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Repairing Common Toilet Problems

Updated on September 16, 2017
Bert Holopaw profile image

Robert is a home-improvement and residential construction contractor working in central Florida.

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A few words that nobody ever wants to hear are "Honey, something is wrong with the toilet." That "something" could end up being a simple fix or a complete rebuild. After learning how a toilet operates, troubleshooting becomes easy. Most repairs only take a few minutes to complete. With the proper tools, even the most difficult repair often takes less than an hour.

All toilets have a fill valve, handle and flush mechanism in the tank. The water supply line feeds water to the fill valve's intake port. A float controls the fill valve's action. When the water level drops below the lower set point, the fill valve turns on. Once the water level reaches the upper set point, the fill valve turns off. Depressing the toilet's handle activates the flush mechanism, usually either a rubber flapper or power-flush cylinder. With the flush mechanism activated, water rushes from the tank into the bowl. The water should carry any waste in the bowl through the toilet's drain channel and into the building's drain pipe. A closet flange, the plumbing fitting attached to the end of the home's drain pipe, centers the toilet's discharge port over the drain pipe. A wax ring fills the space between the toilet's discharge port and the closet flange. Two closet bolts, sometimes called bowl-to-floor bolts, hold the bowl in place.

Replace broken toilet seats with one that matches the bowl shape.
Replace broken toilet seats with one that matches the bowl shape. | Source

Toilet Hardware Issues

A lever-style toilet handle comes from the manufacturer with a plastic or metal rod attached to the handle's mounting lug. The mounting lug acts as the handle's pivot point. When the operator pushes down on the handle, the rod lifts the flush mechanism. Usually a malfunctioning toilet handle has a broken rod and the handle must be replaced. Lift the tank's lid and remove the flapper chain from the handle's rod. Loosen the nut securing the handle against the tank. Slide the handle out of its tank opening. Carefully bend the new handle rod, as needed. Work the rod through its tank opening. Push the handle's square hub into the tank hole. If using a handle with a plastic hub, expect a tight fit. Slide the nut over the rod and hand tighten the nut. Slip the flapper chain into the appropriate hole in the rod, the chain should have a little play in it with the flapper closed.

Toilet seats fit round or elongated bowls and are made or plastic or wood. Some upgraded models feature a slow-close or no-slam lid. Two bolts hold the seat hinge against the bowl. If the seat constantly seems loose, tighten the nut and place a small amount of caulking on the exposed bolt threads. The caulking acts as a removable thread sealant. Some hardware stores offer replacement hinges. Screws hold the hinges in place.

The closet bolt caps cover the closet bolt, nut and washers. The plastic washers that hold the caps in place often fail, leaving the cap loose. If the cap will not remain attached to its base, fill the cap with plumber's putty and press the cap onto the closet bolt. The plumber's putty holds the cap in place without fouling the closet bolt's threads. A carefully placing a bead of caulk around the cap edge serves the same purpose.

Flush Valve Problems

When the toilet's flush valve fails, water slowly seeps from the tank into the bowl. Eventually the water level in the tank drops enough to turn on the fill valve, creating a phantom flush. Many toilets use a flapper-type flush valve. The flapper connects directly to the overflow tube. If the edges of the flapper curl at all, replace the flapper.

Some toilets use a cylinder-style flush valve. A flat round gasket seals the flush cylinder against the flush valve's base. The cylinder travels up during the flush cycle. The seal eventually curls as it ages, which prevents the cylinder from sitting flush against its base. To remove the seal, twist the top of the cylinder and remove it. Peel the old seal off and apply a new seal. Homeowners with duo-flush systems should contact the manufacturer's website for maintenance instructions.

The fill valve's threaded rod  regulates the amount of water held inside the tank.
The fill valve's threaded rod regulates the amount of water held inside the tank. | Source

Fill Valve and Ballcock Problems

A toilet's fill valve, or ballcock, uses a float activated valve. The float rides on the water's surface. When the water level drops below a set point, the float turns on the fill valve. Once the water rises to a second set point, the float turns off the valve.

Improper float travel causes most fill valve issues. Remove the tank's lid and inspect the water level. If the tank will not fill with water, the float is stuck in the off position. Tap down on the top of the float. If the water turn's on, check for water deposits near the top of the fill valve's shaft or actuator. If the water level has risen over the top of the overflow tube and the fill valve remains on, lift up on the float. If the float rises to the surface and turns off the water, check for deposits near the bottom of the shaft or actuator. If moving the float does not solve the problem, suspect the fill valve's actuator or diaphragm. Usually replacing the fill valve is the best option.

Water Leaks Between the Tank and Bowl

Occasionally a water leak can be traced to the space between toilet tank and bowl. Either the rubber gaskets on the tank-to-bowl bolts or the overflow tube's gaskets are leaking. To identify the problem area, dry the area completely. Do not use the toilet for 30 minutes and recheck for moisture. If the tank leaked water, suspect the tank-to-bowl bolt gaskets. If the space remained dry, flush the toilet and check for moisture again. If the tank leaked during the flush, replace the overflow tube's tank-to-bowl seal. This seal hugs the tube's locking nut and only leaks during the flush. Some tank-to-bowl bolt kits include the overflow's tank-to-bowl seal. It is wise to change both at the same time.

