Diagnosing common toilet problems before calling a plumber

Delaying a repair to a problematic toilet is never a good idea. Not only is the toilet an essential part of the home, leaving it alone might lead to water damage or foul odors.

The toilet uses a fairly simple mechanism; flushing sends a large quantity of water into the bowl, forcing waste to be expelled through a siphoning effect. A water supply refills the tank, using an item such as a ball float to determine when a sufficient amount of water has entered.

The failure of one of these components fails can inhibit the operation of the toilet. However, these problems are also relatively easy to fix.

If the problem is more pressing, it is better to call a plumber. Popular Mechanics says you should schedule a visit from this professional if you cannot locate a leak or if leaking is severe, if you have lost the water supply to the toilet, or if raw sewage is backing up into your home. But in other circumstances, you may be able to diagnose and repair the issue on your own.

Running water

Once the toilet tank has refilled, water should stop flowing. But you may notice that streams continue to trickle into the bowl.

This scenario often leads to a "phantom flush," which is actually the sound of the tank refilling once its water level gets too low. Not only does this produce a jarring noise, it can easily run up your water bill.

One simple test to see if the toilet tank is leaking is to put a few drops of food coloring into the water. If the water is coming from the tank, the bowl will change color after a few minutes.

Constantly running water is usually caused by a worn-out flapper valve, which provides an inadequate seal between the tank and bowl. You can find a replacement part at a home improvement store and swap it out.

In some cases, the valve is not to blame. The magazine Family Handyman says you may need to adjust the float arm so the water stops entering the tank about a half-inch to an inch from the top. You may need to replace the float if it is unable to stop water from rising above the pipe which drains water into the bowl to keep the tank from overflowing.

If the problem isn't caused by the mechanisms that release water into the bowl, it could be that the lift chain from the flush handle needs to be adjusted. Bob Formisano, writing for About, says the chain might not be kinked or otherwise out of sorts. This could prevent the flapper valve from sealing or keep a float ball from staying in the right place.

Bad flush

A flush might be weak or partial, or it might even repeat itself. Several different issues could cause these symptoms.

Older toilets are more susceptible to obstructions forming in the holes that release water into the bowl. Duell Plumbing and Heating, a company in Schenectady, New York, says hard water deposits may inhibit the water flow and cause a weaker flush. You can sometimes clean these blockages with a toothpick.

Pouring a muriatic acid solution down the overflow pipe in the toilet tank can be quicker and more potent, but you'll want to have proper ventilation to dispel the fumes. You should not take this step if you are on a septic system.

Other weak flushes might be a result of inadequate water in the tank. Make sure the flapper valve stays open long enough to release at least 80 percent of the tank's water, and replace if it closes too early.

Sometimes the fix is as simple as modifying the length of the chain from the flush handle. Popular Mechanics says the flapper valve might not lift high enough if the chain is too long. Remove a few chains to shorten it and allow more water into the bowl.

Many toilets have a line in the tank showing the recommended water level. If the water is not reaching this point, adjust the fill valve so there is a greater supply of water.

Alternatively, a double flushing toilet is often the result of a tank water level that is too high. Duell Plumbing and Heating says you should adjust the water level to limit the flush to a single one.

Leaks

It can be disconcerting to see the water level in the bowl get lower after a flush. This might be the result of a wad of toilet paper or other blockage causing a siphoning effect. In other cases, a crack in the bowl or plumbing could be causing the problem.

Exterior leaks should be fixed as soon as possible to prevent water damage. Formisano says these leaks are sometimes the result of condensation, especially in the summer. However, it might also be a result of a loose water connection or a degrading wax ring at the base of the toilet.

Replacing a wax ring is a more complicated process than many toilet repairs. Family Handyman says you'll need to remove the toilet from the floor, and you may need to fix the flange that circles the wax ring if it is broken or sits more than a quarter-inch below the floor.

Whenever you take the toilet off the floor to work with the wax ring or flange, be sure to stuff a rag into the open drain pipe. This will keep sewer gases from entering your home.

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