Your toilet is operated by a fairly simple system of levers, floats, and seals. Many basic repairs are ones that you can do on your own without the expense of hiring a plumber. All you really need is some basic tools and the ability to figure out what isn't working. Once you have identified the problem, you can buy new parts - they usually aren't very expensive - and install them yourself. Your spouse will think that you are a genius, and your checkbook will love you.
Let's start with a very basic explanation of how a toilet works. It consists of two parts, the tank and the bowl. The bowl is the part of the toilet that sits on the floor. It has a discharge throat at the bottom which allows waste to be flushed away.
The tank generally sits on top of the bowl. This is what hold the water that allows you to flush. When you push the handle, the water from the tank is released into the bowl. Gravity does a lot of the work here as the water seeks to level itself within the trap of the toilet. As the water seeks to level itself out, it pushes all of the waste through the "S" trap and it falls into the drain line on the other side.
Armed with a basic knowledge of how your toilet is supposed to work, let's take a look at some potential problems.
A toilet that won't stop running is the most common problem. Your toilet is designed with a float system inside that monitors and maintains the depth of the water in your tank. At the very bottom of the tank is a valve. That valve holds the water in the tank until you are ready to flush. When you flush, that valve opens and allows all of the water in the tank to rush into the bowl. Typically, this is a flapper style valve.
Since the valve is made of rubber, it can start to decompose over time. Sometimes the rubber hardens and warps. In either case, the valve no longer seals correctly and water is allowed to escape from the tank into the bowl even when you haven't flushed. Since the float mechanism in the tank is going to allow the water to keep running until the tank is full, your toilet will run forever.
Nine times out of 10, you can fix this problem by replacing that flapper valve. There are several different styles, so you'll want to shut off the water to your toilet, remove the old valve and take it with you to the hardware store so that you can match it up properly. The total of this repair should cost no more than $5.00.
Broken Flush Handle
Another common problem is often found with the flush handle itself. That handle sees a lot of use, and since they are often made of plastic, they can break. Replacements are readily available and they, like the flapper valves, shouldn't be more than $5.00.
The most important thing that you'll need to keep in mind when purchasing a new handle is the location of the handle on the tank. Is yours on the front or the side? You'll need to know this when you make your purchase, or your handle may have the wrong bend in the arm that allows it to function. Additionally, some tanks have what is called an angle mount. These are not as popular, but some decorative tanks have corners that are beveled at 45 degree angles. These require a special handle and may be a little bit harder to find.
Leaking Toilet Bowl
A third common problem is discovered when you stand up and realize that your socks are wet. Water leaking out onto the floor from the base of the bowl is indicative of a few different problems. While it could mean that the porcelain has cracked, it's not very likely that this could happen without you knowing it. Something would have to hit the toilet quite hard for this to happen.
Most likely, this leak is cause by a faulty wax ring. If a toilet is not bolted to the floor firmly, it will rock ever so slightly whenever someone sits on it. Over time, this subtle rocking motion will cause the wax ring to work loose. Don't worry, this is something you can fix.
Shut off the water supply to the toilet and then flush it one more time. This should empty both the tank and the bowl. Unhook the water supply and then loosen the bolts that hold the toilet to the floor. Once you have it loose, simply pull straight up on the toilet and lift it off of the drain pipe where it is seated. The old wax ring should be left behind on the floor. Get a pair of gloves and remove it.
Hopefully you were thinking ahead and got a new ring before you pulled up your toilet. A new wax ring shouldn't cost more than $3.00. Set the new ring in place and then put the toilet back into place. Push down on the toilet firmly to make sure that the new wax ring is correctly seated, and then bolt the toilet back down to the floor, making sure that it is tight enough to keep the toilet from rocking. Be careful though, as you can crack the porcelain if you over tighten the bolts.
Once you have figured out the basic operating principles of your toilet, it really is fairly simple and inexpensive to maintain. We covered three of the most common problems here, and you could have fixed all three of them at the same time for less than $15.00. Just keep in mind that you are working with a toilet, and you'll probably want to wear gloves whenever you remove the bowl from its base on the floor.