Tips on Solving Common Toilet Problems

The more you know about your home the better. With a little knowledge, it is easy to figure out why your bills fluctuate from month to month or something starts making a funny noise. Whether you are trying to take control of your home or just being curious, understanding your toilet should be at the top of your to-do list.

Most common toilet problems (like replacing wax ring, removing flange or replacing fill valve) can be solved with a relatively simple and inexpensive replacement of parts. It is very rare that the entire toilet needs to be replaced (apart from a crack in the ceramic itself, or other age-related problems). With a little knowledge, toilet problems are not the end of the world.

Before You Look at Your Toilet

There are two things that everybody should know before looking at their toilet. Most importantly, the water in the back of the toilet is clean. That water is part of the system used to create a solid flush; it is just as clean as the water coming from your sink. Next, if you flush the toilet with the lid off a small amount of water may splash out of the back. Make sure there isn’t anything around that shouldn’t get wet.

Toilet Parts

There are five basic parts of a toilet that most people know; the bowl is in the front, the seat covers the bowl, the tank is the large back part, the lid covers the tank and the handle flushes. The parts that many people aren’t familiar with is what’s inside the tank.

  • Float Ball – This ball floats on the top of the water and connects directly to the refill valve. It makes the refill valve open and close.
  • Refill Valve – When this valve opens it allows new clean water to enter the tank.
  • Refill Tube – This tube runs down into the overflow valve. After the toilet is flushed this allows the bowl to fill back up.
  • Overflow Tube – This tube prevents too much water from entering the tank by sending excess water down into the bowl.
  • Flush Lever – This arm connects to the back of the handle.
  • Chain – The chain connects the flush lever to the flapper.
  • Flapper – This cover connects to the chain and keeps water from leaving the tank through the flush valve. The flapper has a small amount of air in it so it will try to float but the pressure from above and its connection to the tank prevents it.
  • Flush Valve – This is a large opening at the bottom of the tank that lets out the water. If the toilet isn’t being flushed the flapper is covering it.

As you can see all the parts of the toilet work together to make the entire system function. In order for the toilet to work properly, all these parts need to be in tip-top shape.

When the Toilet Gets Flushed

The easiest way to see how the whole system works together is to flush the toilet with the lid off. That still leaves the question of how it all functions. It is actually pretty simple.

  • The handle is pushed down which causes the flush lever to rise up pulling the chain with it.
  • The chain lifts the flapper and uncovers the flush valve, which makes water rush down into the bowl.
  • The flapper floats for a few seconds until the water level lowers enough that it drops back down over the flush valve.
  • As the water drops, the float descends, which opens the refill valve and allows new water into the tank. This water is coming in much more slowly than the water is going out so it doesn’t interfere with the flapper.
  • The water rushes through the flush valve and into the bowl. This creates positive pressure in the bowl and begins pushing water down into the pipe. This creates a siphon and pulls the rest of the water from the bowl.
  • Water continues to flow into the toilet through the refill valve until the tank and bowl fill up. The water runs directly into the tank and indirectly into the bowl through the refill tube.

Common Toilet Parts, Problems and Repairs

When the average toilet malfunctions – that is, it is leaking or not flushing properly – the average person opening up the lid to a tank for the first time is often faced with a rather confusing jumble of parts, all of which serve just a single purpose – to fill the tank with water, then to release it into the bowl (where gravity does the rest).

There is hope for the average joe, however. The inner workings of a toilet, after all, are not as complicated as they may seem. In essence, there are only three major pieces to the puzzle within the tank itself (and a few minor ones), and then a couple on the outside that might be useful to know something about as well.

On the Outside – Water Supply

Take a look at the wall behind most toilets. Generally, the water supply to the toilet comes out of the wall (or sometimes the floor) in the form of a copper, galvanized, or plastic (cpvc or pex) pipe. Attached to the end of this pipe is a shutoff valve (also called an angle valve or angle stop). The valve is attached to the pipe either by way of pipe threads or by way of a compression fitting. In the case of cpvc, it might also be glued on. If water is leaking from this point, the best option is to simply replace the entire part.

From this valve is attached a supply line, which is usually made either of plastic or braided stainless steel (the stainless steel lines are more common in newer installations), which leads up to the toilet, where it is threaded onto the bottom portion of the fill valve.

Inside the Toilet – Fill Valve

The fill valve (or ballcock) can come in several varieties, though they all serve the same purpose – allow water to flow into the tank until it reaches a certain level, then shut it off.

