How to Repair a Toilet

Toilet Articles

The toilet is one of the most important fixtures in your home. Although toilets are sturdy and reliable components of the plumbing system, it’s a rare homeowner or apartment-dweller who never has any problems with a toilet. Clogging is perhaps the most common toilet trouble, but it is far from the only one. The tank, for example, can make all sorts of strange noises, or water can run continuously. Fortunately, most toilet troubles can be fixed by a do-it-yourself plumber.

If you're a do-it-yourself kind of person, learning some quick fixes can keep you from calling the plumber. In this article, we're going to explain various issues related to repairing toilets.


    Replacing a Toilet Seat

    The easiest toilet repair task is replacing the lid and seat. There are so many styles of replacement seats available that you should have no trouble finding one to match any bathroom color scheme or motif. Most modern toilets are manufactured in two standard sizes, and replacement seats are made to fit them.

    Once you have the right size seat, remove the old one. Remove the two nuts on the hinge and lift your old toilet seat up and out. A common problem is that the nuts securing the toilet seat may be rusted or corroded. The nuts on some toilet seats are recessed and practically inaccessible, making the job even more difficult.

    A new toilet seat can be installed by inserting the two bolts, slipping on the washers, and tightening the nuts. Be careful not to over-tighten the nuts or the seat might be hard to remove later.

    What’s the solution? If you can get to the fasteners relatively easily, apply some penetrating oil to help loosen them. Give the oil plenty of time to soak in. Use a wrench, or, if you can’t reach the nuts with a regular wrench, a deep socket wrench. Be sure you don’t use too much force; if the wrench slips off a stubborn nut, it could strike and crack the tank of the bowl or anything else it happens to hit.

    Sink, Tub and Drain Troubleshooting Guide
    Possible Cause
    Water in tank runs constantly
    Float ball or rod is misaligned. Bend float rod carefully to move ball so it will not rub against side of tank.
    Float ball contains water. Empty or replace float ball.
    Float ball not rising high enough. Carefully bend float rod down, but only slightly.
    Tank ball not sealing properly at bottom of tank. Remove any corrosion from lip of valve seat. Replace tank ball if worn. Adjust lift wire and guide.
    Ballcock valve does not shut off water. Replace washers in ballcock assembly or, if necessary, replace entire assembly.
    Toilet does not flush or flushes inadequately
    Drain is clogged. Remove blockage in drain.
    Not enough water in tank. Raise water in tank by bending float rod up slightly.
    Tank ball falls back before enough water leaves tank. Move guide up so tank ball can rise higher.
    Leak where tank joins toilet bowl. Tighten nuts on spud pipe; replace spud washers, if necessary.
    Ports around bowl rim clogged. Ream out residue from ports.
    Tank whines while filling
    Ballcock valve not operating properly. Replace washers or install new ballcock assembly
    Waster supply is restricted. Check shutoff to make sure it's completely open. Check for scale or corrosion at entry into tank on valve.
    Moisture around fixture
    Condensation. Install foam liner, tank cover, drip catcher or temperature valve.
    Leak at flange wax seal. Remove toilet and install new wax ring seal.
    Leak at bowl-tank connection. Tighten spud pipe nuts; replace worn spud washers, if necessary.
    Leak at water inlet connection. Tighten locknut and coupling nut; replace washers and gasket, if necessary.
    Crack in bowl or tank. Replace bowl, tank, or entire fixture.


    If all else fails, you’ll have to cut off the bolts with a hacksaw. To protect the bowl’s finish, apply tape to the bowl at the spots the hacksaw blade is likely to rub against. Then insert the blade under the hinge, and saw through the bolts. Be extremely cautious in using the saw—a careless slip with a hacksaw can crack the fixture just as easily as a blow with a wrench.

    With the nuts removed or the bolts cut, you can remove the old seat without further difficulty. Clean the area before installing the new seat. The new on can be installed by inserting the bolts and tightening the nuts. Be careful not to over-tighten the nuts, as you may want to replace this seat someday as well. If you live in a rented apartment and install a new seat that you paid for yourself, be sure to keep the old one. When you’re ready to leave, you can replace the new on with the original and take the new seat with you.

    If the toilet lid and seat are still in good condition, but the small rubber bumpers on the bottom are in bad shape, you can buy replacement bumpers at the hardware store. Some bumpers screw in; others must be nailed or glued into place. Whichever type you have, try to install the new ones in holes that are close enough to conceal the original holes.


