Heading Out on Your Own: Day 19 — Fix a Running Toilet

by Darren Bush on August 19, 2012 · 29 comments

in Heading Out On Your Own


“Just jiggle the handle…”

Have you heard that before?  Yep, that wonderful sound of a rogue toilet.  You lift the lid, poke things a little, and hope the pot fixes itself.

My late father had many fine qualities, but aside from knowing which end of the hammer was for hitting, he was not a handyman.  If something broke, he would rig it as best he could, but since this was before duct tape, his solutions were sometimes more creative than effective.  Replacing toilet guts might as well have been brain surgery.

Even if you’re not “handy,” you can fix a running toilet rather easily, and many other things as well.  The key is the right tools, the right parts, the ability to read, the discipline to not take short cuts, and patience.

The truth is that a toilet is a simple thing.  There are two moving parts: the float and valve assembly, and the stopper that controls the release of water.  When you release 1.6 gallons of water, it splits between the top of the bowl and the bottom, creating a Venturi effect that sucks down (hopefully) the waste.

But moving parts wear out, bend, come loose, or just give up the ghost.  If your toilet is running or not working, take the following steps.

1)  Check the connection between the handle and the stopper valve. A chain of some sort will connect the handle with the stopper, and pushing the handle opens the stopper valve.  That’s why jiggling the handle will sometimes help the stopper close properly, but it’s not a permanent fix.  If the chain is disconnected entirely, the toilet will obviously not flush.

2)  Check the stopper valve.  It should easily flop into its “seat” and seal the tank.  If the stopper valve is not seating properly, then the toilet runs and wastes a lot of water.  Sometimes you can tweak the hinge on the valve to get it to seat properly.  If not, it’ll need replacing.

3)  Check the float.  The traditional float is a big ball at the end of a rod that controls the valve that fills the tank after a flush.  More common these days is a donut-shaped float that slides up and down on the overflow tube, or an internal float that shuts the water valve when it hits a certain level.  Either way, if the tank isn’t filling up as much as needed to flush properly, make sure the float isn’t leaking.  If it is, it’ll need replacing.

Let’s say all your poking and prodding isn’t doing the trick.  Lucky you!  You get to replace the toilet guts. So go buy the toilet guts.  You can get them almost anywhere.  No need to be a plumber, just go to the local hardware store and ask for toilet guts (or something like that). They are almost always sold as one unit, and they’re inexpensive enough that you can replace the whole thing easier than replacing specific parts.  You may also decide to replace the supply hose, since you’re already messing around there.

You can spend a lot or a little.  The expensive ones are quieter, but other than that, it doesn’t matter.  Fifteen bucks will do the job.  It’s a toilet.

Remove Old Toilet Guts

1)  Pee.  The sound of all that water flowing will no doubt cause an increase in urgency.

2)  Disconnect the flushing handle from the stopper on the inside.  It should be a simple chain or other mechanism you can do by hand.


Note the crusties around the top of the drain tube.  Just some calcium, not part of the pipe.  It’ll break right off.   If you’re highly anal you can nuke the whole tank with vinegar.  That said…it’s a toilet.

3)  Shut off the water.  The valve below the toilet gets very little use.  Sometimes it’s a little corroded or encrusted with hard water minerals, since the last time it was used was when the toilet was installed or the mechanism replaced.  A little vinegar and a soft wire brush can clean it up a little.  Close it tightly.  Place an old towel or two under the faucet to catch water when you unhook the supply hose.

4)  Drain the tank.  Easy to do–flush the toilet by reaching in and pulling the stopper up.  The tank will not refill because you shut the water off.  To keep things a little neater, you could sponge out the remaining water and wring it into the bowl.  It makes for less dripping later.

You’ll notice I use braided steel-covered supply lines.  They’re probably overkill, but it’s cheap insurance.  Your mileage may vary.

5)  Loosen the supply hose at the valve.  Use a proper wrench…not a crescent wrench.  Let it drain into a small pan.  Then loosen the supply hose at the fitting under the tank. This is usually a plastic nut or wing nut that you can hand-tighten or loosen.  If it’s really stuck, carefully use a pair of Channel Locks to urge it along.  Proceed carefully here.

