I’ll admit it — I titled this post to attract homeowners who are searching for how to fix a leaky toilet. But wouldn’t it be even better if you could prevent your toilet from leaking in the first place? This article will help you do both!
During this year’s Spring Break, our family spent some time at our cabin in Eastern Washington. There are lots of way to relax out there: reading, watching movies, playing cards, using the 100 megabit fiber internet connection, etc. But one of my favorite ways to relax is to tackle DIY projects. So I was actually happy when I noticed that one of the toilets at the cabin was “hissing” for a few seconds every now and then — that’s the sound of the fill valve, and almost always a sign that the “flapper” inside the tank is allowing water to leak from the tank into the bowl.
Because I keep replacement parts on-hand, and because all three toilets at the cabin were installed at the same time, I decided to replace all three flappers at the same time. As I did so, I realized that there are four main components that cause most toilet issues. They are:
- Shut-Off Valve – sometimes called an angle valve, this is usually located down near the floor and behind the toilet, that controls the water flowing toward your toilet (and that you use to shut off the water whenever you need to fix your toilet)
- Supply Line – sometimes called a riser, this is the hose between the shut-off valve at the wall and the fill valve in your toilet’s tank
- Fill Valve – the valve that fills your toilet’s tank when it’s empty, then shuts off the water when it’s full
- Flapper – a (usually) rubber lid for your toilet’s flush valve — this opens when you press your toilet handle and allows water to flow from the tank into the bowl
There are a few other parts on a toilet that could go bad, but 99 times out of 100… one of these four items is the problem. And whenever water is involved, small problems can have huge consequences. In a best case scenario, it might just be a fill valve that doesn’t shut off at the right time, overfilling your tank and and wasting water. Or it might be a leaky flapper that causes your toilet to fill more often than it needs to, also wasting water. In both cases, your money is going down the toilet… and this $25 Toilet Tune-Up will pay for itself in the first month. But in a worst case scenario, a failed or leaky shut-off valve can cause tens of thousands of dollars in water damage to a kitchen or bathroom… especially when there are rooms below it (I wish I didn’t know that from experience). And if that ever happens, you’ll really wish you’d taken my advice.
Preventing home maintenance problems is always cheaper than fixing them (especially when water is involved), so this could be the best $25 you spend all year. This project is extremely easy and you don’t need any prior experience to do it.
Let’s go through the four components of the $25 Toilet Tune-Up, and I’ll explain why you need each of them.
Item 1: Shut-Off Valve (Stop Valves Suck, Ball Valves Rule)
There are two general types of toilet shut-off valves: multi-turn valves (also called stop valves or globe valves), and quarter-turn valves (also called ball valves). These valves aren’t just used on your toilet — the exact same valves appear under your kitchen and bathroom sinks to allow you to shut off water flow to your faucets.
You might be able to tell them apart just by looking at them, but how can you be certain which type you have? Go turn one off. Really! Right now. Go to a toilet or sink in your house and shut off the valve all the way (“righty-tighty” turns it off), then turn it back on. If you had to turn the handle more than a quarter-turn to get it all the way off, you have a multi-turn valve (or stop valve). If it only moved 90 degrees to the off position, then you have a quarter-turn (alwo written 1/4 turn) valve.
If you already have a quarter-turn valve installed on your toilet, go ahead and skip to the next step. Those valves are extremely reliable, and you probably won’t have any problems with it for as long as you own your home.
But if you have a multi-turn valve, I recommend replacing it immediately… particularly if it’s been installed for 10 years or longer. I’m very wary of multi-turn valves. I’ve witnessed multiple failures, and I personally had one fail inside a kitchen cabinet one time while I was out of town for the weekend… and I came home to a huge and very expensive mess. All that could have been prevented had I simply replaced it with a $7 quarter-turn valve.
Take a peek inside a multi-turn valve to see how it works — and understand its weaknesses:
As you crank the handle, you’re tightening down a rubber plug or bib-washer to plug the hole that allows water to flow through the valve. That rubber (like all rubber) eventually fails. Another rubber element that often fails is the packing washer that surrounds the stem. If you really did go shut off your multi-turn valve like I recommended above, it probably leaked a little bit, didn’t it? That’s the packing washer… not doing its job.
Now take a look inside a ball valve (this is a cut-away version of a larger ball valve that’s used as a shut-off for water heaters and other supply lines, but it works the same way as the smaller chrome one pictured above):
When the ball is turned 90 degrees, it blocks the water. It’s easier to use, there’s no rubber that breaks down over time, and any plumbing expert will tell you they’re preferred over multi-turn valves in kitchens and bathrooms.
When I replace a shut-off valve, I almost always use the BrassCraft G2CR19X angle valve (less than $9 on Amazon). The “upstream” side of the valve connects to the standard 1/2″ copper pipe coming out of your bathroom wall, and the “downstream” side heads out at a 90 degree angle (which is why you’ll sometimes hear this called an “angle stop”) to a standard 3/8″ compression fitting. But if your existing shut-off valve goes straight instead of making that angle, you’ll need a BrassCraft G2CR14X straight valve instead. You might need a slightly different valve depending on your existing plumbing, one of these two valves is almost certainly the one you need.
