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Diagnose Toilet Problems Without a Plumber

Nobody wants to have problems with their plumbing, but the best (and cheapest) types are those you can fix yourself with little or no materials and tools. A lot of common problems people have with their toilets can be fixed without having to give Ben Franklin a call. I’m going to detail how you can diagnose some of the most common toilet issues and give you some tips on how to fix them fast.

Toilet Won’t Stop Running

Besides wasting water, a running toilet can be more than a little annoying. Especially if it’s in your master suite and kicks on while you try to sleep. If you hear the tank start to refill randomly, or it never shuts off at all, there could be a few things going on:

  • The flapper valve is worn or doesn’t seal properly
  • Your tank float may be stuck or damaged

Flapper Fix: The flapper (usually a black rubber flap which closes the drain pipe leading to the bowl) can get old and cracked or just won’t fit properly. Either way, it can let water leak out of the tank into the toilet bowl, causing the water level in the tank to drop and the refill valve to kick on.

It’s a simple fix; just replace the flapper with a new one and the water should stop running. Otherwise, the mouth of the tank drain could be damaged, or something else could be preventing the flapper from creating a water-tight seal.

Float Fix: Your float (the buoyant piece that rises as the tank fills and shuts off the refill valve) may be stuck or cracked, taking on water. For ball-and-stem floats, try unscrewing it a turn or two on the stem to make sure it shuts off once the water gets high enough. If it stays below the waterline it might be cracked and filling with water, and you’ll need to replace it.

If you have the kind of float that slides up and down the filler valve pipe, do a test flush to see if it’s getting stuck or whether or not it rises with the water level. If it stays below the waterline instead of rising, check for cracks and whether it’s taking on water. If so, replace it.

Toilet Won’t Flush

A toilet that won’t flush can be caused either by a broken handle or a lack of water in the tank. Check inside the toilet tank to make sure the pull chain connected to the flapper valve at the bottom isn’t broken. If broken, you’ll simply need to replace the chain.

If there’s no water in the tank, make sure that the water supply valve beside the toilet is on and that the refill valve isn’t being obstructed by something. The floater may just be stuck in the shutoff position and you’ll need to tap it to make it refill. If it still won’t refill, the valve itself may be broken, which may be a bigger fix that you won’t want to take on yourself.


Clogs are usually not that far down the drain and can be a result of someone using too much toilet paper or an object lodged in the siphon. For the former, you can usually unclog the toilet using a flange plunger rather than a traditional flat one.

If you’ve plunged and plunged and still can’t get the thing to flush, it’s probably time to call in the big guns and get a plumber to look at it. The problem could be further down in your home’s plumbing or even in the sewer line between your home and the main sewer line.

Water Leaking around the Base or the Top Tank

A leaky tank could mean that the tank bolts weren’t properly seated or that the rubber washer inside the tank is damaged and letting water out. Leaking water around the base could mean that the wax ring on which the toilet sits is deteriorated and needs replacing. Both of these can mean removing the tank and bowl to replace the failing parts. It’s a big job, but you can do it with simple tools as long as you’re careful and have help to do the heavy lifting.

When she isn’t showing off her DIY knowledge to help friends out, Amanda Peters is working on projects around her house and writing on topics ranging from home style and décor to do-it-yourself repairs and plumbing advice.