6)  Loosen the big, plastic nut under the tank where the supply hose entered.  It’s a bigger plastic knob that attaches the guts on the inside of the toilet.  Water will leak out here, but it’s clean water, just like from the tap.  Continue to loosen it and remove the guts.

7)  Pull off the old stopper thing.

Congrats, your toilet is now dry and useless.  Time to fix that problem.  Here’s the dead one below.

Install New Toilet Guts

1)  Reinstall the new guts by dropping it through the hole in the tank.  There should be quite a bit of gasketing here.  Make sure the area is clean so the new gasket seals properly.  Get a friend to hold it in place while you tighten the big nut underneath the tank.  If you overtighten it, you might crack the plastic, so just go until it’s snug.

Proper building code says that the overflow tube has to be at least an inch above the full level.  Different assemblies adjust differently.  This one adjusts by twisting the whole mechanism and sliding it up and down, then twisting to lock it.  The float is internal in that white part that sticks off to the side of the water feed.

2)  Attach the supply hose to the bottom of the tank.  Finger tight only, but do turn it until it stops. No need to use Teflon tape here; it’s plastic to plastic.  No wrenches.

3)  Attach the supply hose to the faucet.  Here it’s metal to metal, so use a bit of Teflon tape.  Just wrap the threads, then re-attach.  Non-crescent wrenches work best.

4)  Turn the water on, check for leaks.  Your fill hose should squirt into the overflow as noted. The tank won’t fill here, you’re just checking your connections.  Turn the water off.

5)  Install your new stopper thing by pushing the plastic studs on the overflow tube through the soft rubber of the flapper.  It should go on easy.

6)  Reattach the chain from the stopper to the toilet handle, adjusting the chain so it is as taut as possible without lifting the stopper.  Test by flushing a few times.  The stopper should drop on its seat when the water reaches the bottom of the tank.  If it doesn’t, adjust it a little until it does so consistently. When it doesn’t seat, that’s when you have to jiggle the handle to get it to do so. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

7)  Clean up. There will be black goo on things.  That’s not what you think it is — it’s just deposits that form inside the tank over time.

That’s it.  Your toilet is now operational again, simple as that.  Drink a few beverages of your choice and test it again.  Congratulate yourself on a job well done.

To fix another common toilet-related problem–how to unclog one–see this AoM post.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 em August 19, 2012 at 9:48 pm

It’s worth noting that the teflon tape should be wrapped clockwise around the threads on the shutoff valve (as shown in the photo). Wrap it counter-clockwise and the tape will bunch up.

2 Daniel August 19, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Thank you for this article! It is extremely timely, as my toilet just started running the other day. Unfortunately, while my father was an amazing handyman, I did not have the wisdom or foresight to learn such valuable skills from him as a teenager.

3 Geoffrey Kidd August 20, 2012 at 1:02 am

My wife got me into using “Fluidmaster” controls in place of the old ball-and-arm type shutoff valves. I’ve found them very easy to install, long-lasting and reliable across the years. Mind you, she had to teach me how to do it, first. One skill I hadn’t picked up.

4 Josh Kamrath August 20, 2012 at 1:31 am

Do you see how his toilet interior is full of iron stains? If yours loks similar then go to the hardware store and pick up a product called “Iron Out”. Just shake the powder into the tank and let sit for 15 to 25 minutes then flush. You may want to scrub a bit to get all of it. Ditto for the bowl if it is looking the same. If done regularly you will probably see an increase in the life of your toilet guts.

5 Brad August 20, 2012 at 8:12 am

Also worth mentioning that supply hoses come in different lengths and sizes. Bringing the old one to match at the hardware store is a good way to avoid a return trip.

6 Kevin August 20, 2012 at 8:52 am

Wow! What is wrong with that water? Shouldn’t it be clear? I hope the water from the tap doesn’t look like that.