    Clearing a Clogged Toilet

    You can generally clear a clogged toilet with a plunger, otherwise known as the plumbers’ friend. Make sure that there’s enough water in the toilet bowl to cover the rubber suction cup, then work the handle of the plunger up and down. If there isn’t enough water in the bowl, do not flush the toilet; flushing a clogged toilet will just cause the bowl to overflow. Instead, bring a pan or pot of water from another source to supply the water you need to cover the plunger cup. There are two types of plungers, and the one with a bulb-type head is especially effective for toilets. Some types have a fold-out head that’s designed for toilet use.

    Usually, whatever is blocking the toilet drain is not very far away. If the plunger’s action doesn’t dislodge the clog, you can try to hook the blockage and pull it free. A wire coat hanger can sometimes do the job, but it is really a substitute for the closet or toilet auger.

    Before using the plunger, make sure there’s enough water in the toilet bowl to cover the suction cup. Pump the plunger to dislodge the clog.

    The auger has a long sleeve or tube to guide the snake and auger hook into the trap. A crank on the end enables you to turn the hook in the drain or trap. Here’s how to use it.

    Step 1: Insert the auger into the toilet trap and turn the crank until it feels tight. This means that the snake has twisted its way to and into the blockage.

    Step 2: When you pull in the auger, you should be able to remove whatever is clogging the toilet. If you aren’t successful, try the closet auger several more times. In some cases, you may have to resort to pushing a regular plumbers’ snake through the blockage.

    Step 3: When all else fails, the toilet may have to be removed from the floor and turned upside down so you can get a blockage. This is not what anyone would call an easy job, so you should give the simpler methods as good a try as you can before you remove the toilet. But removing the toilet is not beyond the capabilities of the average do-it-yourselfer, and this procedure is explained in the forthcoming section.

    The closet auger has a long sleeve to guide the snake and auger hook into the trap. A crank enables you to turn the hook and dislodge the blockage.


    Toilet Tank Problems

    Compared with a clogged toilet, tank troubles can seem relatively insignificant. Yet strange noises or continuous water running can be more than annoying. They can also be costing you money in wasted water. Fortunately, you can eliminate most tank troubles quickly and easily.

    Toilet tank troubles are both common and annoying, and they could be costing you money in wasted water. Most problems, however, can be eliminated quickly and easily. This is a cross section of a typical toilet tank and its components.

    Once you know how the toilet works, you can start to look for the source of toilet tank problems. Lift the lid off your toilet tank, and you should be able to follow this procedure quite easily.

    When you trip the handle on the tank to flush a toilet, a trip lever is raised inside the tank. This lever lifts wires, which, in turn, raise the tank ball or rubber flap at the bottom of the tank. When the flush valve opening is clear, the water in the tank rushes out past the raised tank ball and into the toilet bowl below. This raises the level of water in the bowl above the level of water in the toilet trap.

    While the water is rushing out of the tank, the float ball, which floats on top of the water in the tank, drops down. This pulls down on the float arm, raising the valve plunger in the ballcock assembly and allowing fresh water to flow into the tank. Since water seeks its own level, the water from the tank pushes the bowl water out into the drain, causing a siphoning action that cleans everything out of the bowl. When all the water is gone from the toilet bowl and air is drawn into the trap, the siphoning stops. Meanwhile, the tank ball falls back into place, closing the flush valve opening.

    As the water level rises in the tank, the float ball rises until the float arm is high enough to lower the valve plunger in the ballcock assembly and shut off the incoming water. If the water fails to shut off there is an overflow tube that carries excess water down into the bowl to prevent the tank from overflowing. If water flows continuously out of the tank to the bowl and down the drain:

    Step 1: Lift up on the float arm. If the water stops, you know the problem is that the float ball doesn’t rise far enough to lower the valve plunger in the ballcock assembly. One reason could be that the float ball is rubbing against the side of the tank. If this is the case, bend the float arm slightly to move the ball away from the tank side.

    If your toilet runs continuously, check the guide and lift wire that raises and lowers the tank ball to be sure they are aligned properly.

    Step 2: If the ball doesn’t touch the tank, continue to hold the float arm and remove the ball from the end of the arm by turning it counterclockwise. Then shake the ball to see if there’s water inside it, as the weight of the water inside could be preventing the ball from rising normally. If there is water in the ball, shake it out and put the ball back on the float arm. If the ball is damaged or corroded, replace it with a new one. If there is no water in the ball, put the ball back on and gently bend the float rod down to lower the level the float ball must reach to shut off the flow of fresh water into the tank.