The threaded portion of the fill valve sticks through the hole that is in the bottom of most toilet tanks, which is then attached to the supply line. A threaded nut and rubber washer fasten the fill valve to the tank in order to create a water-tight seal around the hole (if water is leaking out of this hole, often it is simplest to replace just the rubber washer – a ballcock shank washer).

The fill valve can work in one of several ways. A common form is a tube which extends toward the top of the tank, where a short metal rod threads into it, on the end of which is a plastic or metal ball. The valve lets water in until it reaches a point where this ball (or “float”) is pushed up to a certain point, which shuts the water off. Another form of this includes a different sort of float attached to the valve itself, though it works on the same principle. A slightly newer, simpler type of fill valve allows only a certain amount of water through before shutting off automatically.

The water level within the tank can be easily adjusted using either of these varieties – for float balls, simply bend the metal rod so that the float sits lower or higher in the bowl. Other types can be adjusted by simply twisting a knob on the unit.

Overflow Tube/Flapper

The other hole in the bottom of a toilet tank is that which leads directly into the bowl itself. This hole is the home for the overflow tube. This tube has a large hole on the bottom, covered by a watertight flapper (which comes in many different varieties, depending on the brand and model of the toilet and overflow tube).

If the water level gets too high in the tank, the excess water can escape via the hole at the top of the overflow tube (but if this is occurring, it is best to adjust the water level using the fill valve, so as not to waste water).

When the toilet lever is depressed (these levers can come in either a “front mount” or “side mount” form), a metal, plastic or rubber chain pulls up on the flapper, letting the water in the tank flow into the bowl, which uses gravity to empty through the bottom of the toilet.

And that, in essence, is a simple version of what happens inside a toilet.

Clogged Up Toilet

It’s hard to imagine a world without indoor plumbing but toilets do come with their own set of headaches. The chief culprit is a clogged toilet, a common plumbing problem that homeowners and apartment dwellers alike need to be ready to deal with.

The first step to fix a clogged toilet is to diagnose the problem. Without going into too many gory details, most toilets clog when they’ve just been used and large amounts of toilet paper or other material have been flushed.

This is the most common reason for clogged toilets, and it’s also typically one of the simplest to fix. If the toilet clogs and doesn’t flush fully, don’t keep flushing it. Let the water level drop until a toilet plunger can be used without spilling water over the edge of the toilet rim.

Toilet plungers work best when fully submerged, so add water if necessary if the bowl is empty. Don’t flush the toilet again to add water; pour water from a bowl or pot into the toilet instead.

Press the plunger down so that it has a good seal with the bottom of the toilet and the rubber cup is covered with water and slowly but firmly push the plunger down and force water down through the pipes. More often than not this is all that’s necessary to unclog a toilet.

If the plunger doesn’t work to unclog the toilet, it’s likely a more substantial object that’s obstructing the pipe and causing the toilet to clog. Hairbrushes and children’s toys are common culprits, along with other common bathroom items that can accidentally get knocked into the toilet and flushed down.

If a toilet plunger doesn’t fix the clogged toilet, a wire coat hanger can be used to try to hook the obstruction and pull it back out. Most blockages happen fairly close to the toilet bowl, so it’s sometimes possible to clear it with a simple coat hanger. Take care not to scratch the porcelain bowl, though, when inserting wire hangers or any other tools into the toilet bowl.

If plunging and a wire coat hanger don’t work, it’s time to call in a plumber for all but the most adventurous DIYers. While some might buy a toilet auger (also called a closet auger) and try to clear the clogged toilet, it’s usually a job best left to the professionals at that stage.

Fixing a Loose Toilet

One of the most common plumbing problems that people encounter is a loose or leaking toilet. Any amount of moisture that appears around the base of the toilet is generally a sign of a leaking toilet. However, many times the toilet is simply loose. This is a problem in two respects: The first being that methane gas can escape from the waste vent polluting the air you are breathing, and two leaking around the toilet flange causing your floor to rot. If you have a loose toilet, do not worry too much as this is an easy problem to fix.

Constantly Running Toilet

When the toilet runs constantly, chances are that water is running into the overflow tube because the ballcock or the float cup needs adjustment. The ballcock link has an adjustment clip that can be pressed and lowered. With a float cup type, find the adjustment clip on the side of the float cup.

If this still does not make the toilet stop running, be sure that the refill tube that goes from the fill tube to the overflow tube is just above the overflow tube, not going into it.

The final thing that will make the toilet run constantly is a defective fill valve seal. This will need replacement.