7 Andrew Spiehler August 20, 2012 at 9:13 am

I replaced the fill valve in my guest bathroom with a “Korky QuietFill” very similar to the replacement valve pictured. I don’t know if I just got a lemon or if it’s just a bad design, but mine was extremely finicky about the flow rate. With the shutoff valve wide-open, the fill valve would cut on and off repeatedly while it was filling the tank, a loud and annoying process. I had to close the shut-off valve more than half way to keep the fill valve from doing this, and this stretched the tank fill time out to the point of annoyance. Now the tank fills, slowly, but the valve makes a whining sound the whole time it’s open. Very soon I’ll be removing it and going back to a Fluidmaster.

8 Moeregaard August 20, 2012 at 10:07 am

First, ANYONE can be handy. Most of us have two eye, two hands, and a brain to hold it all together. We need to rid Western society of the notion that only uneducated morons can work with their hands. OK, rant over.

One point worth making is that if the supply-line valve hasn’t been cycled in many years, or if it dates back to the Kennedy administration, I like to turn off the main line to the house. Nothing creates a sense of urgency as having that valve break off and start peeing water all over the bathroom–especially an upstairs bathroom. Messing around with old plumbing with the water turned on is a lot like wiring light switches without shutting off the circuit breaker. You’ll get away with it a bunch of times before you get bitten.

9 jeff_williams August 20, 2012 at 10:12 am

PTFE tape isn’t needed on that hose. It has a rubber gasket on both ends. Also, toilet cleaning chemicals (from the dispensers hung in the tank) have been known to wear both the flapper valve and the valve seat. If the seat is worn the flush valve assembly should also be replaced. It is a very easy process if the tank is already drained. A full toilet parts kit is only a few bucks more.

10 Neal August 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm

This was touched on in step 6, but it’s probably worth leading any toilet maintenance discussion with: “It’s JUST TAP WATER”. The thought of sticking your hands in a toilet, no matter which part, becomes a little stomach turning for would-be handymen. I use that as a mantra when showing anyone how to lift the lid and tinker with a toilet. Great article though, awesome to see it!

11 Colin Braun August 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Great article! I’ve had to do that repair a couple times, and it is very rewarding. After doing a few plumbing repairs, I learned that teflon tape is not really the right thing for sealing metal-to-metal threads. Plumber’s paste does a better job and is way easier to use. It’s cheap and is in every hardware store. A tube should last a regular handyman for years.

12 Mike August 20, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Just a heads up on Install, step 2…you MAY need teflon tape. I dealt with a dripping connection with a relatively new water tower (the plastic coming through the bottom of the tank). I tried a new supply line and it stilled leaked. Put teflon tape on it and the leaking has stopped.

Again, I agree with a plastic-plastic connection, it shouldn’t, but this time it did. :-)

13 NoWay August 21, 2012 at 8:23 am

That Fluidmaster design is crap. Wound up buying a good ol’ ballcock design to replace my replacement.

And, dude! Get a water softener!

14 Robert August 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I found your site via LRC & articles like this one make your website one of my favs & may I say w/o bootlicking, “I love you man!” Keep up the good work. Cheers.

15 Jeff Morgan August 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I always let my girlfriend do this – she is very handy.

16 P.M.Lawrence August 21, 2012 at 7:14 pm

There are two moving parts: the float and valve assembly, and the stopper that controls the release of water.

That’s not two moving parts, in most systems. The float and valve assembly – the ballcock – typically has two already, the float on the end of a rotating arm and a valve carrier with a linear travel that the arm moves with a side lug, so that’s at least three rubbing zones (of course, that’s only one type). The “stopper” may or may not exist – that is, the equipment might use a stopper or might use a siphon actuated by a vestigial pump, depending on local practice and legal requirements – but either way there will typically be at least two elements in a mechanical sequence from where you operate it to where it affects the water. So that’s a lot more moving parts.

Also, if the works don’t use a stopper but a siphon, much of the article will deceive and frustrate the unwary because they won’t be able to find the things it says are there and it won’t explain the things that really are there. But, if the works use a siphon, they are far less likely to need work in the first place and they never will leak into the bowl (unless the overflow is directed there). That and a hygienic minimum water delivery are why some laws require siphon systems (at other times and places, laws forbid them so as to minimise water use).

