Common Toilet Problems: How to Fix Them Cheaply and Easily

In a recent article, I discussed how one could replace a toilet . In this article, I discuss some common toilet problems and how they can be easily (and cheaply) repaired.

In order to fix your toilet, you first need to understand it. Here is a basic explanation of how the average toilet works. The toilet is made up of two parts, the tank and the bowl. The bowl sits on the floor, and has a discharge throat at its very bottom which allows waste to be flushed away. The tank usually sits on top of the bowl, holding the water needed to flush it. By pressing on the tank’s handle, you release the stored tank water into the toilet bowl. Gravity does much of the work of pushing wastewater through an S-shaped trap into the drain line. The released water also seeks to level itself within this “S” trap; until it does, it keeps moving. After much of the water has moved through and become level, the flush ends.

Now that the basics of toilet operation have been covered, let’s look at some problems:

Toilet Running

Arguably, the most common toilet problem is where water will not stop running into the bowl. This can lead to some pretty high water bills if the problem is not addressed.

Why would a toilet keep running the water? Inside the toilet tank, there is a float system which monitors and maintains the tank’s water level. A critical component of the tank’s float system is the bottom outlet valve, or flapper. This valve opens when you flush, staying open until all the tank water is emptied out. At that point, this valve should close and allow for water to refill the tank.

Most valves or flappers are made from rubber, which does decompose or become encrusted over time. Some valves will even warp. Whatever the situation, if the valve does not form a tight seal, water will continuously escape from the tank. Since the float mechanism in the tank is designed to let water run continuously until the original tank water level is restored, you will have a toilet constantly running, even when you haven’t flushed.

Most of the time, you can solve this problem by replacing the flapper valve. Shut off the water going into your toilet, remove the old flapper valve, and take it with you to the hardware store so you can ensure that the new one has the same fit. Most flapper valves cost around $5.

Broken Flush Handle/Arm

A second common problem with toilets is the flush handle or interior arm, which can break. This is not surprising, given how much use the handle and its arm get over the lifetime of the toilet. Corrosion and rust can also take their toll over time.

The good news is that, just like the tank valve/flapper, the flush handle or arm is quite inexpensive to replace. Usually, the entire assembly costs no more than $5. However, one important item most people overlook is the actual location of the handle. Keep in mind whether the handle is located on the front or side of the tank. Some tanks even have an angle mount to their handles, because their corners are beveled at 45 degree angles.

Leaking Toilet Bowl

Another common problem to toilets is a leaking toilet bowl. You may not discover a leaking bowl until you start seeing leaks going into your basement. Some toilets, though, let their leaks be easily known when they spill water onto the bathroom floor, wetting your socks in the process.

Unless something has happened to crack the toilet bowl (or tank) porcelain, the most likely reason the toilet bowl is leaking is because of a faulty wax ring.

Why would a wax ring become faulty? If the toilet was not bolted firmly enough to the floor to begin with, it will rock ever so slightly every time someone sits on it. Over time, this rocking motion will loosen the wax ring, causing it to release water upon every flush.

Luckily, this is not an expensive problem to solve. First, go out and buy a new wax ring, which should cost about $3. Let it acclimate to room temperature once you bring it home. Then, turn off the toilet’s water supply and flush it. Empty out as much water as possible from the bowl. Now, unhook the water supply, loosen the bolts holding the toilet to the floor, and lift the toilet off the floor. Set it aside somewhere. Make sure the toilet bottom is standing on old towels or newspaper, not directly on the floor; otherwise, you’ll have wax all over your floor.

Plug the sewer line with an old towel or other cloth so that you do not have sewer gas leaking into the bathroom. Using a putty knife, remove the old wax ring from the sewer line. Put the new wax ring in place and then put the toilet over it. Slowly push down on the toilet so as to seat it on the wax ring. Bolt the toilet back down to the floor, making sure it does not rock. Be careful not to over-tighten the bolts; this will crack the ceramic.

Clogged Toilet

This is probably the most annoying toilet problem. However, with a few tricks, you can easily (and cheaply) unclog it. First, go out to your local Home Depot or Lowe’s home improvement store and buy a force ball-type plunger. These plungers cost from $3-$5 and are a vast improvement over standard plungers, providing at least twice the plunging pressure.

Be sure you have sufficient water in your toilet bowl. If not, add some water. Try plunging the clog by moving the plunger up and down on the toilet bowl discharge throat about 20 times.

Usually, this will be sufficient to undo any toilet clog. However, if you plunge and are unable to unclog the toilet, then you will need to get something called a closet auger. A toilet snake can also be used. Either of these items run about $20-$30. Start threading the auger/snake into the bowl and keep turning it until it becomes tight. This turning action should hook, and then bring back, whatever is clogging the bowl.

If all else fails, you may need to undo the toilet as described in the Leaking Toilet Bowl section. This will allow you better access to the toilet bowl bottom, where from you can pull out the obstruction by hand. Don’t forget to get a new wax ring and install that back on the sewer line when you are finished.

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