How to fix a running toilet

The average running toilet can waste up to two gallons of water per minute. Considering nearly 750 million people on earth lack access to a clean source of H2O, letting your on-tap, endless supply continuously pour down the drain seems pretty selfish. Not only that, its incessant hiss serves as a constant reminder to everyone in range that your DIY skills are seriously lacking. Lucky for you, we’re here to help. Most fixes can be accomplished in less time than it takes to, um, read the morning newspaper, and won’t require any tools at all, other than a belt (this isn’t an excuse to advertise your plumber’s crack).


1Diagnose the flow. First things first, we need to diagnose what’s causing the relentless flow. To do that properly, you need to understand the mechanics housed within your porcelain perch. Lift the lid off of the rear tank and you’ll notice that the flush lever is attached to a flap via a chain. When you flush, that flap lifts and the entire contents of your tank empty into the bowl below, displacing the water and waste down into the drain. When this happens, the float drops, thus opening the fill valve. Water now flows into the tank, refilling it via the refill tube. As water levels top off to their predetermined level, the float hits its high spot, closing the fill valve and stopping the water — at least in a perfect world. That means things could go wrong at any combination of one of five places: the flap, the chain, the float, the float arm or the fill valve.

2Check the flap. Most problems can be solved at the flap. The rubber flapper needs to fully close and seal the tank off from the bowl to ensure the water fills the tank and doesn’t run. The simplest solution is to make sure your toilet cleaning puck hasn’t shifted position (pro tip: if you use blue pucks, put on some dishwashing gloves first). If there are no obstructions, manually lift the flapper and watch how it lands. If it’s out of alignment, check that the pivot points on which it’s hinged aren’t becoming jammed. You may need to swap out the flapper itself or just give things a good cleaning. The rubber can degrade over time, so check it for cracks and brittle edges. The same rules apply for toilets equipped with a ball-style closure.

3Make sure the chain isn’t catching. If your flapper looks to be in good shape but still won’t seal properly, take a peek at the chain connected to it. It may be getting caught on something and preventing the flapper from closing fully. If the problem requires a chain replacement, this takes no time at all — just make sure you match lengths before the swap.

4Look to the float. One of the more common issues lies with the float. Since the float is what activates the water valve itself, it needs to operate smoothly to turn off the waterworks. Make sure it isn’t getting hung up on the filler tube or any other obstacles. If your float is the bulbous type mounted on an arm, check it for any holes. If you see one, it means water is sinking your float. Most floats can be spun freely on their axis to position the hole on top, but replacement or repair is the best route here.

5Adjust the arm. The float is connected to the valve via the arm. Some are wire and others are plastic, but all of them are adjustable. You’ll know yours needs an adjustment if it is functioning, but when the tank fills to the fill line, the water keeps flowing into the overflow tube. If your arm is wire, bending the arm down slightly will cause the float to close the valve sooner and stop the flow. If it’s plastic, there should be a thumb-screw of some sort midway to the float. You can adjust the arm angle using this pretty easily and stop flow from continuing. If your float is inline with the valve post, pinch the clip connecting it to the valve via the wire and lift the float until the valve shuts. Now let go of the clip and you should have successfully adjusted the closing position of your valve.

6Evaluate the valve. If your valve simply won’t close, first give it the once over for limescale build-up. A simple cleaning with a stiff bristled brush and some CLR (calcium, lime and rust) can go a long way here — especially if you’re not the first king to sit on this throne. If that still doesn’t enable the valve to close, you may be looking at swapping out internal washers and seals. For some units this may be more trouble than it’s worth. If you can’t easily access them, look into replacing the whole valve mechanism. This usually isn’t too daunting a task, even for a DIY newbie, provided you read and follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Why is My Toilet Running?

The typical toilet tank will have a flapper which seals the water in the tank. When you flush the toilet, the flapper is lifted and water is allowed to move from the tank into the bowl. Once a set amount of water has exited the tank, the flapper falls back down and re-seals the tank.

