Help fix a fussy toilet...
June 8, 2007 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I have a toilet that doesn't flush well. Can you help me fix it?

My toilet fills up wih water pretty fast and most of the time functions but more often than I'd like... well, stuff just doesn't go down. However, it's not clogged.

When I hold the handle down for the entirety of the flush ('til all water leaves it), it generally works perfectly. However, if the handle is just pushed like a normal flush, it sorta half flushes.

I know nothing about plumbing or toilet-workings but am hoping this can be fixed by opening the back and turning or twisting some things. I've fiddled with it with zero success.

posted by Manhasset to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One of many items that can cause the symptoms you describe is the flapper valve. It might just need an adjustment to the linkage (too much slack can cause the behaviour you describe) but replacing it is a <10 minute job and the part is generally only 2-5 dollars. Google "toilet repair" and you will find a number of sites that describe the parts I mentioned and how to replace them if you need more detailed info.
posted by TedW at 6:23 AM on June 8, 2007

This thread is useless without photos.
I mean that seriously. I had the same problem. I found a lot of DIY sites on the web but they were all just a little bit different from my setup. What I ended up doing is taking photos of the cistern without the the top on and taking them to the local hardware store. The resident expert was able to fix me up in no time.
posted by tellurian at 6:32 AM on June 8, 2007

Yeah, just replace the flapper valve. It's cheap. Not knowing about "toilet workings" and that you seem to not be very mechanically inclined may pose a bit of trouble. But like TedW says, you can almost certainly find detailed instructions with photos on the net if you Google for them.

That flapper valve needs to open up enough so that the water empties into the toilet bowl fairly easily and quickly and stay open until the tank is mostly emptied. There's a few reasons why both these things may not be happening. Rather than try to determine the cause and fix that particular assembly, it'd be easier, especially for a novice like yourself, to just replace it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:51 AM on June 8, 2007

TedW has a good suggestion.

A simple test is to open the back and look at the flushing mechanism. Instead of pushing the handle, just tug firmly on the chain and then reevaluate your flushing force. If it works better then you need to tighten the linkage of the chain to the handle.
posted by dendrite at 6:53 AM on June 8, 2007

If it works better then you need to tighten the linkage of the chain to the handle.

Yeah, but the tightness of the chain does not determine how far open the valve is after the flush lever is released. Holding the valve down as Manhasset describes himself doing is keeping the valve maximally opened in a manner independent of the tautness of the chain.

The flapper valve is designed so that when you flush the toilet, it's inverted cup shape allows air to immediately collect in the top, which causes it to float in the water until the tank is almost drained. There's a few ways in which this can malfunction. If Manhasset has to hold the flush level down until the tank has completely drained, then it's not the tautness of the chain that is causing the problem.

If it were just that the chain is insufficiently taught, thus only allowing a small amount of air to collect in the flapper valve (such that it then shuts off the flow prematurely), then firmly depressing the flush lever and holding it for a second or two would ensure a good flush. According to Manhasset, that's not sufficient.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:02 AM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

We have almost the exact same problem. We've had the plumber in twice, he said he put in a 'turbo flush' whatever that means but it still seems as though the water flushes through but the paper just floats around on the top.
posted by missmagenta at 7:03 AM on June 8, 2007

I had a similar problem and fixed it by shortening the length of the chain that goes from the handle to the valve. It sounds like what is happening is that one push on the handle doesn't pull the valve up far enough, so it does a half flush, while holding the handle down (and thereby forcing the valve open) does a full flush.

By shortening the chain, you'll force the valve to stay open for a longer period of time. This all makes much better sense when you actually watch what's going on when you push the handle down.
posted by jeffxl at 7:05 AM on June 8, 2007

Some low-flow toilets are designed to let a limited amount of water through when the handle is pushed and released. As you have noticed, the tank holds more water, and if the handle is held down all the water goes through. This is common in cheap low flow toilets. It's meant as a feature to get around the legislated low-flow requirements and not have the toilet work so horribly, as you have seen.

When Consumer reports compared low-flow toilets, the least expensive model tested – the Mansfield Alto (about $75) – had the poorest overall rating.
posted by yohko at 8:52 AM on June 8, 2007

Good grief, Ethereal Bligh, I must have looked at that flapper more than 50 times without ever getting an inkling of that air bubble or the important role it plays.

