Water around the toilet where it shouldn't be (good times!)
December 31, 2021 2:10 PM   Subscribe

I just noticed some water around the base of a toilet in our basement. Do I need a wax ring replacement? How hard is that to DIY?

The water is around the sides of the base of the toilet, it does not seem to be behind the toilet or near the water supply line into the toilet. I cleaned it up, but it seemed to come back a little bit after gave it a couple of flushes. It does not seem to be a continuously running leak. The water seemed clear-ish, I don't think it is a backup from somewhere else, but I suppose that is possible -- this toilet is in the lowest part of the house and we did have some clogging/backing up problems a couple of weeks ago upstairs.

So, is this a wax ring problem? If yes, have you ever changed one yourself? How hard is it? And is there a risk that it is something else/something worse? I would hate to buy the wax ring stuff and spend the time trying to fix it only to find out it was something else and have to call the plumber (the worst of all DIY results). Also, it the job totally gross? Thanks
posted by Mid to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's almost definitely the wax ring, and it's pretty easy to change yourself. The hardest part is physically laying down the toilet after detaching it.

The second hardest part is the old wax is a little gross. I mean, it's just wax.

I'd say it's harder than changing a light bulb but easier than almost any other diy projects.
posted by bbqturtle at 2:30 PM on December 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Replacing the wax ring is dead easy and not particularly gross so if that's the problem then don't worry about it.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:31 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

That’s a symptom of a leaky gasket between the tank and bowl, or where the supply line meets the fill valve. If it’s a Kohler (or one of its sub-brands) the tank to bowl gasket is a triangular shaped thing with a couple sleeves that stick up into the tank, and the bolts holding the tank to the seat are supposed to compress the sleeves against the tank to prevent leaks. The bolts are only supposed to be finger-tight (to avoid cracking any porcelain) but they can work loose, and/or the rubber can degrade. If this is the problem the short term fix is just to tighten the bolts a bit, but the gasket might need to be replaced.

The fill valve usually has a gasket where it goes through the tank, and a plastic nut you tighten by hand to secure the valve and prevent leaks. I’ve never seen that nut come loose, but gaskets wear out after being submerged, and I’ve actually had a fill valve crack and start leaking on its own.

If the water is clear I’d look at the fresh water parts before blaming the wax ring.
posted by fedward at 2:35 PM on December 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Don't do it with a hard deadline: plumbing always takes longer than you expect, and there are complications that can make your house impossible to use for entertainment, etc, while the complications are being ironed out. Don't start late in the day, as well.

Sounds like a wax ring problem. Put a bunch of food coloring into the bowl and see if the water that comes out after a flush is the same color.

Yes, always change them myself, but sometimes I get help lifting and positioning the toilet.

Not a very hard job, but it can be complicated by a malfunctioning stop valve (the valve that turns off the water to the toilet): you might have to turn off the water for the whole house to fix it, and you might screw up the stop valve or the stop valve make be just broken and have to replace it before you finish replacing the toilet, and that job can be bigger and more irritating than the wax ring job.

You might consider just turning off the water to the whole house instead of trying to operate the stop valve, to play it as safe as possible. There are risks with that, too. Once when I closed a whole-house water valve, it started leaking after I turned it back on, and in a couple of hours it was a problem.

If the stop valve works fine, remove the lid from the tank, turn off the valve, flush the toilet, sponge-dry the tank, disconnect the toilet from the water supply, disconnect the bolts, lift the toilet off of the flange, and empty the trap by tilting the toilet so that the water flows into a bucket or tub. Get a helper to wrap the base of the toilet in a plastic bag in case there are chunks of yuck that want to come off, and lay the toilet down on a piece of cardboard so you can clean the old wax ring off. Clean the old wax off of the flange. When the flange is clean, put something too big to fall into it over it, so nothing falls in.

Now examine the situation. You might need one or two wax rings to take up the space, or a tall wax ring. You might consider a neoprene ring instead. Buy all these items in advance, and take back what you don't use.

If something worse is wrong, the plumber was going to pull the toilet anyway to fix it: you've done them a favor.