    Step 3: If the above steps don’t solve the problem, check the tank ball at the flush valve seat. Chemical residue from the water can prevent this ball from seating properly, or the ball itself may have decayed. Water will seep through the flush valve opening into the toilet bowl below. Turn off the water at the toilet shutoff valve and flush the toilet to empty the tank. You can now examine the tank ball for signs of wear and examine the tank ball for signs of wear and install a new ball if necessary. If the problem is chemical residue on the lip of the flush valve opening, take some wet-dry emery cloth, steel wool, or even a knife and clean away the debris.

    Step 4: If the excess water still flows through the toilet, the guide or the lift wire that raises and lowers the tank ball may be out of the line or bent. Make sure the guide is in place so that the wire is directly above the flush valve opening. Rotate the guide until the tank ball falls straight down into the opening. If a lift wire is bent, try to bend it back to the correct position, or install a new one. Make sure the trip lever rod is not rubbing against anything and the lift wire is not installed in the wrong hole of the rod; either situation could cause the tank ball to fall at an angle and not block the opening as it should.

    If neither the float ball not the tank ball is at fault, then the problem must be in the ballcock assembly.


    Fixing a Toilet Ballcock Assembly

    The ballcock assembly looks more complicated than it really is. When you go to a hardware or plumbing-supply store to buy a new ballcock assembly, you’ll find that both plastic and metal units are available. Plastic costs less and will not corrode. But plastic assemblies are not as sturdy as metal ones. In addition, plastic units usually cannot be repaired because many of them are sealed. Nevertheless, you can purchase a type of unit different from the one you’re replacing as long as the new assembly has a threaded shank the same size as the old one. If possible, bring the old assembly with you when you to buy the replacement. Here’s how to fix an older-style ballcock assembly:

    Step 1: Make sure the water shutoff valve for the toilet is in the OFF position.

    On many older ballcock assemblies, a pair of thumbscrews holds the valve plunger. You will have to unscrew them to remove the valve.

    Step 2: Remove the valve plunger, and you’ll see on or two washers or O-rings. If any of these parts is faulty, water will flow out past the plunger continuously, and the toilet will run constantly. Examine all of the washers and replace any defective ones.

    Step 3: If the ballcock assembly is sealed, replace it as a unit. Shut off the toilet water supply at the shutoff valve and flush the tank. Unscrew the float arm from the old ballcock unit and remove the refill tube from the overflow tube.

    Step 4: Look under the tank for a coupling or slip nut where the water inlet pipe enters the base of the tank. Loosen the coupling nut to free the water inlet pipe. Then use an adjustable wrench to grip the retaining nut or locknut immediately above the sip nut under the tank. Use another wrench to grip the base of the ballcock assembly shaft inside the tank.

    Step 5: Unscrew the locknut under the tank to remove the ballcock assembly. If the nut is stubborn, use penetrating oil to loosen it.

    Step 6: Life the old assembly out of the tank, saving the washers from all connections, both inside and outside the tank. New ones will probably be included with the replacement unit, but keep the old parts until you’ve installed the new ballcock assembly in case new parts are damaged during installation.

    When installing a new ballcock assembly, make sure the gasket and the washer are properly seated and firmly secured by the retaining unit.

    Step 7: Insert the new ballcock assembly into the hole in the tank. With the inside washer in place, tighten the locknut on the outside sufficiently to make the inside washer fit watertight against the hole, but don’t over-tighten it.

    Step 8: Replace the coupling nut and water inlet pipe, reinstall the float arm, and set the refill tube into the overflow tube.

    Step 9: Turn the water back on at the toilet shutoff valve and check for leaks at all points. Of course, another thing to check is that the float ball does not rub against the back of the tank.

    Newer types of ballcock assemblies eliminate the float arm and the float ball. One kind features a plastic cup that floats up to cut off the water as the tank fills. You can set the water level in the tank by adjusting the position of the plastic cup on a pull rod. One advantage to this type of ballcock assembly is that it lets the water run full-force until the tank is filled. It then shuts the water off immediately, eliminating the groaning noises some toilets make as a float arm gradually closes the valve.

    One type of diaphragm-powered valve rests close to the bottom of the tank (left); it eliminates the float ball and float arm. Another type (right) uses a flapper cover, lifted by a chain.

    Another type of ballcock also eliminates the float ball and float arm. This is a small unit that rests almost on the bottom of the tank; it’s diaphragm-powered valve senses the level of the water from down there. Moreover, since it requires no tools, this assembly is an easy unit to install. To install these newer ballcock assemblies:

    Step 1: Turn off the tank’s water supply shutoff valve. Then flush the toilet to drain the tank. Sponge up any water remaining in the tank before proceeding.

