DIY Toilet Repair: 5 Common Commode Problems and How to Fix Them

Don't call a plumber just yet! These quick and easy toilet repair solutions will help you tackle the most common bathroom plumbing issues you're likely to face.

By Glenda Taylor and Bob Vila | Updated Nov 12, 2021 4:48 PM

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If there’s one household fixture we really rely on and hate to have to fix, it’s the toilet. But while these fixtures are prone to acting up now and then, the good news is many common toilet repairs are do-it-yourself-friendly; few (if any) basic hand tools are required to fix a toilet.

Unlike many of today’s high-tech home appliances, toilets are rather straightforward fixtures and are comprised of only a few essential parts. When something goes on the fritz, it’s usually relatively simple to diagnose the problem and fix it. That said, homeowners are hesitant to tackle commode repairs because they don’t know precisely how the fixture works.

If your toilet is giving you trouble, you’ve come to the right place. Check out the likely issues here and learn how to launch a DIY toilet repair rescue mission, without calling a plumber or needing to replace the toilet altogether.

How Does a Toilet Work? 

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The average toilet works via gravity and a siphoning effect. Water fills the toilet bowl about halfway, while additional water is stored in the tank. When someone depresses the toilet handle, the seal between the tank and the bowl (called a flapper) lifts, and water from the tank floods into the bowl. The water pressure forces the contents of the bowl to flow out of the toilet through the drain.

After the flush, the flapper settles back into place, and clean water from a water supply line flows into the tank until the water level reaches a predetermined point, which causes the water flow to cease until the next flush. Here are the various parts you may encounter when repairing a toilet:

  • Tank: This toilet part holds enough water to flush the contents of the bowl.
  • Trap: Located beneath the bowl, the trap is a curved section of the drain that keeps the water in the bowl from running out until the toilet is flushed.
  • Flapper: The seal between the tank and the bowl that lifts and allows the water to rush into the bowl when the toilet is flushed.
  • Float: A lightweight component in the tank that rises with the water level and shuts off the water flow when the tank is full. Depending on the tank components, this may also be called a “ball cock” or a “fill valve.”
  • Handle: The outwardly visible lever that raises the flapper in the tank when the toilet is flushed to allow water to run into the bowl.
  • Bowl-to-floor seal: Commonly called a “wax ring,” this is the soft, moldable seal that fits between the bottom of the toilet and the drainpipe to keep water from leaking out under the toilet.

RELATED: The Best Toilets of 2021

How to Fix a Toilet: Simple Solutions to the Most Common Issues

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Problem: The toilet bowl is overflowing.

Recommended fix: Plunge the toilet to clear the clog. 

A clogged commode will cause the bowl to overflow onto the bathroom floor, but the fix—which happens to be the most common of all toilet repairs—doesn’t have to ruin your day.

Clearing the clog is super simple, and you probably have a toilet plunger already on hand. Simply insert the plunger into the bowl while it’s still full of water, pressing the mouth of the plunger firmly against the opening at the bottom of the bowl to form a seal. Then use a rhythmic push-and-pull pumping motion to create pressure in the drain and free the clog. Often, just plunging will fix it.

Don’t be overly enthusiastic. Forceful plunging is likely to splash dirty water all over the bathroom. After eight to 10 pumps, lift the plunger away from the bottom of the bowl. If you’ve freed the clog, the water will drain—it usually takes just one or two attempts to free a clog.

RELATED: The Best Toilet Plungers for the Bathroom

Problem: The handle on the toilet just wiggles but doesn’t flush.

Recommended fix: Check and reconnect the chain in the toilet tank. 

If you depress the handle but feel no resistance and the toilet fails to flush, either a connection or the toilet chain inside the tank has most likely come loose. Not all tank interiors look exactly alike, but all feature a lift arm (a thin metal or plastic rod) and a rubber stopper at the bottom (called a “flapper”), which connects via a chain to the lift arm. Learning how to fix a toilet handle is quick and usually solves the problem.

If the chain comes unhooked from the lift arm, the flapper won’t lift to allow water to drain from the tank, preventing the flush. The same problem can occur if the nut that secures the handle to the lift arm (just inside the tank) has worked loose. When the problem is a toilet not flushing, the solution could be a simple four-step repair.

