Common Toilet Problems & How to Fix them Yourself

Toilet leaking and creating water damage that requires water restoration

We talk a lot about water damage, and that’s because it can not only cause as much physical damage to a house as fire can, but it can also be incredibly frustrating to deal with. One common source of water damage is something we’re all bound to use multiple times a day: the toilet…and there are multiple reasons we don’t want to deal with a poorly functioning toilet! Thankfully, most toilet issues – if caught quickly – can be fixed by the average homeowner with little to no plumbing knowledge. Here’s a quick guide for fixing common toilet problems before it gets worse! Keep in mind that most toilet problems begin in the tank, not the bowl. There aren’t many repairs that involve the bowl, but the tank houses two important valves (the flush and the fill), as well as the handle that initiates the flush action.

How Does Your Toilet Work?

Before you can begin repairs, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how your toilet tank works.

The toilet tank’s function is to hold a quantity of water until you flush the toilet. When you flush, the water in the tank rushes down through an opening in the bottom of the tank and into the bowl. This forces waste out of the bowl and into the home’s drain and sewer lines. The flush valve and the fill valve make this function possible.

The toilet fill valve is the mechanism that fills the tank with water. It is also known as a “ballcock” or “refill valve”. The fill valve is usually located to the left side of the tank as you look down from above with the tank lid removed. Fill valves comes in four basic variations:

  • Plunger-type ballcock: the oldest type, usually made of brass
  • Diaphragm-type ballcock: older styles may be brass, newer types are plastic
  • Float cup fill valve: a newer design, usually made of plastic
  • Floatless fill valve: another newer design; not allowed by some codes

The fill valve works to automatically open the water supply valve when the water level falls in the tank during a flush. It then shuts off automatically when the water level rises to a specific level in the tank. Depending on your toilet’s design, the valve is operated either by a floating ball or a float cup that moves up and down with the water level in the tank.

If you remove the tank lid and watch what happens inside the tank during the flush cycle, you will quickly understand the mechanics of how a toilet works.

About the Fill Valve

Refill valves come in several designs, and the older styles are commonly referred to as “ballcocks”. This term refers to the hollow floating ball that operates the valve controlling the water. You may run into both the plunger-type and diaphragm-type ballcocks in older toilets. The mechanism is very simple, and water level adjustments are made by bending the float arm up or down to change the point at which the float ball shuts off the water supply. When a toilet continues to run after the flush cycle is completed, it is usually because the water level is too high in the tank.

By bending the float arm downward, the float ball will shut off the water at a lower tank level. Adjusting the water level in the tank is a matter of “fine-tuning” the point at which the float ball shuts off the valve. Ballcock valves are prone to problems. If you have one of these, it is a good idea to replace it with a more modern float-cup style fill valve.

About the Flush Valve

Located in the center of the tank, the flush valve is a plastic or brass fitting attached to the bottom opening on the tank. It operates with a rubber or neoprene flapper or float ball. The flapper/float ball sits against the valve opening to keep water in the tank until the flush handle is operated. When the handle is depressed, a chain or lift wire connected to the handle rod lifts the flapper away from the valve seat and allows the water to flush down out of the tank and into the toilet bowl. When the tank is empty, the flapper falls back down into the valve seat, sealing the opening and allowing water to refill the tank.

Fixing a Running Toilet

Fixing a running toilet is relatively easy to do. The problem occurs either because the flapper is not seating itself correctly in the opening of the flush valve, or because the water level in the tank is too high. This allows water to flow over the top of the overflow tube and down into the tank. With either problem, the repairs are very easy to make. All refill valves have methods for adjusting the water level, and flapper valves are easy to adjust or replace.

Solving a Loose Flush Handle

The flush handle may become loose or disconnected from the rest of the tank. Either reconnect the lift wire or lift chain that connects the lift arm from the flapper. Adjust the handle mounting nut inside the tank; it has reverse threads that require counterclockwise rotation to tighten.

Fixing Leaks at the Toilet Base

While most toilet problems originate in the tank, there’s one that involves the base of the toilet. You may find water seeping out around the base of the toilet bowl and onto the floor. An actual puddle of water at the base of your toilet is a bad sign. There is a great chance the water is dirty. It’s best to avoid using your toilet until you fix it. This problem is probably the result of an issue with the wax ring that seals the base of the toilet (called the horn) to the drain opening set into the floor. You’ll have to remove the toilet in order to replace the wax ring. Although this might seem like a major project, it’s not overly complicated. You can save a lot of money by doing the work yourself rather than calling the plumber.

Unclogging a Toilet

A clogged toilet is the most common toilet problems you’ll encounter. In most cases, there is no reason to call a plumber. A specialized toilet plunger with an internal cup or flange will handle most clogs. Stubborn clogs may require a special drain snake tool, called a closet or toilet auger.