The Persistent Flush

By Ginny Frizzi

January 4, 2012 5 min read

How do you stop a toilet from running?

Take away its track shoes.

Plumbing jokes aside, fixing a running toilet can be a fairly simple job that most people can do themselves.

The first step is to shut the water off, according to master plumber John Gouthro, founder of C.J. Plumbing & Heating Inc., a family-owned and operated business in Massachusetts.

"There is a valve located behind the toilet near the floor which will stop water from entering the toilet," he says. "This is important because it will prevent the running toilet from wasting water until you get the parts needed to make the repair."

Most running toilets are caused by a bad tank ball or a faulty flapper, which holds that water in the tank. Gouthro, who started his business in 1984, explained that a even a tiny tear or piece of debris can break the water-tight seal, causing water to leak out and forcing the tank to refill over and over again.

More than 30 different brands of tank balls and flappers exist on the market. While most are a universal fit, Gouthro says that it's best to buy the same brand for both to ensure they work in sync.

"This is a pretty simple fix with the right parts and the right tools," he says, adding that a pair of pliers is usually the only tool needed to install a new tank ball.

The first thing to try, which is the least expensive and the easiest, is to replace the flapper that shuts off the flow of water back into the tank. It sells for around $2 or less, according to Abe Baakrime, author of "Home Repairs by Abe: The Basic Do-It-Yourself Home Guide."

"You simply slip off the old flapper and slip on the new one," according to Baakrime. "It usually comes with a new pull-chain, which is very easy to attach as well. If that doesn't stop the leakage, there are other repair kits at stores that are inexpensive and very user-friendly with simple instructions. Sometimes the fill valve becomes faulty and needs replacement, but that is included in a standard toilet repair kit.

"The important thing to remember is that the entire kit is not expensive or difficult to use. Try that as a first line before calling in the plumber -- that is, unless he's either your boyfriend, husband, father or uncle!"

Lifestyle expert and author Sandra Lamb suggests looking in the toilet tank first: "The dozen or so times I've had the toilet keep running the problem has been that the chain or wire that connects the handle with the plug in the bottom of the toilet tank has been twisted, which shortens it and means the rubber plug cannot properly seat to stop the water from flowing.

"To correct this, the chain or connector on the wire simply needs to be untwisted. This can usually be done without disconnecting it," Lamb says.

If the water is not shutting off and overflowing into the refill tube, you need to replace the fill valve, also commonly known as the ballcock. This job is a bit more complicated, Gouthro says. "I would suggest calling a local, licensed plumber who is fully insured and backs his or her work with a guarantee."

When looking for a plumber, Gouthro advises finding one who is a member of professional associations. He also pointed out that some states require plumbers to take a designated number of courses per year in order to keep their licenses.

"In Massachusetts, plumbers have to take six hours of training each year," he says. "It is a good thing since it keeps our knowledge current."

John Z. Wetmore, producer of cable TV series "Perils For Pedestrians," has a suggestion for ensuring the right parts are purchased.

"If you think you know where the problem is, take a photo of the suspect part -- or the part itself -- to your local hardware store to get the right replacement part," he says.

Whether or not your toilet is running, John Gouthro advises that everyone should take the time to learn where the main shutoff valve is located. This knowledge is handy if you experience other plumbing problems.

"The location of the main shutoff valve varies around the country," he says. "It is usually located in the basement of northeastern homes, but not down south, where many places, like Florida, don't have basements. In those areas, the main shutoff valve if often in the lawn."

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