The most common issue with toilets randomly flushing is that the flapper has become brittle or sediment has formed on the flapper/tank which prevents the flapper making a complete seal. This will allow water to slowly drip from the tank into the bowl. If enough water is permitted to leak out of the tank, the filling mechanism will be triggered and the tank will refill. If enough water enters the toilet bowl, the self-siphonage will be triggered and the bowl will drain into the sewage system.

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Here’s a picture of a typical assembly:

toilet components

Leaks are Usually the Problem

The likely problem with this type of toilet repair is a leaking rubber flapper that seals against plastic at the bottom of the tank, due to hard water that eventually results in the water leaking.

One of the easiest ways to test if any plumbing repairs might be needed in the future is by using dye tablets or food coloring. When you flush the toilet, either drop a dye table or put a few drops of food coloring in the tank and let it fill up. The tank will obviously fill with blue water, but if a leak exists, the water in the bowl will also turn blue.

How to Fix a Running Toilet

1. Rubber Toilet Flapper (B)

Do a visual inspection first. Does it look warped, damaged, or corroded? Next, push down on the flapper and try to create a seal around the drain at the bottom of the tank. If you are unable to create a seal and water continues to drain out of the bottom of the tank, you probably need to replace your rubber flapper. Another good test to see if the flapper is the cause of your problem is to put a few drops of food coloring into the tank and wait 15 minutes to see if the color appears anywhere in the toilet bowl itself. Click here to buy a toilet flapper. Make sure the replacement flapper is the right size. Watch this video for How to Replace a Toilet Flapper:

2. Toilet Chain

While inspecting your toilet flapper, you probably noticed the chain that connects the flapper to the toilet flush lever. The chain should be short enough to not get stuck between the flapper and the drain and long enough to be able to be able to lower the flapper over the drain without much tension. We recommend having about a half inch of slack. And clearly, if the chain has come undone or disconnected, you will need to reconnect the chain to the handle and the toilet flapper. You can readjust your chain with wire cutters or needle-nosed pliers. Test your toilet chain by flushing the toilet and jiggling the handle.

3. Ball Float (D)

If your ball float is full of water or shows signs of damage, leaks, or cracks, you will want to replace the float to fix your running toilet. If your ball float looks good, the next thing you want to look at is the water level. Is the water overflowing into the overflow tube (E)? That means that your ball float is positioned too high. To adjust the height of your ball float, and thus your water level, follow these steps:

  1. Get your screwdriver and locate the the screw adjustment above the pump (C), which is connected to the float ball rod.
  2. As you tighten the screw with your screwdriver, the ball float should lower, which will hopefully solve your water level problem.
  3. On the other hand, if your ball float is too low, you might not be getting enough water in your bowl, making it difficult to flush everything in one go. In this case, start unscrew the screw a bit to loosen tension on your ball float and raise it up to the correct position
  4. Ideally, the water line should be between 1 inch and a half an inch.

Before you replace any piece of equipment:

  • Make sure the water is off. Close the valve that located below the toilet. If there visible mineral buildup, you can try using some vinegar and a wire brush to clean it off.

fix a running toilet

Source: artofmanliness

  • Drain the tank by flushing the toilet. If you closed the valve underneath the toilet, no water should fill the tank back up. You can use a cloth or sponge to soak up any excess water in the tank.
  • Now that the toilet tank is dry, you can replace any part you need.

After you have done the necessary repairs or adjustments, try turning the water back on and flushing the toilet to see if you have fixed your running toilet problem.

If you need to make a bigger repair, like replace the fill valve pump, see this Family Handyman article.

For more information and facts on toilet and other plumbing leaks, see this EPA page.

If you are still having trouble finding or repairing your running toilet, there may be a more serious issue at hand. Give Larry & Sons a call at 301-733-5428.

Check out our maintenance plan; we provide fall and spring HVAC tune-ups, provide 15 % off all repairs, and much more!

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Possible Problem 1 – Flapper Problems

Fixing Toilet Flapper

The first possible issue that you may be experiencing is a problem with your toilet’s flapper.