    Step 2: Remove the old ballcock assembly, following the procedure outlined above. Slip the parts over the water inlet pipe under the tank in this order: coupling nut, friction washer, cone washer, and retaining or mounting nut.

    Step 3: Install the new unit inside the tank, fitting the threaded shank down through the hole over the water supply pipe and making sure the gasket fits into the hole. Start tightening the retaining or the mounting nut under the tank onto the threaded shank: hand-tighten it only. Push the washers into place and hand-tighten the coupling nut under tank; be careful not to over-tighten it.

    Step 4: Inside the tank, attach one end of the refill tube to the tank’s overflow pipe and place the other end on the stem of the replacement unit.

    Step 5: Open the water supply valve to fill the tank. The water level in the tank can be adjusted by a knob on the new valve unit.


    Solving Common Toilet Problems

    What can you do if too little water comes from the tank to flush the toilet bowl clean?

    Step 1: Check the water level in the tank. It’s probably too low. If the water level doesn’t reach within 1 ½ inches of the top of the overflow tube, bend the float arm up slightly to let more water enter the tank.

    Step 2: If the water level is correct but there’s still not enough water coming from the tank to clean the bowl properly, the problem may be the tank ball on the flush valve seat the bottom of the tank. The ball is probably dropping too soon because the guide is set too low. Raise the guide, but make sure it stays in line with the lift wire. If the guide and the wire are out of alignment, the tank ball will not drop straight into the valve seat opening, and the toilet will run continuously.

    Step 3: Look for other cause of inadequate flushing. The small ports around the underside of the toilet bowl’s rim can get clogged with residue from chemicals in the water and prevent a sufficient amount of tank water from running out into the bowl. A small mirror can help you examine the holes, and a piece of wire coat hanger or an offset Phillips screwdriver—if one is available—can ream out any clogged debris.

    Here’s another common problem among toilets. Toilet tanks can sweat and drip onto your floors just as the pipes can. There are jackets designed specifically to fit over the tank and absorb the moisture. There are also drip pans that fit under the tank to catch the dripping condensation so that it doesn’t damage your bathroom floor. A device called a temperator valve is another way to combat tank sweating. The valve provides a regulated mixture of hot and cold water, which lessens the difference between the temperature inside the tank and the temperature of the surrounding air. It is this difference in temperature that causes condensation, or sweating. Consider installing a temperator valve if the water in the tank is usually below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Too little water in the toilet bowl to keep it clean when flushing? Is your toilet sweating? Learn how to solve the most common toilet problems with our helpful step-by-step guide.
    The temperator valve, which requires both hot-water and cold-water supply connections, can reduce toilet tank sweating.

    A temperator valve requires you to hook up a hot-water line to the valve, which may be quite inconvenient if there is no such line relatively close to the toilet. Moreover, the temperator valve does not prevent the water inside the tank from cooling between flushings: thus, condensation can still occur even on a temperator-equipped toilet. A leak may be due to loose connections or defective washers on the spud pipe or where the water inlet pipe and ballcock assembly are attached to the tank. Replace any worn gaskets or washers and tighten all of the nuts, then test with bluing in the water.

    It is also possible that water is seeping out from under the toilet bowl. The wax ring seal that joins the bowl to the drain outlet may be defective. If this is the case, the bowl must be removed, and a new gasket installed. If the leak is due to a crack in the tank or bowl, the whole toilet must be replaced.


    Replacing a Toilet

    Removing and replacing a toilet is not a task to be undertaken without good reason, but it is certainly not beyond your capabilities. When you can’t unclog the toilet by less drastic means, removing it is the answer. Maybe you want a more modern toilet, maybe the bowl or the tank is cracked, or maybe the fixture leaks around its base. All of these situations call for removing and reinstalling the old toilet or installing a new fixture.

    Although there’s nothing difficult about removing and replacing a toilet, local plumbing code may prohibit anyone but a licensed plumber from doing the job. Check the code for your community to make sure it is okay for you to undertake the task. To replace a toilet:

    Step 1: Measure the rough-in distance—the distance from the wall behind the bowl to the center of the toilet floor drain. Measure from the wall to the center of either of the two hold-down bolts, one on each side of the toilet, that hold the fixture to the floor. If there are two bolts on each side, measure to the center of the rear bolt.

