Welcome to the Take Charge of Your Home series from Direct Energy! Hiring a professional to perform household maintenance may offer convenience and peace of mind, but you can do many of these jobs yourself with no experience or special tools. And in the process, you’ll save money, learn about how your home works and gain a sense of accomplishment from a DIY task done well!
On the list of things that can go wrong in the bathroom, a toilet that won’t flush ranks as a high repair priority. Unlike a dripping faucet that you might wait to fix over the weekend, an unresponsive toilet will become a major problem in hours, not days.
But the good news is that almost all toilet flushing problems can be fixed without any professional help — all it takes is some basic know-how of the parts in your toilet and a willingness to pull out the plunger if necessary.
Clog or No Clog
Sometimes you know right away why your toilet won’t flush. Using too much toilet paper or flushing something that wasn’t meant to go down the drain can cause a clog, and the only way to get things flowing again is to clear it.
If you don’t have reason to suspect a clog, it’s best to start troubleshooting with the tank. But if you think the problem is in the drain, there are two DIY tools to get your toilet back in business: a plunger and a toilet snake.
Take the Plunge
They don’t call it the plumber’s helper for nothing. A trusty plunger is the go-to tool for any minor or moderate toilet clog. And while it’s simple to use, there are a few tips that will help ensure your drain-clearing success:
Choose a flange plunger for clearing toilet clogs. A standard cup plunger is great for sink and floor drains, but the extended cup of a flange plunger gives you far more leverage over a wide toilet drain.
Make sure the water level in the bowl is just deep enough to cover the entire plunger cup, which is essential to a good seal. Add or bail out water if necessary.
Place stoppers or rags into the sink and tub drains, which will increase pressure on the plumbing system.
Smear a little petroleum jelly around the rim of the plunger before use.
Plunge vigorously, straight up and down, for 30 seconds at a time. It may take a few rounds to clear a tough clog.
Send in the Snake
If the plunger doesn’t get the job done, you may find more success with a plumbing snake. Smaller versions are available at most hardware stores for $20 to $30, but the range of choices extends into expensive, powered versions used by professionals. Stick to the low end for DIY clog-clearing.
You’ll want to refer to the operating instructions for your specific model, but most toilet snakes work the same way. You insert a spring coil into the toilet bowl and either manually feed it in toward the clog or turn a crank handle to send it into the pipe. Once the coil reaches the clog, turn the crank to break up the clog and push through. When the water begins to drain, turn the crank the other way and carefully pull the snake back out.
No Clog? No Worries!
If a clog isn’t the culprit, there’s one quick part to check before examining the contents of the toilet tank, and that’s the main toilet valve. This is the valve handle leading from the bathroom wall or floor and into the tank. The valve should be turned all the way to the left. If it’s closed, there’s no water flowing into the tank and your toilet won’t flush.
If the valve is open, remove the tank lid and get ready for a part-by-part checkup. If you need to reach in, don’t worry — the water is clean!
Get a Handle on the Situation
When checking for problems inside the tank, start with the flush handle. The handle outside the toilet should connect to a plastic or metal arm that extends inside the tank. Make sure these parts are intact and that there’s a tight connection between the handle and the arm. Plastic parts can become brittle with age and break.
If the flush handle assembly is damaged, you can buy a replacement at any hardware store. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions — it’s a five-minute repair job.
At the end of the flush arm is a chain that leads to the flapper. When you push the flush handle, the flush arm tugs the chain, which in turn lifts the flapper and allows water to flow into the bowl. The chain itself may be the problem if it’s broken, disconnected, too long or too short.
Make sure the chain is intact and connected at both ends. If it is, check the length of the chain to ensure that there are just a few links of slack when the flush handle is at rest. If the chain is too long, it might not open the flapper or it could get caught between the flapper and the floor of the tank. Too short, and it will hold the flapper slightly open, wasting water and making flushes less effective.
Most chains are adjustable, making it easy to correct the length. You should only need to replace the chain if it’s broken.
Find the Flapper
If everything still looks fine, check the flapper for signs of chips, cracks or warping. The flapper should rest firmly against the floor of the tank and move freely along its hinges. Flappers don’t last forever, so if it’s not in good shape, pick up a replacement at the hardware store. Flappers slip on and off easily — another five-minute repair task.
The last few parts involve the level of water in the tank. Find the overflow tube, which points upward and is open on top. The water level should be about an inch below the top of the tube.
If it’s not, check the float — a hollow rubber ball — and the float arm, which connects the float to the fill valve. The float sits atop the water, lifting the float arm as it rises. When the float arm reaches a certain level, it shuts off the fill valve, stopping the flow of water. The float arm can be adjusted with a screw at its base or by simply bending the arm.
If the water level is too low or too high, the float or float arm may be broken or out of adjustment. Check them for damage and calibrate the float arm if necessary.
If the water level still isn’t right after all that work, you likely have a failed fill valve. Fortunately, these are also cheap and easily replaced.
When to Call a Plumber
If your toilet still won’t flush after following this long and winding road through all of its parts, it’s time to bring in the professionals. But in the vast majority of cases, this step-by-step checkup will help you identify and repair the problem all on your own — and if not, you at least get to know your toilet inside and out!