lift and turn type and shares the same installation technique; however, as the name implies, it opens and closes via pushing and pulling.
  • Toe touch (foot-actuated, foot lock, or toe tap). The toe touch stopper mimics the push-pull model. It is installed in the same manner as the push-pull or lift and turn even though it has a spring. To open or close it, simply push down the stopper with your toe.
  • Flip-it. These simple O-ring stoppers are easy to use, as you choose the one that creates the tightest seal in the drain body and insert the stopper. All you need to do is to move the toggle lever from side to side to open or close it.
  • Pop-up. This model is activated by a trip lever, cable, turn style, or other method. Pop-ups are simple mechanical devices that use a system of links and levers to move a drain stopper up and down to seal a sink bowl or bathtub.  Pop-ups are raised and lowered with a lift knob or lever, typically found on or near the faucet body.
  • Trip lever or turn style (internal plunger/stopper). The trip lever stopper has a lever on the overflow plate in front of the bathtub. Here, a strainer (grate) replaces a visible pop-up stopper in the drain opening. Unlike the other types of bathtub drain stoppers on our list, it can be confusing when you want to take out the stopper for cleaning. This task involves taking it out of the overflow tube and plate.

Have more questions about your trip leaver drain or other plumbing-related questions? Instantly speak with one of our experts today.

What is a trip lever drain?

A trip lever drain is a type of mechanism that is found in many bathtub designs.  Essentially, the trip lever works as part of an apparatus that allows the stopper to be opened or closed, making it possible to retain water in the tub or release the water into the drain. It is sometimes referred to as a “lift-bucket” style.

The small up-and-down lever you see protruding from the overflow plate on your bathtub wall is called the trip lever. It is connected to a vertical connecting rod inside the overflow pipe behind the front tub wall and moves up and down when the lever is used. Near the bottom of the connecting rod is a plunger of some kind — usually a weight that works by sealing the drain opening at the bottom of the overflow tube.

The plunger sits over the drain opening tee to seal off the tub drain. With the trip lever down, the plunger is lifted and the drain is open; when the trip lever is up, the plunger is forced down and the drain is closed. And if the tub is accidentally overfilled, excess water can still run down the overflow tube behind the trip-lever plate and can drain away because the plunger is hollow.

Less common types utilize a rocker arm to raise or lower the stopper in the tub’s drain opening. The rocker arm extends out through the waste tube to the tee that connects with the overflow tube. It has the same trip lever assembly except that there is no longer a plunger; instead, there is a coiled spring that rides atop the flattened portion of the rocker arm (it is notorious for catching loads of hair). This is a “pop-up” style of trip lever.

Get your tools ready

If you’re ready to attempt this fix on your own, you’ll need to gather some fairly common tools before you start:

  • A 4- or 6-way multipurpose screwdriver (a versatile screwdriver with interchangeable bits of common sizes)
  • Adjustable pliers
  • A small adjustable wrench
  • A flashlight

How to fix a trip lever drain stopper

When problems occur with this type of drain, it is for one of two reasons:

  • The plunger has become stuck in the overflow tube and will not move up and down freely 
  • The rod linking the trip lever to the plunger isn’t adjusted properly, creating a situation in which the lift bucket plunger doesn’t drop down enough to completely seal the drainpipe opening

Before we get into it, get personalized advice from our experts on your home. Our experts are standing by waiting to help you around your home today.

Now let’s get into it!

  1. Remove the overflow cover plate and stopper
    Back out the mounting screws that hold the overflow cover plate onto the overflow tube. Carefully remove the cover plate and extract the connecting rod and plunger through the overflow opening.
  2. Inspect and clean the plunger
    Clean off the plunger; debris or corrosion may be preventing it from moving smoothly in the overflow tube. If the plunger is badly corroded or damaged, the entire assembly should be replaced.
  3. Adjust the linkage
    If necessary, adjust the linkage to lengthen the connecting rod. This will allow the plunger to fall lower in the overflow tube, ensuring that it seals the drain opening. It may take a bit of tinkering to get the connecting rod length exactly right.
  4. Reassemble the stopper
    Insert the stopper and drain linkage back down through the overflow opening. Reattach the cover plate to the overflow tube. Turn on the water and operate the stopper several times to make sure it is working properly.

Time and cost of repair

You may spend $25 to $100 in parts plus an hour for labor if a pro is called in to do the repairs. (Labor costs vary considerably, and some firms also charge a show-up fee.) Once on-site, a professional would take an hour at most to make the repairs. (However, if the entire tub waste and overflow is to be replaced, that normally requires a second tech be present to assist assembly because it’s a two-person job.) A homeowner would typically take several hours more to complete the job.

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