Slowly Filling Toilet

The most likely culprit when the toilet takes too long to fill is a clogged fill valve tube. Shut off the water supply valve at the wall. Remove the hardware on the top of the tube to gain access to the toilet fill valve tube. Now use a bottle brush or length of stiff wire to clear anything in the tube. Hold a glass over the fill tube and open and close the valve several times to flush out the tube. Reinstall the hardware.

Splashing or Running Water Sounds

In the back of the toilet, there is a pipe that connects directly to the bowl called the overflow pipe. There should be a tube that runs down into it from the refill valve called the refill tube. If the tube comes out of the pipe, the water won’t refill the bowl properly. The water has to rise high enough in the tank to run down the overflow pipe. This running water causes the noise and is easy to fix by simply putting the tube back into the pipe.

Water in the Float Ball

The floating ball in the back of the toilet is like a hard-shelled balloon. Sitting in the cold water in the back of a toilet can cause the outer shell to break down and let in water. If this happens, the float will get too heavy and needs to be replaced.

Loose Handle

Look at the back of the handle inside the tank. There should be a small screw that holds the handle on. Look over the connection before you tighten it. If there are any obvious cracks or wear spots the handle should be replaced. If the back of the handle is in good shape just tighten the screw and it should be fine.

Loud Flush

If the toilet sounds very loud after a flush the water pressure is likely too high. Most toilets have a water valve under the tank in the back. Turn down the pressure and it should quiet down.

Toilet That Doesn’t Flush Completely

This can be a problem with the newer “low flow toilets”. Unfortunately, the effort to save water has backfired when multiple flushes are required. Another problem can be clogged entry into the bowl.

Under the rim of the toilet bowl are a series of entry holes. Clean each one, ensuring that water flows freely. Finally, examine the flapper in the bottom of the toilet. Is it old and rotted? Is it seating properly, Is the chain too long, causing it to hang up? Just replace the flapper and adjust the chain to 1/2” slack.

Toilet That Doesn’t Flush at All

If you push the handle and nothing happens then the chain that connects the handle to the plug at the bottom of the tank has likely come loose. Reconnect the two parts and the toilet will flush again.

Leaking Toilet

You will see a deteriorated wax ring over the top of the waste line that connects to the toilet. Take a putty knife and scrape off the wax completely. Also, clean out around the flange. This area can be dirty so wear rubber gloves for this portion of the project.

Once everything is clean around the drain, put the new wax ring over the waste vent and insert the new toilet bolts into the flange slots. Then carefully set the toilet onto the wax ring so that the toilet drain matches up with the waste vent. The bolts will go into the slot provided for the toilet and the wax ring will now seal out gases and prevent water leakage.

Secure the toilet to the floor by installing the nuts and washers provided in the wax ring kit to the bolts and tighten down with a wrench. Hook up the water inlet back up to the toilet tank and turn on the water to fill up the tank. Flush the toilet to make sure that it operates properly.

Performing this type of plumbing fix it could save you as much as $150 in plumbing costs. Something this simple can really make a big difference to your pocket book.

A Few Common Problems and Solutions to Toilet Leaks

Problem: Water is leaking from tank to bowl.

Solution: Check the flapper to make sure it is not warped and that it seals properly. Replace if necessary (but bring the old flapper into the store, as there is a wide variety to choose from).

Problem: Water is leaking from the seal between the tank and the bowl.

Solution: Check the rubber gasket on the bottom portion of the overflow tube and replace as needed.

Problem: Water leaking from beneath the toilet, where it meets the floor.

Solution: Wax ring or gasket needs to be replaced.

Problem: Water leaking from angle valve at the wall.

Solution: Either faulty valve needs to be replaced, or the seal on the supply line is faulty. Replace one or both.

Removing the Toilet

In order to repair the toilet, you have to temporarily remove the toilet. Start by shutting off the water supply to the toilet on the inlet connection to the toilet tank. Then flush the toilet, making sure the hold the handle down to allow as much water as possible to drain out of the toilet and down the drain. Once the toilet tank is empty, disconnect the water supply inlet to the toilet at the toilet tank.

To remove the toilet from the floor, locate the bolts on either side of the bottom of the toilet. Remove the nut and washer that holds the toilet bottom to the bolts. Depending on the age of the toilet, this can be a difficult task. If the nuts are simply not turning, cut the bolts off with a bolt cutter, being careful not to damage the toilet. Pick up the toilet and set it to the side until you are ready to repair it. Make sure you do not lose any of parts because otherwise you may have a problem reattaching the toilet and may need to buy a new one.