    Step 2: Select the replacement toilet unit using the rough-in distance so that it will fit properly in your bathroom. You can replace your old toilet with a more modern fixture, but you must make sure that the new unit will fit into the space between the drainpipe and the wall. You can install a smaller unit, but you cannot put a larger toilet into a space that was occupied by a smaller fixture.

    Step 3: Shut off the water supply to the toilet tank, then remove all the water from both the tank and the bowl. Trip the flush handle to eliminate most of the water from the tank. Then soak up whatever water is left with a sponge. Bail out the water in the bowl with a small container, and then use a sponge to dry out the bowl completely.

    Step 4: If the tank is connected to the wall, remove the hanger bolts inside the tank that secure the tank to the wall. Then remove the pair of bolts at the bottom of the tank that connect the tank to the bowl. Remove the tank and set it out of the way.

    Step 5: Remove the caps over the hold-down bolts at the base of the bowl if there any. Most of these caps are made of ceramic to match the bowl. Some types are held on by plumbers’ join compound and can be pried off with a putty knife; others are threaded and can be unscrewed. After removing the caps, brush away the dried compound before proceeding.

    Step 6: Remove the hold-down nuts or bolts. These may be extremely stubborn, but some penetrating oil should make removal much easier. Save the washers and bolts if you will be reinstalling the bowl. Once the hold-down nuts or bolts are out, there’s nothing else holding the bowl to the floor. Caution: To prevent sewer gas from backing up the drain, you should plug the opening while you work. Tie a cord around an old towel so it won’t fall through the opening, and jam this plug into the drain.

    Step 7: Remove the bowl. Because the bowl and the tank can crack from just one sharp blow to the porcelain, spread out an old piece of carpeting on which you can lay the fixtures. You should also have a bucket and sponge handy to soak up the water you couldn’t bail out earlier. With your work surface prepared, rock the bowl gently back and forth to loosen it, and then lift it straight up. It weights about 60 or 70 pounds. Set the bowl on the piece of carpeting.

    Step 8: Inspect the uncovered drain. If necessary, clear the drain. Once the pipe is clear, you can proceed with the replacement of the toilet.

    Step 9: Putting in a new toilet and reinstalling the old one are done in the same way. With a putty knife, scrape away all the old putty or other sealing material from both the bottom of the bowl and the floor flange.

    Typical installing of a two-piece floor-mounted toilet.

    The rough-in distance can be measured with the toilet in place by measuring from the wall to the center of the hold-down bolt, or to the center of the rear bolt if the fixture is held by two pairs of bolts.

    Inspect the floor where the toilet was. If the floor has rotted, it will have to be rebuilt before the toilet can be installed. Depending on how bad the damage is, the rebuilding may involve the floor, the subfloor, and even the joists. In this case, have a carpenter rebuilt the damaged area before you install the toilet. Also inspect the flange and the bolts that come up from the flange. If the flange is damaged or the bolts are stripped, replace the faulty part of parts before you go any further.

    Step 10: Install a new sealer ring on the water outlet opening on the bottom of the new bowl. With the fixture upside down, set the sealer ring into place on the bottom of the bowl. If the floor flange is recessed, you’ll need a gasket with a plastic sleeve in the ring. This sleeve should face toward you as you position it, since it will go into the soil pipe.

    Step 11: Apply a uniform layer of the toilet-bowl setting compound about 2 1/8 inch thick around the edge of the bowl at the base. This compound is available at hardware stores and plumbing-supply stores.

    Step 12: Remove the plug from the drain or soil pipe. Turn the bowl right side up and place it down over the flange, guiding the bolts into place. Press down firmly, and give the bowl a slight twist to make sure the wax ring seats properly against the flange. Place a level across the bowl to make sure that it is level. Move the bowl as needed to level it, but don’t disturb or break the seal of the wax ring or the toilet will leak.

    Step 13: Hand-tighten the nuts to hold the bowl to the floor. Do not over-tighten the nuts, or else the fixture may crack. Coat the hold-down nuts and bolts with toilet bowl setting compound and reinstall the caps.

    Step 14: If the tank and bowl are separate fixtures, you should now attach the tank. Rebolt a wall-mounted tank, or reinstall the bolts and washers that connect a bowl-supported tank. Replace any damaged parts. If the tank and bowl are connected with spud pipe, apply pipe joint compound to the threads of the spud slip nuts and tighten them in place.

    Step 15: Reconnect the water supply inlet pipe to the tan, make sure the ballcock assembly is properly attached, and turn the water back on.