Issues with the proper operation of toilets are common, and the average plumber can quickly diagnose necessary repairs to get your flush back up to par. Can the average homeowner say the same? Toilet repair parts are readily available at home improvement stores, and a basic working knowledge of how water closets work can save you hundreds of dollars in plumbing repairs. Read on to find out more.
Above is a basic diagram of a gravity-flush toilet tank. The vast majority of issues with toilets involve one of two components: the fill valve or the flapper. After a basic explanation of how gravity-flush toilets work, I will describe some basic home repairs to try before calling a plumber.
When a toilet is flushed, the toilet handle raises the flapper and allows water to flow into the porcelain bowl by gravity. When the flush is complete, the flapper drops. A float which is attached to the fill valve drops with the water level in the tank, allowing water to refill the tank from the supply line (a flexible tube which connects the water shut-off valve to the bottom of the fill valve, underneath the tank). Once the flapper has dropped and the tank has refilled, the float raises with the water level and tells the fill valve to shut off and stop filling the tank. This process repeats each time a toilet is flushed.
One of the more common issues I hear from homeowners is that their toilet "runs" frequently, apart from when the tank is filling back up. This is almost always a bad flapper. If the flapper doesn't make a good seal against the bottom of the flush valve, water trickles into the bowl at a constant rate, the fill valve float lowers, and the fill valve allows more water into the tank to maintain the water level. An easy way to determine if this is the issue is to look into the toilet bowl with a flashlight when the toilet is not running. If you see water trickling down the sides of the bowl, it is likely coming from the tank. There are various styles and sizes of flappers, so a good way to save time is to turn the water off to the toilet (use the shut-off located below the toilet, usually on the left side), remove the flapper, and take it to a supply store to be sure you purchase the same style of flapper. For very subtle leaks, food dye can be mixed with the water in the tank to make any leaks into the bowl more visible.
If the toilet flapper has been replaced and the toilet still runs, there are several possible causes. The water level could be adjusted too high (determined by the fill valve), in which case the water goes into the overflow tube and to the bowl. Adjusting the water level can solve this issue. At some point, all fill valves will fail due to age and will need to be replaced. Replacing a toilet fill valve is more difficult than replacing a flapper, but does not require an advanced degree in nuclear physics.
To replace a fill valve, turn the water off to the toilet using the water shut-off valve and flush the toilet to empty most of the water from the tank. Remove the top of the water supply line from the shank of the fill valve (located outside and underneath the tank). The top of the supply line is designed to be removed by hand, whereas the bottom will require a small adjustable wrench or channel-lock pliers. It's a good idea to have some rags and a small bucket or bowl on hand before removing either the supply line or the fill valve.
Next, place your bucket or container directly underneath the left side of the toilet tank and the fill valve shank. There will be a nut on the fill valve shank that will free the fill valve from the tank when loosened. Note that when this nut is loosened or removed, the remaining water in the tank will begin to pour out. I prefer to hold my bucket under the tank until the tank is completely empty. Once this nut is removed, the fill valve can be pulled from the toilet tank. Follow the instructions included with the new fill valve to ensure that the rubber gasket is installed properly on the shank of the fill valve. Tighten the new fill valve into place, attach the rubber hose to the overflow tube, and reconnect the supply line. From a pro standpoint, if you have gone to the trouble of replacing a flapper and fill valve, it's a good idea to replace the supply line as well. Supply lines can sometimes leak when they are reused.
While not an exhaustive list of possible issues and repairs, being able to replace a fill valve and flapper will remedy the majority of toilet issues.
Remember, if you ever run into a toilet problem you can't diagnose or repair yourself, or if you simply want the issue resolved quickly and warrantied, Call for Backup!