A damaged wax ring shows up as seepage around the toilet's base.
A damaged wax ring shows up as seepage around the toilet's base. | Source

Water Leaks Around the Toilet's Base

If water seeps out from under the toilet after each flush, remove the toilet and replace the wax ring. The wax ring seals the closet flange-to-toilet connection. Older wax rings eventually shrink and fail. It is also common for a wax ring to fail on a toilet that rocks or shifts. Some upgraded wax rings utilize a no-seep rubber collar. The collar slips into the closet flange and divert the waste water away from the closet flange. If the closet flange rests above the finished floor's surface, use a standard thickness wax ring. If the closet flange sits below the finished floor's surface, use a thick wax ring or a closet flange spacer. A wax ring kit contains a wax ring and new closet bolt hardware.

A toilet bowl that shifts when someone sits on it usually has either a broken closet flange or closet bolt. Remove the toilet and old wax ring. Inspect the closet flange and repair or replace as needed. Place a new wax ring and closet bolts on the closet flange. Reset the toilet.

A toilet bowl that rocks sits on uneven flooring, usually an out-of-level floor tile. Remove the toilet and replace the wax ring. Set the toilet in place. Position a bubble level across the bowl and adjust the toilet for level. Place composite or plastic shims underneath the bowl, as needed. Grout or caulk the shims in place. Let the grout or caulk dry before using the toilet.

Attack a toilet clog with a plunger first.
Attack a toilet clog with a plunger first.

Clogged Toilet

Nobody likes to flush the toilet and watch the water, and everything else, rise to the rim of the bowl. A complete overflow compounds the problem. Normally after the flush the water level will slowly fall. Position a toilet plunger against the bowl's opening. Firmly force the plunger down. Work the plunger up and down several times before testing the toilet. The plunger forces soft obstructions down the drain. If the plunger does not work, run a toilet auger down the toilet's drain opening. Turning the auger's handle works the cable around the trap's tight bends. A toilet auger's protective sleeve prevents damage to the inside surface of the bowl.

If the obstruction is too large for the toilet's trap, remove the toilet and run the auger up the discharge port. The end of the auger should push the debris back toward the bowl. If the clog has lodged in a drain pipe beyond the toilet, remove the toilet and run a plumber's snake or auger down the drain pipe.

If the toilet gurgles after the water and waste leaves the bowl, check the bathroom's vent stack. The vent pipe lets the bathroom's drain system breath. During the flush water displaces the air in the drain pipe, forcing sewer gasses out the vent pipe. As the water level in the pipe lowers, fresh air returns to the drain system through the vent pipe. Without proper ventilation a toilet will gurgle and have a slow flush. To flush a drain stack, climb on the roof and check the stack's opening for a restriction, such as a bird nest. After removing all debris from the stack's opening, place the end of a garden hose in the vent stack. Open the building's clean-out plug. Turn on the water. Look down the clean-out opening and verify water flows through the drain. Because the vent stack connects to the toilet's drain, water running down the vent stack will pass the clean-out opening. If water does not pass the clean-out opening, turn off the hose and run a plumber's snake down the vent stack.

If after cleaning the drain and vent the toilet still flushes slowly, check the toilet bowl for hard-water deposits. Hard-water deposits slow the water's delivery rate. When this happens the water level in the bowl rises during the flush, giving the slow flush symptom. Use a straightened paperclip to pick out the buildup in each hole. Flush the toilet and watch the water stream for irregularities. Sometimes pouring a hard-water removal chemical down the overflow tube will open up the passageways.

Slow or Incomplete Flush

This common problem often occurs when debris or buildup clogs the bowl's internal channels. Pour a bucket of water into the bowl. If the water level rises to the top of the bowl and then slowly drains, suspect a clogged drain pipe. If the bowl flushes normally, likely the bowl has buildup in the siphon port. During a normal flush the siphon port, the hole located at the bottom of the bowl, pushes water down the drain. The resulting whirlpool effect cleans the bowl. Use a toilet-care product designed to dissolve water deposits to unblock a partially stopped siphon port. These types of products are more environmentally safe than muriatic acid, and they are usually septic safe. Many plumbers would recommend replacing a toilet with completely blocked passages.

Dual-flush toilets save water.
Dual-flush toilets save water. | Source

When Replacing a Toilet Makes Sense

Because of their inefficient bowl design, older toilets have a hard time removing waste. Over time water deposits fill the internal water delivery passageways, creating a persistent slow flush situation. These passageways are hard, if not impossible, to clean.

Older toilets use a lot more water than modern toilets. Modern toilets use 1.6 or less gallons per flush. In order to remove all the waste in a single flush, toilet engineers have changed the size and shape of the toilet bowl's internal passageways. A quick check at a larger hardware store often finds a wide selection of toilets that use 1.28 gallons of water per flush, while maintaining a high flush efficiency rating. Some local municipalities may even offer a rebate when replacing an older toilet with a new high-efficiency toilet.

Customers looking to limit water usage often look for a toilet with a dual-flush feature. A dual flush lets the user choose between a full flush or partial flush. When the toilet contains solids, the user selects full flush. When the bowl contains only liquids or a small amount of solids, the user can select the partial flush button. Typically a full flush uses 1.6 gallons, while a partial flush releases 1.1 gallons. The ability to choose flush options can save hundreds of gallons of water.

© 2013 Bert Holopaw

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