GIMME SHELTER- Flappers and floats: How to fix the flush

Keith Cline, Absolute Plumbing

Q: Help, my toilet won't flush! Is there any way I can fix it myself?

A: If your toilet won't flush because the water in the bowl doesn't go down, you're in trouble. You probably have blockage somewhere and might need a plumber if a plunger doesn't solve the problem. However, if your toilet won't flush because you push down the handle and nothing happens, you may be in luck. With a few tips and a little patience, you can probably fix it yourself.

First off, you'll need to face the fear of the unknown and lift the heavy cover on the back of the toilet. Be sure to set the lid down easy and out of the way, as it's made of porcelain and can easily crack or break. And don't be intimidated by that mousetrap-like contraption you find– it's actually a very simple device.

First, check to see if there's water in the tank and that the water is running. If there's no water coming into the tank, you could have a problem with the toilet flush valve or shut-off valve. In older homes, galvanized pipes sometimes collect debris that can clog the valves. If this has happened at your house, you may need to call a plumber.

If there's water in the tank, check first to see if the chain is attached to the handle and the flapper. The flapper is at the bottom of the tank and covers the drain that leads to your toilet bowl. When you push the handle down, the chain should pull the flapper up. If the water is flowing but the tank isn't filling, the flapper probably isn't seated properly.

The flapper needs to lie flat and form a tight seal around the drain. Sometimes, the seal on the flapper can get hard and dirty with age. You can fix this temporarily by wiping the bottom of the flapper clean, but it's probably best to buy a new one. You'll need a little patience if you want to do this yourself. Toilet makers use a variety of toilet flapper styles, and some flappers are easier to replace than others.

If water isn't filling the tank or won't stop filling, you may have a problem with the float. As water fills the tank after you flush, the float rises until it automatically shuts of the water flow. Older-style threaded floats– the kind with a plastic ball on the end of a rod– can sometimes get jammed, waterlogged, or spring a leak. Again, buying a new float is probably best, but you can also fix the leak or just bend the float rod to make sure the tank fills properly.

Most new toilets now use a Fluid Master style float, which slides up and down a rod in your tank. These kinds of floats cause very few problems and are easy to replace in any case– with a little patience, of course.