Here’s a good video (less than 4 mins long) that shows how easy it is to replace your shut-off valve:
Item 2: Supply Line (Braided Stainless Steel FTW!)
Once you’ve got the right shut-off valve in place, the rest of the upgrade is super-easy. Next on our list is the supply line. As its name implies, it supplies water from your shut-off valve to your toilet. They can be made of plastic, flexible PVC, rubber, or even a non-flexible metal like copper or chrome. Here’s one made of plastic with nylon braids:
Some of the other choices out there aren’t bad, but for less than $5 a far better choice is a braided stainless-steel hose, like the Fluidmaster B1T09. Stainless hoses are less likely to pinch, leak, or fail in some other way.
Measure the length of your existing hose to see how long the stainless replacement should be. It’s OK if the new one is a bit longer, but make sure that if you go shorter, it’s not stretching to make the distance. That will put strain on the connections and possibly cause leaks. Most supply hoses will have a metal 3/8″ female compression fitting on one end that connects to the shut-off valve, and a 7/8″ female plastic fitting on the end that connects to the fill valve in your toilet tank. If you close your shut-off valve before replacing it, you should be able to do so without spilling much water (and you won’t have to shut off the water to the house, either).
When installing the new supply line, my advice is to tighten the shut-off valve end hand-tight, then use a wrench to make it just snug… but don’t over-tighten. On the other end that connects to the fill valve sticking out the bottom of the toilet tank, a solid hand-tightening (about as hard as your hand can make it without making noises like The Hulk) is all you need. Of course, if you’re doing this entire “tune up” at once, you should install the new fill valve before attaching the supply line.
Item 3: Fill Valve
Depending on the vintage of your toilet, you could have any number of different fill valve setups inside your tank — ranging from the older style controlled by a large round float:
To the newer style “floating cup” style fill valves, like the ones inside every Kohler, Eljin, and American Standard toilet:
What those toilet manufacturers won’t tell you is that they don’t make those fill valves. They’re all just re-branded Fluidmaster 400A Fill Valves, which are less than $8 on Amazon. Every plumber I know keeps a dozen of these in his truck (and I always keep three in my garage). They are cheap, easy to install, and just work. If you wait too long to replace it, the rubber gasket at the base of the fill valve could fail, and you’ll get a leak like this:
The other big sign that it’s time to replace your fill valve is a slow-filling toilet.
If your toilet has one of the older fill valves (including one with any metal parts), or if you know the fill valve hasn’t been replaced in 5+ years, just go ahead and throw one of the newer Fluidmaster 400A valves in now to prevent problems down the road. Here’s how:
One thing that video doesn’t point out clearly is how to properly install the gasket on the bottom of the fill tube. The gasket goes on the inside of the tank, with the smaller “lip” facing down inside the hole in the tank. This will help make a good seal and prevent any leaks. When in doubt, check how the gasket it looks on the the old fill valve when you remove it.
Another minor issue with the video is that the newest versions of the Fluidmaster 400A no longer have a metal adjustment clip — now they have a plastic adjustment mechanism, which you just twist with your fingers to find the right fill height for your toilet.
Item 4: Flapper
Aptly named because it opens and “flaps” shut, a leaky flapper is the most likely cause of toilets that fill constantly. The fact that they’re rubber makes them flexible (so they can do their job well), but that also means they’ll break down over time — and if you have hard or chlorinated water (or if you put any bleach-based additives in your toilet tank), they’ll break down faster than normal.
My favorite is the Korky 100BP Ultra Water Saver Flapper, which is less than $6 on Amazon. At that price, you should have a couple of them on hand at all times. They’ll pay for themselves many times over in water savings. Depending on the style of your flush valve, you might need a slightly different flapper… but there will be a Korky branded product for it (Korky makes the best, hands down). Installing and adjusting the flapper for maximum water savings is a breeze:
Stretching Your Money
By spending this $25 on a Toilet Tune-up now, you’ll prevent expensive problems later. Once you’ve got a high quality quarter-turn shut-off valve and braided stainless-steel supply line, those should be fine for many, many years — probably as long as you own your home.
I keep a few flappers on hand at all times, because flappers need to be checked and replaced regularly, perhaps every 4-5 years or so. Flappers fail faster if you have hard or chlorinated water. That’s also why I recommend not putting ANY chemicals inside your toilet tank (such as the Clorox toilet tabs). Those will attack the plastic and rubber inside your toilet. Instead, I recommend the Lysol No Mess Toilet Bowl Cleaner. It keeps the cleaning chemicals in the bowl, and outside the tank. I also keep extra fill valves on hand, though they don’t fail as fast as the flappers. On average, I replace them every 7-8 years or so, just to prevent problems.
To help you find all parts I recommend in this post, I put together this $25 Toilet Tune-Up Parts List.
Good luck with your $25 Toilet Tune-Up! As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and feedback below!