Fixing a toilet: it’s easy

Even though terms like lock nut, nipple, and ball cock may intimidate you, fixing the fill valve on your toilet is pretty easy. Most problems in the toilet basin—slow fill, constant run, loose flapper—are caused by either a faulty fill valve or flush valve*. If you take off the lid of the basin, the fill valve is the tall pump device that extends through the bottom of the basin to the water supply. The flush valve is the flapper component, or the piece that is connected by a chain to the handle.

The path to success runs through here

Our toilet filled so slowly that it would take 10-15 minutes, a dual problem with the fill valve and the flapper (flush valve), and even then we’d have to jiggle the handle until it broke. With the handle broke, I finally had to open the $15 kit I bought at Ace a year ago. I spent more time thinking about the toilet than it took to fix it; the handle took two minutes, the fill valve less than an hour—despite my incompetence.

Most of the parts in the basin can be twisted off by hand or, if it’s been a while, with pliers.  Any kit comes with detailed instructions, all of which are easy enough to follow. There are a couple of points that should be addressed even before opening the kit. First, clean the bathroom. You’ll have to clean it again when you’re done so this might seem redundant, but consider this: toilets are put in a corner just like Baby, and due to the angles, you might find your face the closest it’s been to a toilet bowl since college. A wipe down will not suffice; trust me on this one. There’s some pockets of stink that can make the job take longer and be more disagreeable than it should.

Open the basin, see what you’re dealing with. What exactly is the problem? Flush it, watch it flow and fill. It shouldn’t take more than a minute. Then you can shut the water supply off—yes, it’s the handle in the wall behind the toilet. Turn it right. Flush the toilet—if the water supply is off it won’t refill. Try to get all water out of the basin with a sponge or by leaving the flapper open.

Unscrew the water supply line. By hand. This has been easy enough, yes? Feeling pretty stinking good about yourself at this point? This is where I had the problem. To replace the fill valve, you have to unscrew it from the bottom of the basin. The instructions say you can do this by hand. I could not. I wedged my head and shoulders in the corner, waved my plumber’s ass high in the air, and got at that lock nut with four different sets of pliers and a half-dozen wrenches, all of which stripped the plastic so bad that it was impossible to remove. The nut should be turned in the same direction as the nut you turned to take off the water supply line.

There was sweating and cursing, a standard for Duffer home repairs, and the dread that I would have to leave our half bathroom—the kids’ bathroom—in a state of disrepair for who knows how long. Remember, it took me over a year to finally open the kit and gut the toilet. I was hoping to have graduated from the classic Duffer work quotient for home repair: double the time and add a day.

At Ace the next morning, I bought a small, hand-held hacksaw, and sawed the shit out of the ‘threaded shank’, being careful not to jar the porcelain too much because if it cracked then I’d have to buy a new toilet and a plumber. Once that bastard was off I was done in 15 minutes. One other note, don’t throw away the tube that takes the water from the fill valve to the flapper contraption; kits don’t come with it. I would suggest scouring the valve for water deposits.

Then, turn the water supply back on, make sure nothing is leaking, then proudly sit on your throne and feel the power of the flush. Fixing a toilet, like something else you do with a toilet, is easy and incredibly satisfying.

* Other problems with a toilet can include a loose base or cracked porcelain. If the toilet’s cracked, get a new one. If it’s loose on the floor, or leaking, or generally looks like something is spewing from under it then you need a new wax ring, possibly a flange, which is the mount that keeps the toilet on the floor. When the boy was a toddler, he decided to drop a cup down the old wishing well; it got stuck in the neck and after a week of fruitless fishing, I finally called a plumber. It took him 2-3 hours to remove the toilet, replace the seal, refasten the toilet. I recommend a pro; it’s a big pain in the ass, especially given how heavy the toilet is and how messy your bathroom/hallway will become.


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  1. #1 by diveswithoutwives on 05/21/2012 - 7:25 PM

    It never ceases to amaze me how many men don’t know how to fix a toilet. Even more amazing is how many people think the water in the tank is actually dirty.

  2. #2 by mae naylor on 02/24/2015 - 12:40 AM

    (HELP!!) and THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS EXPLAINER. I am a pretty handy girl, and after having a stroke with the old fill unit (couldn’t detach it either, like you.) I also took a hacksaw to the dam*ed thing. Voila! Or so I thought. Now I’m stuck with the last inch of threaded shank stuck in the same nut I couldn’t loosen in the first place. I absolutely can’t get the remaining plastic threading out of the metal attaching nut. I’m sure someone used putty or tape on it, and I’m scared to heat it because the supply line to the toilet is rubber even though the nut is brass. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

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