  1. Turn off the shut-off valve that supplies water to the tank that’s located on the small hose behind the commode.
  2. Remove the tank cover. Locate the chain connected to the flapper and pull it upward. This will lift the flapper and allow the water in the tank to drain out.
  3. If the chain has come loose from the lift arm, reconnect it (you should see a notch or a hook). If the toilet chain broke, buy a new one from the hardware store (these usually cost less than $5) and replace it.
  4. If a loose or broken chain isn’t the problem, the nut that secures the handle (just inside the tank) may have loosened and worked its way down the lift bar. Using your fingers, retighten the nut to the back of the handle until it’s snug, and then turn on the water supply to refill the tank.

RELATED: Best Toilet Repair Kits of 2021

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Problem: Water keeps running into the bowl after the tank has refilled.

Recommended fix: Jiggle the handle. If that doesn’t work, replace the flapper.

If you continue to hear water running in the commode when the tank has refilled after a flush, give the handle a little jiggle. If the running water stops, the problem is a faulty flapper. When new, the flapper is flexible and seals tightly in the drain at the bottom of the tank, settling easily back into place after every flush. Over time, however, the rubber can harden and the flapper won’t fit as snugly into the drain, and the result is a leaking toilet tank. Replacing the flapper should be just the right toilet repair.

  1. Turn off the water supply and drain the tank by pulling the flapper chain upward
  2. Remove the old flapper. Flappers connect in various ways, either with plastic hooks that snap onto a small bar on the overflow tube (a vertical cylinder positioned next to the flapper) or via a ring that slips over the overflow tube. Either way, you won’t need any tools to take it off.
  3. Take the defunct flapper to your local hardware or plumbing supply store to get an exact match. A new flapper will set you back $10 to $25, depending on the style, and it will come with a new chain.
  4. Install the new flapper using the same method you used to remove the old one, then connect the new chain to the lift bar. Running water problem solved!

RELATED: Best Toilet Flapper Replacements for Running Toilets

Problem: Water is pooling on the floor around the base of the toilet.

Recommended fix: Replace the wax ring seal under the toilet. 

Pooling water around the toilet base is always a cause for concern—is the toilet leaking from tank, bowl, or somewhere else? It’s often the result of a leaking wax ring seal. To test if the wax ring has gone bad, squirt some food coloring into the toilet bowl and then flush the toilet. If colored water runs out from around the base, you’ll have to replace the wax ring.

No need to size shop, as wax rings are one-size-fits-all standard toilet flange and are readily available at hardware or plumbing supply stores for about $5. While replacing the ring is a fairly simple DIY project, it involves physically lifting the entire toilet, which can weigh anywhere from 70 to 125 pounds depending on size and style. Such types of toilet repairs will require a strong back or, better yet, a helper.

  1. Turn off the water supply, and then flush the toilet to drain the tank and bowl. Some residual water will remain in the bowl after flushing—be sure to bail it out with a cup or use a wet-type vacuum. There should be no water in the toilet tank.
  2. Disconnect the water supply valve from the bottom of the tank by twisting the nut loose where the hose meets the tank. If unable to do this by hand, use a crescent wrench.
  3. Use a flathead screwdriver to pry off the plastic caps that cover the toilet bolts on either side of the bottom of the base.
  4. Remove the nuts that are now visible from the toilet bolts, using a crescent wrench. Once the nuts are off, the toilet is no longer connected to the floor.
  5. Lift the toilet, base, and tank together, straight upward and off the bolts, and then set it aside on some cardboard or old towels protecting your bathroom floor.
  6. Use a putty knife to scrape off the old wax from the flange—the top of the drainpipe that is now visible. The old wax will probably come off in chunks. It’s important to remove all of it from the flange.
  7. Center a new wax ring on the flange, taking care not to nick it or dent it. It will be soft and pliable. Gently press it in place with your fingers.
  8. Reset the toilet by lowering it straight down with the base holes aligned over the protruding toilet bolts. It’s important to keep the toilet base level as you set it or you could damage the wax ring and have to do the whole thing over again. Recruit help, if necessary, to set the toilet.
  9. Replace the nuts on the bolts, tightening them snugly with the crescent wrench.
  10. Caulk around the base of the toilet to seal the gap where the toilet meets the floor.
  11. Cover the nuts and bolts with the plastic caps.
  12. Reattach the water supply hose to the connection at the base of the tank, and turn the water supply valve back on.

