You, Too, Can Fix Your Toilet
by Debra Ross
I have a motto, one that I hope goes on my headstone when the time comes:
How hard could it be?
The answer is, almost always, NOT VERY.
This is not true of all home improvement projects (LEAVE THE ELECTRICITY TO PROFESSIONALS!), but it is almost entirely true of your toilet. Unless you have some kind of intractable block in your pipes below the toilet that requires a professional plumber wielding a professional tool (called, incongruously, a snake), you can repair most problems yourself.
Keep in mind that what I know is computer software and good grammar, not plumbing. Yet here I am, telling YOU how to fix a toilet. It really is that easy. This great diagram to the right is from the awesome web site How Stuff Works.
How a toilet works
One of the best things about a toilet is that the mechanism is based on fairly simple mechanical principles of the physics of water pressure. Unless you're not on a water main and you need electricity to operate the pump in your well, you can use your toilet even if the electricity goes off.
Gravity and water pressure are your friends. Here's how a toilet works: The tank in the back of the toilet holds water. (About a tankful of the stuff. See? I told you this is simple.) When you flush the toilet handle, a chain attached to the arm inside the toilet raises the plug (the flapper) at the bottom of the tank. The water flows into the bowl. When enough water flows into the bowl so that it goes over the critical level in the S-shaped siphon tube, it sucks the rest of the water (and whatever else is in the toilet) with it. The water flowing out of the tank in the back trips the valve mechanism to open when the water level is low, allowing the tank to be refilled with water until it reaches the appropriate level, at which point the valve turns off. And then it's waiting there, silently, expectantly, even welcomingly, for you to flush again.
What to do when your toilet is making noise
There are a few reasons a toilet might be making noise.
1. There is a blockage in the pipes below.
- Solution (probably): A plunger. Yesterday, my 12-year-old told me that the toilet had a problem, that the bowl got too filled with water. I told her to use the plunger and see what she could do. She looked at me blankly, the way 12-year-olds will. "Oh, for pity's sake, let ME try it," said my 10-year-old. Thirty seconds later, problem solved. Cost: $0, unless you have to buy a plunger for $10. Everyone should have a plunger anyway.
If the plunger doesn't solve the problem of odd noises below, you probably want to call a plumber.
2. Tinkling or trickling water sound
There may be a problem with the flapper that covers the hole at the bottom of the tank./p>
- Solution: Those suckers wear away over the years and the seal may be disrupted. Do not be intimidated! And don't wait too long after you hear the water trickle, because you're PAYING for that water even though the fix takes five minutes.
Go to your favorite hardware or home supply store, plunk down about $3 for a new flapper, and head home. Turn off the water supply by turning the shutoff valve, which is located near the floor to one side of the toilet. Flush the toilet, holding up the flapper to ensure all the water exits. Carefully pull off the flapper from where it is attached, pop in the new one, wiggle it a few times up and down to ensure it's moving smoothly, turn the water back on, and test it a few times. Time spent: About 5 minutes. Money spent: About $3.
3. Hissing or gurgling inside the tank
If the sound is a problem inside the tank, especially if it sounds like a hissing sound, you could spend a lot of time trying to diagnose what is wrong with which part of the mechanism, but in my opinion it's just easier to buy a new ballcock assembly or filler valve for about $12 than to fuss around trying to fix it. That's the mechanism that regulates the flow of water into the toilet. Me, I did the dumb thing of pretending that little hiss that kept coming from the valve was no big deal, and I waited for months instead of taking the 45 minutes it ultimately took me from start to finish to figure out how it worked and install a new one.
- Solution: First, spend a few minutes with your nose inside the tank (top off, obviously), watching how the thing works when you flush. Then, read the directions on your new filler valve assembly that you've just bought. Those directions aren't necessarily written by people who majored in English, so you may have to spend a little time with a cup of tea and those directions. I assure you those 5 minutes are worth it.
That mechanism is a bunch of floats and filters and valves surrounding a basic tube, which protrudes out through a hole in the bottom of your tank, typically on the left side.
First, make sure the water supply is off by turning the shutoff valve.
Flush the toilet, siphoning out and sponging up any water remaining in the bottom or it's going to make a wet mess on your floor when you take out the mechanism.
Then, take out the old malfunctioning unit. Disconnect the water supply tube: Simply use your fingers (or a wrench, if it's on tight) to loosen the nuts that fasten the water supply tube from the wall to the buttom of the valve. Then loosen the nuts directly underneath the hole under the tank, and unscrew them until they come off and you can lift out the old mechanism.
Installing the new mechanism is only complicated by the fact that they usually give you extra parts that you may not need, and you have to figure that out by looking at the directions. They also may give you somewhat long tubing that should be snipped shorter to make it a more direct connection.
None of this is a big deal. It does NOT require calling a plumber.
Most important, know this: You can't really mess it up.
That's right. Don't believe me? Try it yourself the next time you hear something suspicious inside your throne.
Here's the worst thing that can happen: Suppose you get to the point of dismantling the whole tank, it's all lying in pieces on the floor, and your child is doing the potty dance in agony. All you have to do is get a bucket that holds a gallon or two of water. Let the child go, then just pour the water into the bowl until the water is high enough in the siphon to flow down naturally. It's a beautiful thing.
And then you can always call the plumber.
Some great resources for learning more about toilets, and the source of the toilet diagram above, is the wonderful How Stuff Works web site.
© 2012 KidsOutAndAbout.com
Debra Ross is publisher of KidsOutAndAbout.com