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Troubleshooting common toilet issues

Troubleshooting common toilet issues

At some point, every homeowner experiences a problem with a toilet in their home. Here are some of the more common problems that I find at my inspections. The good news is that many of these can be fixed by the average homeowner, so use this as a reference the next time you have a problem. Note: Most of this text comes from the Duell Plumbing & Heating Website (a New York based company).

Phantom Flusher: This is really a phantom filler, as the toilet tank fills with water as if it was just flushed. It simply means that the tank is leaking water. The food coloring dye test will confirm this. Add food dye to the tank after all water has stopped running into the tank. After 5 or 10 minutes, look at the bowl water to see if it is colored. If it is, the flapper is not sealing completely. Time for a new one!

Strong but Partial Flush: The flapper valve may be waterlogged and dropping too fast. Observe the flapper valve during a flush. It should stay up until about 80 percent or more of the water has drained from the tank. If it drops sooner, install a new flapper.

Weak Flush: You could have a first generation 1.6 gallon flush toilet that is destined to failure. Look inside the tank for a manufacture date stamped in the clay. If it was made during the time period from January 1, 1994 to mid-1997, this could be the problem. No good remedy here other than changing the toilet.

Sluggish Flush: The toilet could have a partial clog or the actual clog could be downstream from the toilet. Fill a 5 gallon bucket of water and dump it into the toilet as fast as possible with minimum splashing. If the flush is more vigorous, then it is probably not a clog. If water backs up into the bowl and drains slowly, it is a clog.

Toilet double flushes: This can occur if the water level is set too high inside the tank.
Most modern toilets have an adjustable clip on the fill valve.  This will change the water height inside the tank.

Toilet - Adjust Clip
A double flushing toilet may also indicate that you have the wrong type of flapper.  Modern toilets need a 1.6 gallon flapper, rather than 3.5 gallons, which was the size used for older toilets.

Toilet - Flapper Size
Toilet - Flapper 3.5

Toilet starts to flush (water spins around) but doesn’t empty. The tank itself empties and fills back up but the bowl doesn’t. The water level in the bowl goes up and slowly backs down to the normal level but doesn’t empty: Likely a clog either in the trap of the toilet or the main drain after the toilet. You could try a Closet Auger to see if it is in the trap. These can be rented. If this doesn’t work, you may have to remove the toilet and run a Plumbers auger through the main line. You may want to try a drain cleaner called Drain Care. It is an enzyme drain cleaner that clings to the clog and “eats” it, unlike caustic drain cleaners that just go by the clog and down the drain. Depending on what the clog is, it may take more than one application. Put it in at night and let it work. It’s about $8 at home centers, hardware stores.

Toilet - Closet Auger

Just one toilet in the home will not flush and gets backed up every time there is a heavy rain: This may indicate that there is a partial clog of leaves or something in the stack on the roof above this bathroom. When there is a heavy rain, it compacts the leaves and clogs the vent by making a seal that will not allow the large volume of water from a toilet to drain. The reason smaller fixtures, such as the sink and tub, don’t fill the drain line is that there is no vacuum pulled. Note: This scenario would only apply if the other bathrooms were on another stack.

Toilet - Vent Pipe

Whistling Tank Fill: You must have an old technology ball cock valve with a ball float on the end of a rod. As the ball floats higher it begins to slowly close the water fill valve. This can cause vibrations and all sorts of noise. Toilet tank fill valves that stay wide open until the tank is filled have been around for over 20 years. They are wonderful and they are inexpensive. The most common valve used today is the Fluidmaster valve. Get the best one, not the economy model.

Toilet - Fluid Master

Slow Tank Fill: This problem may be a partially closed shut off valve under the tank. A previous owner or a plumber may have restricted the flow of water into the tank for some reason. If your valve is old, be aware that they can leak when turned.

Toilet - Shut off valve

Dripping Sound and Tank Filling: After the tank has filled, you hear dripping. Then several minutes later, the tank partially fills with water and the dripping starts again. This problem can be a syphon problem caused by someone who installed a new tank fill valve. There is a small flexible tube that runs from the bottom of the valve to the top of the toilet overflow tube. As the tank fills, water is also sent through this tube. It is used to refill the toilet bowl since it lost its water during the flush. If this tube drops down inside the overflow tube, it can, in some instances, syphon water from the tank. New toilet fill valves often have a clip that attaches to the top of the overflow tube and points the water flow down into the tube without actually having the tube enter the tube.

Toilet - Fill Line Clip

Suction Sounds in the Tub and Sink: You flush the toilet and gurgling sounds come from your tub and/or bath sink. This means the toilet vent pipe is clogged or partially clogged. The most common source of this is leaves that have accumulated inside the vent opening. You may have to call a professional to solve this problem.

Toilet - Vent Pipe

Toilet does not stop running: If a toilet won’t stop running, it usually indicates that the water level in the tank is set too high. This allows water to spill over the top of the overflow tube and keeps the intake valve from shutting off.
Toilet - Fill Line

There are three different ways to adjust the water level, depending on how the toilet is made:

1) If you have a float ball, the ball may be too high. You can simply bend the float arm down slightly to keep the water about 1 inch below the top of the overflow pipe. After bending the arm, flush the toilet to a make sure that enough water is getting into the bowl. If the toilet does not flush completely you may need to adjust the float ball back up slightly to get more water in the tank.

Toilet - Bend Float Arm

2) Your toilet may have a water-intake assembly instead of a float ball. To adjust the water level in the bowl so it does not flow into the overflow pipe, pinch the clip attached to the thin metal rod and slide it down to lower the water level. Sliding the clip and cup up will raise the water level. Try moving the clip about an inch at a time.

Toilet Water Intake Assembly

3) Your toilet may have a metered fill valve instead of a float ball or water-intake assembly. To adjust the water level, simply take a screwdriver and turn the knob counterclockwise – half a turn at a time – to lower the water level (turning the know clockwise will raise the water level).

In most modern units, the screw is on the top of the intake valve

Toilet Adjust above

When you have finished your adjustments, flush the toilet and check to see that the water level remains approximately 1″ below the top of the overflow tube.


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