If one of the most frequently used plumbing fixtures in your home isn’t doing its job, don’t call the plumber just yet. Here’s what to do if your toilet isn’t working – without throwing extra money down the drain.
Q: Help! My toilet won’t flush. The handle moves freely, but nothing happens when I flush. Can I fix it without calling a plumber?
A: For what it’s worth, you’re experiencing a problem that happens at least once in almost every home. Fortunately, it’s easy to determine the cause and find a solution that works for you! If your toilet isn’t working, follow these steps to solve your problem.
First, make sure the water shut-off valve is fully open.
Sometimes, rubbing a nearby object or a deep cleaning session can push it closed, preventing water from flowing into the tank. This leaves only one or two flushes before the water level is too low for the toilet to work properly. To see this for yourself, look behind the base of the toilet, a few inches off the ground. The flush valve should stick out slightly from the wall and be turned all the way to the left. If it’s not, turn the head counterclockwise, then give it a minute to reset before trying to flush. Once you have restored the flow, your problem should be solved.
If your valve has been left wide open the entire time, you may be dealing with a clogged pipe.
Heavy paper products are usually the culprit, and it’s easy to fix. To clear things up, first make sure the water in the bowl isn’t high enough to overflow when you insert a plunger. (If it is, use a disposable plastic cup to pour some liquid into a bucket or, if there’s no other option, into the tub. Follow up with 2-3 capfuls of bleach and a stream of hot water to wash everything down the tub drain). Next, take a suction cup and place its flange directly into the drain opening. Hold it in place to seal the drain while pumping up and down for 20 seconds. If the clog has cleared, you should be able to remove the suction cup and flush the toilet immediately. To avoid further problems, use a thinner toilet paper and remember that flushing with paper towels or feminine products is asking for trouble.
Still nothing? Remove the top of the toilet tank and check the flapper.
Carefully remove the top of the tank and set it aside for a moment to check if your flapper, which is shaped like an inflated balloon and is often red, is causing the backup. A flapper that looks warped or damaged probably needs to be replaced. Fortunately, this toilet part usually costs less than $10 at your local hardware store and is not difficult to replace yourself.
Check that the lifting chain connects the toilet handle to the flapper.
If your flapper shows no signs of trouble but has too much slack in the chain, it won’t respond when you try to flush. You can easily adjust the length for a better connection by slipping a different link over the hook at the end of the lever – leave just enough length for the flapper to close completely, and no more. Now, by pushing the handle, the flapper should move water through the tank, into the toilet and down the drain as it should.
Check and clean the inlet holes in your toilet.
You may not see them, but just below the rim of the toilet are a series of holes that release water from the tank to flush the toilet. These jets are angled, which helps create the circular motion that flushes the waste. These jets can sometimes be blocked by mineral deposits and bacteria, preventing the water from flowing. If the toilet won’t flush, it may be because these jets are clogged.
No, you don’t have to stick your head in the toilet to inspect the jets. Just use a cosmetic mirror to take a look. If you see orange and black, then bacteria are probably involved. Light-colored deposits are often mineral in origin. To solve the problem, pour a solution of bleach and water down the overflow tube of your toilet into the tank. Let it sit for a few minutes, then flush. Clean each stream with a piece of wire – a cut coat hanger will do if you need it – then flush again.
If this isn’t the first time your toilet hasn’t flushed, ask your plumber to evaluate the design of the toilet flush pipe.
If this is not the first time your toilet refuses to flush or if it does not flush completely, the problem is most likely not with the toilet itself but with the plumbing underneath. The toilet drain should have a downward slope so that the wastewater flows quickly from the bowl, through the pipes and into the main sewer. If this downward slope does not exist or is simply not strong enough, the toilet mechanics will not work properly, resulting in a blocked toilet. Have a professional plumber inspect the plumbing lines and redesign them if they don’t have the proper slope for the flush to work properly.
Try pouring water down the toilet to unclog the pipes.
Although it may seem too simple to work, hot water and dish soap are actually an effective way to fix a toilet that won’t flush. Heat a gallon of water on the stove, then add a squirt or two of dish soap to the toilet bowl. Pour the water into the toilet, being careful not to overflow the bowl. Wait about 15 minutes to allow the soap and hot water to soften the clog, then flush.
If there is no water in the toilet tank, turn on the bathroom faucet to make sure there is no problem with the water supply.
If there is no water in the toilet tank, the problem may not be with the toilet, but rather with the water in your home. The toilet will not flush without a water supply. First, check and make sure the house still has water by turning on the bathroom sink faucet.
If there is indeed no water in the house, call your water supplier to determine if it is a water outage due to maintenance work or a possible water main break near your home.
If your toilet still won’t flush, it’s probably time to call in a professional.
If you’ve tried every method of unclogging a toilet and it still doesn’t work, it may be time to throw in the towel and call a plumber. The average cost of a plumber to unclog a toilet is between $200 and $700, according to FIXR, an online resource that provides cost and hiring advice for home improvement projects. If the problem involves the drain lines under the toilet, the price can be even higher.
Even so, you’re not necessarily in hot water. There are plenty of small problems that a plumber can solve without much fuss or financial strain. Good luck!