The job can be pretty gross, and the gasses that come out of the open hole in the floor (which you have covered), and be stinky and a little dangerous.
posted by the Real Dan at 2:42 PM on December 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you do replace the wax ring, there are now non-wax alternatives like this Fluidmaster Better Than Wax Rubber 5.5-in Wax-free Gasket.
posted by ShooBoo at 3:02 PM on December 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Our last house had a very cold bathroom, and in winter the water would condense on the tank and run down around the base of the toilet. Is your bathroom cold? Do you see any water condensing on the tank?
posted by carterk at 3:06 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

my toilet did this once when it was loose and tightening the nuts at the base completely solved the problem, maybe worth trying before bothering with the gasket.

But in that case I could feel a very slight wobble when sitting on it until it was tightened, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:29 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Relatively easy fix, get someone to help with moving the toilet. Neither you or the other person needs to be especially strong, it's just a very awkwardly shaped thing to move. Plan where you are going to put it once it's removed, if there is a shower in the room it could go there, or you might need to move it out of the bathroom.

For especially small bathrooms where the door opens inward, particularly where the toilet is behind the door, consider if you will even be able to get the door open once your bathroom is occupied by two people holding a toilet. Remove the door first if you have any suspicion it might present a problem.

You might want an old blanket or some sheets of cardboard to set the toilet on in it's temporary home. Put it on its side, if it is upright people tend to end up using it as a chair without really considering that it's far less stable when not bolted down.
posted by yohko at 3:59 PM on December 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Buy more wax rings than you think you'll need. It's not that hard, but speaking from experience, it can take you more than one try to get it right. As others have pointed out, you can return the ones you don't use.
posted by Hatashran at 4:30 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Towels. No, more than just those towels. There is always more water to sop up. Don't drop anything down the sewer drain.
Seconding starting early in the morning and making sure that the local hardware store is open.

Hmmm... now is a good time to clean behind the toilet. Do you need to touch up the paint? Regrout anything?
Seriously reconsider if it is worth taking on any additional chores that last longer than an hour if you only have one toilet, or if you shut off water to the whole house.
posted by TrishaU at 6:02 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

If your toilet isn't rocking or loose, it seems less likely that this is the wax ring. They don't usually just develop leaks out of the blue.

If there was a blockage recently, it's possible the seal was never all that great, and has begun leaking as a result of the blockage causing a backup. A partial blockage/slow draining may still cause this kind of slight backup enough to leak.

Worst case is that there's some kind of rot or flange separation causing a gap.

It's possible that there's not a leaking seal. A few years ago I had a mysterious leak develop around the toilet base. I initially thought it was the supply hose or the valve. However, I couldn't find any dampness around the valve or its connection, or the hose. It ended up being a rubber seal that joins the tank to the base of the toilet. The rubber simply wasn't rubbery anymore, and water was finding its way around one of the bolts and rubber seals that holds attaches the tank to the base of the toilet. I had to replace the rubber seal/washer (and replaced the bolt for good measure). This was a kind of leak I would never have guessed.

If your toilet is a one piece tank/base design, this kind of leak may not be possible. However, it did have me perplexed for a couple days before I was able to find where the water was actually coming from.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:02 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

In addition to the excellent advice about not starting late in the day - also avoid holidays when the stores are closed. One of the potential complications is that the nuts on the bolts that hold the toilet to the flange could be rusty, so it's good to have a small crescent wrench (heavy, oversized tools can crack the toilet if they slip) and a hacksaw blade holder- the type for getting into tight spaces, in case the bolts are a lost cause and you need to cut them off. Worth picking up a fresh set of bolts before you start.

Seconding the comments about rocking being the cause of wax seal leaks.
posted by brachiopod at 10:08 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Everyone else has suggested the wax ring, which I agree with, so the only thing I'll add is that you will probably use a scraper or other tools to remove the wax residue so just be very careful you don't drop any tools down the exposed drain. I mean, it's fun when you can hear your scraper going through the outflow pipe all the way to the septic tank like some gross miniature golf course but then a) you no longer have a scraper and b) you have to worry that it got stuck in the pipe somewhere. Be careful, is what I'm saying.
posted by bondcliff at 9:02 AM on January 1 [4 favorites]

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