RELATED: The Best Toto Toilets for the Bathroom

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Problem: The toilet only flushes partially before the tank begins filling back up.

Recommended fix: Check and adjust either the chain or the float. 

If the toilet starts to flush but then stops, the chain may be too loose (causing the flapper to close prematurely) or the fill valve may be allowing insufficient water into the tank. Here, toilet repairs can be as simple as adjustments made to these components. If you find yourself having to hold the handle down for the entire flush, the following steps will get your commode flushing correctly again.

  1. Remove the tank lid and flush the toilet. If the flapper drops back into place before the end of the flush, remove some of the slack from the chain by hooking it one or two links higher on the lift bar. If the problem persists, continue with the following steps.
  2. Watch the tank as it fills back up with water. When full, note how high the water level is compared to the top of the overflow tube (the vertical cylinder the flapper connects to). If the water level is lower than ½ inch from the top of the overflow valve, there probably isn’t enough water in the tank to completely flush the toilet, so you should adjust the fill valve to raise the water level, which will provide more water for each flush.
  3. Locate the fill valve—whose purpose is to let water fill the tank until it reaches the desired level—directly above the spot where the water supply tube connects beneath the tank. The fill valve in your tank may have a large float on the end of a bar that rises as the water level rises, or it may have an air-filled case that fits directly on the fill-valve post that rises as the water rises.
  4. Find the fill-valve adjustment screw on the side near the top. By turning the adjustment screw slightly one way or the other with a screwdriver, you can adjust the water level inside the toilet tank. It may take a little experimenting and repeated flushing to get it just right.

RELATED: The Best Toilet Flush Valves of 2021

Final Thoughts

The toilet is one of the most taken-for-granted fixtures in most homes. No one talks about it or thinks too much about it until it starts acting up—flushing slowly, clogging, leaking, or even hissing. Fortunately, most toilet problems are simple fixes, and a handy DIYer can tackle them in no time because the average toilet has only a few working parts.

Calling a plumber to repair simple toilet problems is costly and often unnecessary, since the most common issues have easy fixes. That said, replacing a wax ring is simple, but it also requires lifting the toilet from its base, which is physically strenuous. So if you’re not up for that, you may want to call a plumber for that fix.

FAQs About DIY Toilet Repair

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At some point, almost all homeowners are faced with clogged toilets or ones that aren’t flushing well, and they ask themselves, “How does a toilet work?” A few questions are likely for those wanting to learn to troubleshoot and take the DIY route to fix toilet problems themselves.

Q. What are the most common types of toilets?

The most common type of toilet is a two-piece (separate tank and bowl) unit that contains a tank with a flapper and a float. It relies on gravity to flush. Less common types may feature a toilet pump that sends a jet of water to flush the commode with force.

Q. How much does toilet repair cost? 

Many DIY types of toilet repair cost nothing, including plunging the bowl or adjusting a chain or the float level. However, if the tank’s inner workings are damaged, homeowners could pay an average of about $242 to have a plumber come out and make repairs, depending on the plumber’s hourly rate.

Q. How much water should be in the toilet tank?

The water level in the tank is adjustable, and most toilets flush well when the water level is 1 to 2 inches below the fill valve and the overflow tube. Learning how to adjust a toilet float (see above) will make it possible to select the optimal level for smooth flushing.

Q. Can you repair a toilet flush valve?

If a toilet flush valve is cracked or broken, it should be replaced. This is a more challenging DIY repair than some, so some homeowners will want to call a plumber at this point. If you’re up to the challenge, you’ll need to purchase a flush valve kit, and it will come with complete instructions.

Q. Are toilet flappers universal?

Most are, but it depends on size, either 2 inches or 3 inches. You’ll need to get the size that’s already in the tank for the correct fit.

Q. How do you snake a toilet?

It sounds ominous, but it’s actually quite simple. A toilet snake is an auger on a cable that feeds down the toilet bowl and into the trap beneath to clear out a clog. The tip of the auger will usually dislodge the clog or snag it so it can be pulled back up. Many a toddler’s stuffed toy has been retrieved in that manner.

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