VICTORIA - Toilets are one of the most important and misunderstood pieces of equipment in a house. Even though homeowners tend to keep a plunger next to a toilet, it doesn't mean they know how to fix it when it isn't working properly.
Clogs seem to be an obvious problem, but Scott Armour, pipe trades instructor at Camosun College in Victoria, says there are other common issues that could cause a toilet to run inefficiently.
"Homeowners often run into leaky flapper valves," says Armour. "That is a valve in the bottom of the tank. When you press down your handle it lifts up the flapper valve and lets the water flow from the tank to the bowl."
When the valve fails, Armour says water will leak from the tank into the toilet bowl. If a homeowner suspects the flapper isn't working effectively, he says it is easy to diagnose by putting a bit of food colouring in the tank. If the food colouring turns up in the bowl, the flapper needs to be replaced.
"It is a fairly simple problem to fix," says Armour. "You have to identify what type of toilet you have, which can be done by just taking the flapper out. It is just clipped on in two places and attached to the handle with a small chain."
To figure out which flapper is needed, take the flapper that's been removed to a plumbing wholesaler, who will be able to match it to a new one that fits the toilet.
"You should just replace it the exact same way you removed it," says Armour.
Homeowners should be aware that some repairs may require turning off the water and draining the toilet tank.
Fred Bretzke, instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and columnist for Mechanical Business magazine, says clogs and backed-up toilets often need to be dealt with by a professional plumber.
Homeowners can try to remove the clog themselves by using a plunger, but Bretzke says if the backup doesn't clear or the problem returns, it may be time to call a plumber.
"Hard objects, other than what is supposed to be flushed, fall in and get stuck," says Bretzke. "We find common bathroom stuff in toilets like a toothbrush, a comb or kids toys. A toilet is shaped like an S inside so once something gets stuck in there it makes it very difficult to get out."
Bretzke says plumbers often have to drain and remove the tank, then lift the toilet outside where "thumping it" on grass or soft snow — not the sidewalk or asphalt — will cause whatever is stuck to fall out.
To avoid having things fall into the toilet, Bretzke says homeowners should avoid putting things like candles and other objects on the tank or on the vanity near the toilet.
Putting vinegar in the water in the tank is another easy way to keep the toilet flushing properly.
"Sometimes the toilet doesn't flush right, and the water doesn't swirl all the way around. That is because calcium is plugging the inside holes around the bottom rim of the toilet," he says. "Vinegar in the tank will flush through the holes, helping clear the calcium buildup."