Toilet Maintenance 101: Keeping Your Toilet Working

Last week (OK, two weeks ago. WE ARE BUSY PEOPLE!) we got in deep with a very advanced toilet repair, so this week the Handy Maniac insists that we backtrack and cover Toilet Repair 101.

This all started because I yelled “There’s something wrong with the toilet!” – the way I usually alert him to something that needs attention.  Within seconds he appeared by my side and said: “Go ahead. PLUNGE IT.”

I have created a monster.

So. Here we are: I take the plunger that is always parked by the side of our toilet. I lift the seat, and with my best HARD-DOWN, SOFT UP technique because I want to push whatever is there DOWN, not pull it UP. (You may recall that you plunge with a SOFT DOWN, HARD UP technique with a sink clog, because you want to pull the dreck UP into the sink.) After a few pumps, I get a WHOOSH. Problem solved.  I start to put the plunger back in it’s place….


He instructs me to spray it with the bleach-based bathroom cleaner and swirl it around the cleanly flushed toilet. Only then am I allowed to put the plunger on the floor again.

While I have him here, we decide to go over the basics.

“We have to start with basic cleaning etiquette,” he says. “People don’t clean where they can’t see. I suspect a lot of women don’t even bother to lift the seat when they clean a toilet.”  

“I do so.”


“It’s true,” I admit. “I am not as good at it as you are.” HM takes a great deal of pride in how well he cleans toilets. His mother insisted that he was the only one of her nine children who could really do the job properly and so she reserved that chore especially for him.  

“Everyone knows how to clean what they see ON a toilet. You get a good hard brush that can get underneath the rim. You’ve got to make sure you keep the water jets and porcelain openings clear. That’s what rinses the bowl on every flush. If that gets clogged you get an INCOMPLETE FLUSH.”

I nod reverently.

He continues. “Flush your toilet and take a look at what happens to the water.”

“Think like water!” I cheer him on.

“You want to make sure you keep that tornado going. Improper flushes are what cause blockages – when you don’t get enough pressure to push the paper and waste down the drain. KEEP YOUR JETS CLEAN.”

By now our toilet is spanking clean. I hope you are taking notes on how this was done.

Finally, we are ready to review one of the most common toilet problems: THE RUNNING TOILET.  This is a sign of an internal leak, meaning you are losing water down the drain. This gets HM’s goat, because most people won’t bother to address it. “Most people aren’t bothered if they don’t see water on the floor. You SHOULD BE.”

So what to do?  First, you have to diagnose what’s causing the problem. There are a few things it can be: A loose handle, a bad flapper, a bad float ball or filler.

These all usually have inexpensive and universal replacement parts that are easy to swap out.

Your basic toilet parts can all be checked and replaced. If you're toilet's running you should check them all.

Your basic toilet parts can all be checked and replaced. If you're toilet's running you should check them all.

Here’s how you diagnose the problem(s).


  • Take the back lid off of the tank.
  • Check the handle to see if it’s loose in its attachment to the tank. If this is the case, try to tighten up the handle with the reverse thread nut (you can do this by hand). If that doesn’t work,  you can replace the handle mechanism.
  • Check the chain that goes from the rod down to the top of the flapper. If it is LOOSEY GOOSEY, you may need to shorten up the attachment. “A lot of times the chain is too long and gets caught in a knot every time you flush. That’s your classic running toilet.”


According to HM, the most egregious culprit of water loss in a bathroom is a deteriorating flapper.  He firmly believes everyone should have a spare one in the basement. “In my case,” he says, “you should have a half dozen for all your KUCKLEHEAD FRIENDS who won’t have one when they need it.” Our basement is a survivalist bunker for knuckleheads who may not have realized that they need a cheap colonial-style chandelier, 37 elbow joints or a case of 200 white plastic switch plate covers.

But back to the flapper: This is the cork in the bottom of the tank that holds the next flush of water, and lifts up to let the water through. What it shouldn’t do is let water through when it’s not lifted. But rubber breaks down over time – which is why it needs to be replaced periodically. HM recommends replacing flappers every 3-5 years regardless of whether you have a running toilet problem.

How do you know if you have a leaking flapper? If you hear your tank fill up at odd times – like in the middle of the night when you’re in bed – that’s usually a sign.

Flappers are very easy to replace. “If you have never done it in your home, just DO IT NOW. I can’t emphasize that enough.  It is an EASY EASY FIX. And a BIG water saver.”  (All you Californians take note.)

I am ready to move on, but HM isn’t. “When a flapper leaks, the water level in a tank can drop down an inch or two before the float kicks in and fills the tank up AGAIN.  If you have a low-gallon-per-flush toilet (which many new toilets are), a leaking flapper leads to less water in the tank…. All this ties into making a good flush. CHANGE YOUR FLAPPER!”

Sure, check the chain to make sure it's not too lose. But REPLACE YOUR FLAPPER regularly. It's the biggest culprit for internal leaks that could be wasting HUGE amounts of water. CALIFORNIANS TAKE NOTE.

Sure, check the chain to make sure it's not too lose. But REPLACE YOUR FLAPPER regularly. It's the biggest culprit for internal leaks that could be wasting HUGE amounts of water. CALIFORNIANS TAKE NOTE.


See our Lo-FI video below, as HM explains to me how to tell if this is working properly. If not, it too can be replaced.

And here is how you adjust the fill mechanism.

And here is how you adjust the fill mechanism.


Now what about water on the floor, around the toilet? The kind of problem you can SEE?

First, check the obvious places the source of the leak:

  1. The hose connection from valve to tank.
  2. The toilet shut-off, the connecting supply, and the connection at the tank are three more candidates for leaking.
  3. Now look at the Johnny-bolt connections between the throne and the tank.

 Any of these parts can be tightened, or replaced, with little expense or effort. “These are all things a homeowner can do with the tools I told them to get.”

If you’ve ruled out all of the above sources of leaking, it could be the dreaded loose wax ring beneath the toilet. Read last week’s post to see how to fix that.


A non-leak related problem, is a loose seat.  Loose seats can lead to a broken wax-ring: Your weight shifts, and you are putting pressure on where the toilet bowl connects to floor. This can cause the wax ring to start shifting.

“A rocking toilet = YOU’RE GONE,” says HM.  “Every movement breaks the seal so it’s no longer vapor- or water-proof.”

“If you’re seat’s a rocking, the plumber’s gonna come knocking!”

 He shakes his head. HM doesn’t like it when my humor goes IN THE TOILET.

Toilet seats gets a lot of use and take a lot of cleaning, so it’s not just about keeping the hardware tight. “They aren’t meant to last ten years,” explains HM. “If you have a wood or composite toilet seat that’s painted and is starting to wear (e.g. you can see beneath the paint job), it’s time to replace it. Plastic seats are easier to clean and have a longer life, but are more likely to get loose.”

If you are missing parts on a toilet seat (like missing a bolt underneath the saddle, or a piece of connecting hardware) and/or it’s starting to wear out, it’s time to invest in a new one.


Words to live by.