If Your Toilet Is Running

By Sharon Naylor

January 30, 2014 5 min read

Your toilet is one of those things you expect to do its job. You likely don't even think about it ... until you notice hours after flushing that water continues to leak into the bowl. It's wasting water and making noise in the middle of the night. Something has to be done about it.

Luckily, it's not that difficult to fix that running toilet. The solution might be quite simple and may not even require any tools or money.

The waterlevel mark in your toilet might point out the problem. Check whether the water in your toilet tank is at the fill line. Not having enough water fill your tank can cause your toilet to run. If you see that the water is not near the fill line, check your water valve to be sure it's all the way open. If not, turn it all the way on, and your tank should start filling up to the water line.

Bob Vila -- handyman icon and co-author of "If It's Broke, Fix It!" -- says that "a defective flapper is usually behind a running toilet problem." When you flush, it's the flapper, or rubber stopper, inside your toilet tank that lifts to release water into the bowl. The flapper might have a problem, such as rubbing against something (which you can fix by gently adjusting it) or being covered with limescale (which you can solve by cleaning it).

"Over time, the flapper can deteriorate, allowing water to trickle past its once-tight seal." So your first step is to test the flapper. Vila says, "Push down on the flapper to test its integrity; if the toilet immediately stops running, then you've identified the issue. The next step is to replace the flapper."

Here are Vila's suggestions:

--Start by turning off the water to the toilet (the shutoff valve should be directly beneath the tank).

--Flush the toilet to drain all remaining water from the tank and bowl.

--Remove the flapper. As you do so, note the way in which it attaches to the bottom of the tank so that you can replace it efficiently.

--Prepare to install a brand-new flapper. "There are several kinds of flappers, so when you visit the hardware store to buy a replacement, be sure you select one that is identical," says Vila. And follow the instructions that come with the replacement flapper, being sure to add or remove links on the chain connecting the flapper to the flush arm. If the chain is too long, you'll end up having to jiggle the handle to get the tank to refill. If the chain is too short, it will prevent the flapper from lowering down far enough to complete its seal on the bottom of the tank. When you achieve the ideal chain length, the new flapper should do the job.

You may find that your flapper is just fine, but the chain that raises or lowers it is caught on something. Simply release the chain from the obstacle, and your problem might be solved. The editors of DIY Network advise to also check if the chain has become disconnected, which requires a simple reconnect at the right length.

If you don't have a flapper or chain problem, but your toilet is still running, the cause might be the fill tube, which is a small plastic tub leading from the fill valve in the tank to the overflow pipe that drains excess water when the tank fills too high. Vila says that you may need to cut or adjust the fill tube so that it clears the water level in your full tank.

Another cause might be your toilet float. Older toilets likely have a ball float, and newer toilets likely have a cup float. If the float is set too high, it may cause the water level to rise above the overflow pipe, which can mean your tank never stops draining. You may just need to bend the float's arm to get it into the right position. Or you might need to slide the float back farther on its tube to achieve the right level.

If this step doesn't solve the problem, you may need to replace the fill valve, which you can do by following package instructions, or you might feel more comfortable having a plumber take over this job. He can assess your toilet for additional problems and may suggest replacing your toilet. It might be time for a more energy-efficient, newer toilet.

When you do go to the hardware store for any replacement parts, Darren Bush at The Art of Manliness suggests asking for an entire toilet-part kit, rather than buying individual parts. "They are almost always sold as one unit, and they're inexpensive enough that you can replace the whole thing more easily than replacing specific parts." Plus, you may find during your repairs that you need an extra washer or small hose you didn't expect earlier. It will be in the kit. "You can spend a lot or a little. The expensive ones are quieter, but other than that, it doesn't matter. Fifteen bucks will do the job."

When you're finished replacing the parts, Bush suggests flushing a few times to test your toilet's function and a complete seal consistently.

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