The Fine Art of Fixing a Leaky Toilet

Few things in life suck more than fixing a leaky toilet on a Friday night. But re-repairing it the next day certainly isn’t any better… The other day I noticed that we had some water leaking out from under the toilet in our kids’ bathroom, and it soon became apparent that the wax ring that seals it to the flange had somehow sprung a leak. I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but my money is on the kids using it as a step stool. My three year old in particular gets up on it and then leans across the counter to the sink. I’m guessing that, over time, the lateral pressure from this loosened things up. Anyway, I digress…

I should first mention that I highly recommend the Home Depot “Home Improvement 1-2-3” book for anyone looking for a simple, clear, and straightforward home repair reference. I picked one of these up on a whim when we bought our house three years ago, and I’ve used it numerous times, particularly for minor plumbing issues. Then again, you can also find pretty much anything that you need with a quick Google search, so a book is far from necessary when it comes to stuff like this.

Okay, back to the story… The good news from all of this is that there wasn’t any water damage, and nothing particularly nasty had leaked out. I started the repair by shutting off the water and then draining/pulling the toilet. Next up was a quick run to Home Depot.

If you’ve never repaired a toilet then you’re probably not familiar with the many options that you have when it comes to wax rings. There’s the standard wax ring, the wax ring with a plastic ‘funnel’ in it that helps to direct the “contents” down the drain pipe, the polyurethane reinforced wax ring with funnel, and the new-fangled wax-free rubber bowl gasket. These range in price from about a buck for the plain wax ring up to $5ish for the rubber gasket.

Although I’ve used the non-reinforced wax ring with horn in the past with great success, I went against my better judgment and opted for the rubber gasket this time… Why not, I thought, it comes complete with a 10-year warranty, so it must be just what the doctor ordered for a high traffic commode. Right? Wrong.

I got home, ran a bead of caulk around the base of the flange (no sense risking water getting into the ceiling below if the problem returns), scraped the old wax off the bottom of the commode, cleaned it up, dried it, attached the gasket and replaced the commode. Sounds easy enough, but dropping the toilet back onto the bolts and hitting the flange more or less blind isn’t exactly a picnic.

I’ve read that you should put drinking straws over the anchor bolts to make it easier to line them up with the holes in the base of the commode, but I’ve found that straws are actually too flexible to help much, and many drinking straws are too thin to fit over the bolts. If only I had a toilet truck to ease the process!

With that done, I jumped in the shower, cracked open a beer, and enjoyed the rest of the evening. I then awoke Saturday morning to find a small(ish) amount of water around the base of the toilet. That high-faluttin’ rubber gasket was leaking! So…

I once again drained and pulled the toilet, and then headed back to Home Depot to return the crappy (no pun intended) gasket and to pick up the wax ring(s). Note here that you should always buy two wax rings — it’s incredibly easy to wreck one by putting the toilet down off center, and you don’t want to have to head back to the store mid-repair. Of course, buying two ensures that everything will go smoothly, and you’ll end up with an extra. But for less than $2.00 it’s worth the investment.

Back at the house I had a brainstorm. Straws suck for lining up the anchor bolts, but what about a Bic Round Stic ballpoint pen tube? They’re not only sturdier, but they fit over the bolts perfectly. So I quickly disassembled a pen, cut the tube in half, and then had an ever better brainstorm… Instead of putting the tubes over the bolts from the get go, I inserted them up through the bolt holes from below. It’s a bit hard to imagine if you’ve never repaired a toilet, but I couldn’t easily take a picture.

Anyway, the residual wax from the old ring was enough to hold the tubes in place so they stuck down ready to help me the toilet up with the bolts. Once I had the ring stuck to the bottom of the toilet, I slid it into position. I had it tipped forward (toward me) to keep the wax ring and tubes off the floor, and I slowly lowered it down (with my wife’s help) while aligning the tubes with the bolts. Once it was in place, I pulled the tubes off the bolts, squashed the ring onto the flange by sitting on the toilet, tightened the bolts, and I was done.

Total cost: $1.29 (+ tax) for the wax ring — I splurged and spent the extra $0.30 to get the one with the built in funnel — plus a couple of hours of my time. If I hadn’t opted for the rubber gasket (which I ultimately returned), and had gone straight to the tried-and-true wax ring instead, I could’ve done in little more than the time it would’ve taken me to arrange for a plumber.

2 Responses to “The Fine Art of Fixing a Leaky Toilet”

  1. Anonymous

    Interesting entry.

    Yes, I have had to replace the wax ring of a toilet a couple of times. Interestingly enough on rental properties we have. It is not as messy as it sounds (if you use gloves and sanitize well). But once you do it once, you are on the road to saving some money on plumber’s bills.

    Plumbers in my area cost around $140 for the first hour, and $60 for every hour thereafter. (including travel time).

    Two things that can be learned from your story:
    1) Home improvement doesn’t have to be costly.
    A good book, some cheap parts, and a lot of patience can do the trick.

    2) People pay a lot for things that they do not want to do. That is why plumbers are so expensive.

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