  • Turn off your water supply and drain your toilet by flushing. Once you have done this you can inspect the toilet’s flapper. The flapper is a rubber round-shaped seal which prevents the water from draining out of the tank and down into the bowl. When the toilet is flushed, a chain pulls up the flapper allowing fresh water to fill the bowl.
  • Take the tank lid off your toilet. Hold it firmly as it will be made from heavy ceramic and could easily break if dropped or knocked over. Place it down on a towel on the floor and look inside the tank.
  • If the chain which pulls up the flapper is either too short or too long this could cause a problem. If it is excessively short, the valve will be pulled upwards causing the water to constantly drain. On the other hand if it is too long it is possible that it is getting trapped under the flapper preventing it from sealing. If the chain is too short, take off the hook that attaches the chain to the flush lever and move it up by 1 or 2 links to give it more slack then reattach it to the flush lever. However if the chain is too long, trim some of the links from the top of the chain using wire cutters, reattach the hook back to the top link and then reattach to the flush lever.
  • Take out the flapper and check for any warping, disintegration, mineral deposits or discoloration.
  • If the flapper is dirty it may not be able to seal properly and this will cause the toilet to run. Clean it by soaking it in vinegar for half an hour and then scrub to dislodge the buildup before putting it back into place.
  • If the flapper is worn, buy and fit a replacement.
  • Turn your water supply back on and see if the problem is resolved.

Possible Problem 2  – Water Level Problems

man fixing toilet flush

If the flapper has not caused your running toilet, the next thing to check is the toilet’s water level. If it is too high, water will constantly be draining into its overflow tube.

  • When the tank is full and the water is running, check your overflow tube and see if water is constantly draining into it. If it is, lower the float to adjust its water level.
  • Your float will either be a ball valve or a cup valve. You can adjust the height of a ball valve by using a screwdriver to turn the screw which attaches the fill valve to the float arm counterclockwise.
  • If you have a cup valve there will be a screw located at the top of the valve. Turn it counterclockwise to adjust the float’s height.
  • Flush your toilet, allowing the tank refill with water. It should come up to around an inch below the overflow tube.

Possible Problem 3 – Fill Valve Problems

If neither the flapper nor the water level are the problem, the third thing to try is the fill valve.

  • Turn off your water supply and flush the toilet. Absorb all of the water that remains in the tank with a sponge until it is completely empty.
  • Unscrew the nut which secures your water supply line in place using pliers.
  • Remove the nut which attaches the fill valve to your toilet and remove the valve,
  • Buy a replacement in the same style or replace a ball valve with a cup one.
  • Install your new fill valve, connect your water supply line and tighten up the nut by turning it clockwise using pliers.
  • Connect your fill tube to its water output nozzle which is on top of the fill valve. Position it so that it drains into its overflow tube.
  • Using your manufacturer’s instruction, adjust the float so that it is at the correct height. You can use a tape measure to check the distance from the bottom of the tank.
  • Turn your water supply on and allow your tank to refill with water. Check your water level, making sure that your fill tube is not in the water. Check if the water is still running. If it is, you can alter the height of the float until it stops. Flush the toilet and then allow it to refill before flushing it once more to test.
  • Once the toilet no longer runs, put the lid carefully back on the tank.

As you can see, these three common problems can easily be rectified by any homeowner, even if they have no previous plumbing experience. By simply following these step by step instructions you can save yourself the cost of calling out a plumber and cut your water bills in one fell swoop.

If it’s time for you to buy a new toilet, you can find out which is the right model for you by checking out our best toilet reviews. You can see all of the top rated toilets on the market today and make an informed purchasing decision.

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Fixing a Clogged Toilet

A clog is typically cleared with a plunger or toilet auger, unless it is deep inside the drain pipes—a problem that may require a drain-clearing pro. There are two different types of toilet clogs. The most common is a clog that simply prevents the waste and water from going down the drain. The second, and more distressing, is a clog that causes sewage to back up into a bathtub or other fixture when the toilet is flushed.

The common clog usually indicates a blockage in the pipe below or immediately adjacent to the toilet. The more serious clog usually indicates a blockage in the main drainpipe or the drainpipes beyond the area of the toilet. If your home utilizes a septic system, it may mean that the septic tank is full. (For more information, see Septic Tank Care & Maintenance.)