Now that you've so generously shown me it's there, however, I would modify your account just a bit; before you flush, the tank is full of water, and the flapper valve is plugging it, but the underside of the flapper is sitting in a column of air, and that little cup is full of air at the start and some may actually escape when you pull the lever. The problem is that the lever and chain are arranged so that they are not moving the flapper far enough from the drain, and the force of the flow of water draining from the tank is pulling the flapper down in spite of the buoyancy provided by the air bubble.

Shortening the chain will move the flapper farther from the drain when the lever is pushed, to a point where the pull of the outflow on it is less, and allow the bubble to exert enough force to hold the flapper up until the tank drains, and it can plop back down into the drain hole.
posted by jamjam at 9:40 AM on June 8, 2007

You're absolutely right in everything you say, jamjam.

Obviously if my theory was correct, it wouldn't work while the flapper was still completely submerged—which is patently not the case in real life. I feel like an idiot. In my defense, in thinking about answering this question, I vaguely recalled puzzling over that flapper valve one time without deciding on the mechanism of its effectiveness, and then, as I was contemplating the question and the answers already posted, puzzled out in my head how it worked. Except I was only partly correct and I was wrong about something that should have been obvious and would have been doubly so had I gotten up and walked to my bathroom. Strike one for the theorist. :)

I do think that other problems with the flapper can cause this problems besides a slack chain. The flapper can be deformed and air bubbles quickly away and other, similar problems. But your "getting it far enough away such that the downward force on it is less than its buoyancy" diagnosis is probably the most common.

I think the overflow tube in the tank is doing double duty here—a column of water from, say, an aborted flush, wouldn't last long in any case. But the overflow tube makes sure that the whole system is drained of water immediately and the flow is always maximized (except in the case of the low-flow toilets mentioned earlier??).
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:19 AM on June 8, 2007

Response by poster: Sorry it took so long to get back.

The chain on my toilet is very taught--virtually no slack whatsoever. When I open the back and flush it, the flapper immediately opens to full and stays such for quite a while. To a noob, the thing appears to be working as it should.

However, some other factors:

The toilet back fills up MUCH faster than any toilet I've ever seen before. A vast rush of water comes in and fills up quickly to very near the top. Is this speed perhaps too fast? Not really allowing the toilet to finish flushing?
posted by Manhasset at 11:36 AM on June 8, 2007

The toilet back fills up MUCH faster than any toilet I've ever seen before. A vast rush of water comes in and fills up quickly to very near the top. Is this speed perhaps too fast? Not really allowing the toilet to finish flushing?

Off the top of my head, I can't see how this would affect anything. Unless, perhaps, that flow of water is hitting the top of the flapper valve and pressing it down, causing it to both to restrict the flow into the toilet and to prematurely closing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:48 AM on June 8, 2007

The 1 gallon per flush toilet is a bad idea whose time has come. To create sufficient water speed to flush, the inlet and waste pipes are much smaller than on the old, reliable 3.5 GPF toilets. As you've discovered, this results in clogging.

By the time you flush it the necessary 4 times, you've used more water than the 1 GPF model. The idea that 1 GPF toilets will make a useful, or even noticeable, saving in water use is laughable.

The only solution, alas, is to go to Canada, get a 3.5 GPF toilet (which is still legal there), smuggle it in, pay a plumber to install it and hope the Toilet Police never knock on your door.
posted by KRS at 12:00 PM on June 8, 2007

Response by poster: So if the flapper is working correctly, what else could be the issue?
posted by Manhasset at 12:12 PM on June 8, 2007

I'd trade my tidying for your insight about the bubble any day, EB.

Manhasset, the only thing that occurs to me now, is that when the lid is on the back of the toilet, it might be keeping the flush lever from its full range of motion. The chain should not be taut enough to make the flapper strain against its points of attachment, by the way, and if you want to experiment with slower fill rates, you could turn the shut-off valve down a little.
posted by jamjam at 12:39 PM on June 8, 2007

I'm in the same boat. Plumber came and said tough shit, you have a low-flow toilet, that's what they all are these days. *shrug*
posted by CwgrlUp at 4:13 PM on June 8, 2007

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