17 henry August 21, 2012 at 8:37 pm

not to be a stickler, but your standard no-burst style hose (like the one you are using) is not a metal to metal connection, it has a rubber gasket inside the 5/8 nut, and it does not require teflon tape.

18 Nathalie Clarkson August 26, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Interesting discussion here. I appreciate your effort to do things the DIY way. Doing this will spare me from seeking the help of a plumber. It’s good to note the inputs of the commenters, too. Thanks.

19 Darren September 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Good comments…yeah, the no-burst has the little rubber grommet, but I wear a belt and suspenders. :-) I have a water softener, but it was broken for a while last year and I didn’t notice it for a bit. Duh

@P.M.: you obviously know a LOT more about this than I do. Thanks for the education on the siphon…never used one. Thanks!

20 Darren September 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Hey, nice comments y’all. Moeregaard, you are SO right…people are scared of getting their hands dirty.

I recommend a great book called “Shop Class as Soul Craft.” It’s about the spiritual benefits of working with your hands.

21 Henry Morgan November 28, 2012 at 6:20 am

Last November my fiancé and I bought a home together. Our realtor told us that it was a fixer-upper, but we had no idea that the plumbing was so lousy. The realtor suggested that we call United Plumbing Solutions, we did and in three days everything was handled. What I liked the most was their desire to help us in every way. Check them out at http://www.ups-plumbing.com or call 772-905-4442.

22 Oedi January 1, 2013 at 8:48 pm

A note about Fluidmaster valves, like the one shown in the photo just above “Install New Toilet Guts”: If you’ve got any crud in your water line, it can clog the valve and keep it from closing all the way. To get rid of it, shut off the water inlet valve, then remove the top of the tank (duh). Lift the lever that comes out of the black valve cap and turn the lever and cap 1/8 turn counter-clockwise. Lift off the cap and you can clean out the crud with tweezers, an old toothbrush or what have you.

(Be sure to put the top of the tank back on before you re-open the inlet valve. If you didn’t replace the cap quite right and the valve is still open… well, let’s just say you’re gonna need a lot of towels.)

23 Robert Lowe January 18, 2013 at 9:35 am

I have a question I changed the fluid master because of hammering of pipes problem solved but now every so often a burst of water gets shot into the the fill tube in tank. What can I do to fix this?

24 Carl May 24, 2013 at 6:00 am

I think step 4 Turn the water on, check for leaks, is about as far as most home owners would like to go but its nice to have the info if your feeling brave.

25 James Zewan May 28, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I have had a problem with my toilet for the past 2 days. I did not know what the problem was but the water kept running. I thought I could apply some handy work, so I opened the cover and checked the float. It seemed alright, but I didn’t know what alright really is. So I took it and tried to bend it down a little bit. Nothing worked so I checked the internet and found this post.

I was able to figure out the problem which was the stopper valve not resting on its seat. Thanks for saving my float because I almost pulled it all out before getting another one. I had to turn it up a little back to position.

You are the best. Cheers!

26 mar June 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm

The house was built in ’48 and everything is starting to break. We just had to replace the entire sewer line recently but there are little things in the house that are starting to be issues. One of our toilets, after every flush, the water runs, then stops, and something is leaking because it will start running again because the tank gets below the water line. We had a similar problem and it turned out all that was happening was the chain was getting stuck under the stopper. We were able to shorten the chain and the problem was fixed. But this is a much older house and I’m not sure about the older plumbing. Any suggestions?

27 Brandon February 3, 2014 at 4:57 pm

can anyone guesstimate about how much a running toilet could cost you on a monthly water bill?

28 Kim March 6, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Thanks – it was a quick fix, your directions were quite helpful.

29 Pat April 16, 2014 at 1:45 pm

I was away from my home for two years. Now back and both toilets are not working. Even if I turn the water off at the supply line under the toilet, I come back lift the lid, and the tank is full! I have even turned the water supply line off AND placed a prop under the ball to make it stop. The prop worked for a month. (Two cans stacked under the ball.) But now, nothing is working. I replaced the flap. It is sealing. But, how does water fill the tank when the supply line is shut off? HELP!

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