How to Deal With Toilet Problems

Having grown up in the 50’s I am partial to some rock and roll but not when I am on the toilet. An unstable toilet that shifts around when you sit on it is irritating. Not only is this uncomfortable but it might also rock enough to eventually break the bowl.

The problem can usually be corrected without calling a plumber but you must be careful not to break the toilet bowl when you attempt to fix it. Never forget that china is porcelain. On each side of the toilet bowl at the base you will find caps that cover a bolt and a nut. If you wiggle the toilet bowl–a toilet bowl is best handled with nitrile or latex gloves–and can see the bolts are not tight, your best course of action is to tighten them but carefully and a little at a time until the bowl rests securely on the floor.

If the bolts are tight but the bowl still rocks look closely at how the base attaches to the floor. Are there gaps? Is the floor uneven against the bowl? You can buy small plastic shims designed to fix this or make your own out of hardwood. The plastic ones will not need to be replaced but may be hard to find. I looked these up at the Home Depot site and they show DANCO plastic toilet shims in a four-pack. Be careful not to break the bowl by forcing the shim in too far. It is easier to break a toilet bowl or tank than you might think. Nearly everyone who takes up the plumbing trade breaks a few in the learning process. If you have any doubts it is best to call a plumber.

The other issues that are common in toilet problems are: phantom flush, a tank that does not fill, a tank that will not flush, a bowl that empties slowly, and the constant sound of water running. The easiest of these to deal with is the full tank that will not flush.

This usually happens when the chain that attaches from the tank lever (most people think of this as the handle) inside the tank to the flapper. A flapper is a piece of flexible material that blocks off the hole in the flush valve where the water escapes as the toilet flushes.

Flipping the tank lever pulls the chain and the flapper comes up allowing the water to start pouring down through the flush valve. The flush valve is the plastic part that attaches to the toilet tank (the part where the water to flush the toilet is contained); it often looks like a smokestack with a large opening at the bottom and two hooks where the flapper is connected.

If the handle turns but nothing happens then reattach the chain to the flapper but leave some slack in the chain. If you make it too tight then water might continually leak from the tank because the flapper will not seat properly. Test the flush by tripping the handle and watching to see that the flapper rises, hangs back while the water escapes, and then reseats tightly on the flush valve.

When you hear your toilet flushing in the middle of the night–it happens at other times but the hustle and bustle of our daily life drowns it out–it is not a ghost in the bathroom. Phantom flush is caused by water leaking from the tank into the bowl. When the water level in the tank gets down to a certain level the fill valve (also called a ballcock) kicks on and adds water to the tank.

The fill valve is the device that fills your tank. The problem is not with the fill valve; the problem lies with the flapper or the flush valve. Old flappers lose their shape and warp. When they become warped water can flow past them slowly and the tank will slowly go down until the fill valve is tripped and adds water to the tank.

The first step is to remove the flapper, take it to your plumbing outlet, and replace it with an equivalent flapper. Remember to attach the chain as in the earlier paragraph and test to make sure that the tank operates properly. If that does not fix the problem then you probably need a new flush valve.

Flush valves have a rounded edge that seats against the flapper. If this seat develops an opening where water may pass, then it leaks. It is highly unlikely but you could also have a leak in your tank; it does happen but rarely.

Replacing a flush valve can be tricky, not because the process is technically difficult but rather because of corrosion. The first thing to do is to make sure that the valve on the wall, called an angle stop, works; you don’t want a flood in your bathroom.

Now examine your toilet. A two-piece toilet is bolted together. Normally this is with two bolts that go between the tank and bowl but sometimes there are three; these can become corroded and hard to turn. This is where many toilets are broken by novices. I have had to use a saw to cut these bolts more times than I wish to remember; the bolts were frozen solid.

When in doubt cut them with a saw or call a plumber. One-piece toilets cannot be taken apart and replacing the flush valve might be easy or difficult depending on the make and model of the toilet. When in doubt, call a plumber.

Most flush valves are attached to the toilet tank with a nut that screws on to the bottom of the flush valve and presses against the bottom of the tank. I recommend taking a picture of your flush valve before you attempt any kind of repair and checking with your local plumbing store to see if it is a common replacement part.

A tank that does not fill is commonly caused by a failed fill valve. If you flush the tank and hear no water running, the ballcock is the culprit unless the valve to the toilet on the wall is turned off or the water to the house is off. Take a picture of it with your phone, if possible, and make tracks to the local plumbing store to get an idea of how easy removing it might be and how much they cost.

Most fill valves attach to the tank like the flush valve with a single nut and washer and then connect to the water supply at the wall with a flexible connector. Before you consider doing such a job yourself be sure that the valve on the wall shuts off the water.

These wall valves are rarely used and often fail. It is no fun to disconnect the flexible line from the toilet and have a flood in your bathroom that you can only stop by turning off the water at the main! Do not over tighten the nut on the fill valve when you attach it to the tank or the tank may break.

A tank reservoir that never fills completely or the sound of water constantly running is usually caused by either the flapper or the flush valve allowing water to pass out of the tank. Start by replacing the flapper. This is the same problem that causes phantom flush and refer to that section above. The sound of water running constantly could also be a leaking fill valve.

If the fill valve is leaking the water in the tank will be up to the top line of the flush valve, the top of the tube. You will see water pouring down the tube. A failed fill valve needs to be replaced.

A bowl that empties slowly can be caused by two things: a partially clogged drain line or clogged jets. This is often true of our new low flush toilets, there is not enough water going down the drain in a flush to properly move solids down the line.

If paper and other solids build up the drain size is effectively reduced and the water will not go down the drain as quickly as it should and the bowl will not empty properly. If the obstruction is in the line close to the toilet the best tool to use is a closet auger with a drop head. This tool is a drain snake specifically designed for a toilet.

The best closet augers extend up to 6 feet. The other possible issue could be clogged jets. Inside the toilet bowl there are holes located inside the upper rim. These holes, or jets, become clogged over time with calcium and other mineral deposits. The jets are designed to help the water in the bowl flush out. Unclogging these requires the use of a dangerous solvent such as Calci-Solve or another brand of hydrochloric acid.

Acids such as these should be applied by a plumber who is trained in their use. Hydrochloric acid gets hot in water. It can get so hot that it will cause the toilet bowl to explode and I have heard of this happening. If the jets are clogged I recommend either replacing the toilet or calling a licensed plumber to solve the problem.