If your toilet is clogged but not backing up into other fixtures, don’t try to flush it or it may overflow. You can usually stop the rise of water before it overflows by lifting up the float ball or float.

1Remove the lid from the tank and raise the flapper valve to let a little water pass through so you can see whether the toilet is indeed clogged. If it is, water won’t go down the drain.

Bell-Shaped Toilet Plunger. Buy on Amazon

2If it is, first try plunging with a bell-shaped toilet plunger. Wearing rubber gloves, place the plunger’s head over the center of the toilet drain hole. Then rapidly push the plunger’s handle up and down to force air and water into the pipe, creating suction to free the clog.

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If waste water drains from the toilet, you’ve probably managed to break the clog loose. Gradually pour about a gallon of water from a bucket into the toilet to flush it.

3Use a closet auger. If this doesn’t do the job, you can attempt to snake out the toilet with a closet auger (named after “water closet,” a plumbing term for toilet), which will reach down about 3 feet. Work the end of it down into the drain hole, turning the handle clockwise until the cable won’t go any further. Then push it repeatedly to dislodge the clog.

If the auger seems to have hooked onto the obstacle, try pulling it out. If it seems balky, work it back and forth carefully so as not to scratch or break the porcelain. If you are able to break through the clog, plunge the toilet again.

Toilet Drain Auger. Buy on Amazon

You can use a longer drain auger to reach a deeper clog, but you won’t be able to work it through the drain unless you remove the toilet first. (For information on how to remove and replace a toilet, see How to Install a Toilet.) Often, an easier route is to work a long plumbing auger through a nearby cleanout or vent pipe.

4Snake the main drain. If your plumbing system has a clog that is causing sewage to back up into other fixtures when the toilet is flushed, you can attempt to snake out the main drainpipes yourself with a long drain auger. (For more about how to do this, see How to Snake a Drain Clog.)

Inexpensive drain augers are available for purchase, or you can rent a high-powered model from a tool rental supplier. If this is more than you want to attempt, call a plumber or drain-clearing service.

Fixing a Toilet That Leaks at the Base

If water pools around the base of your toilet—especially during or immediately following a flush, the cause is usually a failed wax ring between the toilet’s base and the closet flange (waste pipe). If there is water beneath the toilet regardless of whether or not it has been flushed, the water may be from a leaking water supply connection or from condensation. Here is how to fix these issues.

Replace the toilet’s wax ring if the toilet is leaking at the base. Buy on Amazon

Water that pools around the base of a toilet can be caused by leaking at the seal between the toilet and the closet bend (the drainpipe beneath the floor), the seals between the tank and the bowl, the water supply tube, or because the tank is sweating. If you can’t tell whether your toilet’s tank is sweating or leaking where the tank connects to the bowl, squeeze a couple of drops of food coloring in the tank water, wait about an hour, and then dab the tank bolts with a white tissue. If the color shows up on the tissue, the tank is leaking. Otherwise, it’s probably sweating or the leak is coming from the water supply.

Replacing this ring involves pulling the toilet, so be sure the water is not coming from a leaking toilet tank or water-supply connection before you go to the trouble of replacing the wax ring.

First check for condensation on the surface (sweating). A tank typically sweats in the summer when it is cooler than the ambient air, causing moisture to condense on its surface. When the moisture drips down to the floor, it can cause mildew or—worse—dry rot. Toilet tanks can be easily insulated with a lining of foam rubber or polystyrene to prevent sweating. See below for more about fixing a toilet that sweats.

Next, look for cracks in the tank and bowl. If either the toilet tank or bowl are cracked, replace the entire toilet. For information on how to do this, see How to Install a Toilet.

Use a rag to dry the floor around the toilet’s base. Lay a newspaper beneath the toilet’s tank, wait a few minutes, and check it for drips. If there is no sign of leaking but the water reappears around the base, the wax ring is probably the culprit. If drips appear, check the fittings directly above them for leaks.

When you buy a wax ring replacement, make sure to choose one with a rubber collar, which is less likely to leak in the future. The process of replacing the wax ring is detailed in step-by-step captioned photographs in How to Install a Toilet.

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