Plumbing experts address ghost flushing

Plumbing experts address ghost flushing

My toilets occasionally sound like they’re flushing on their own. Is this an indication of a problem? — Angie's List member Marilyn Banks

The likely cause of the issue is the toilet flapper, which holds the water in the tank, has worn out and is letting the water level drop, according to Mike Richard, owner of highly rated Mike Richard Plumbing & Heating Services in Waltham, Mass.

“As a result, it’s turning on the fill valve, which lets water back into the tank,” he says. “It’s normal wear and tear and just needs replacing.” Richard suggests putting four to six drops of food coloring into the tank after the flapper seats itself. “Wait about five minutes. If the color of your food coloring is visible in the bowl, you have a leak,” he says.

Fernando Gonzalez, owner of highly rated Gonzalez Plumbing & Heating in Wilmington, Mass., says not fixing the issue is literally money down the drain in the form of wasted water.

“It’s not an emergency or anything, but you’re definitely going to notice the difference on your water bill,” he says.

Richard estimates the cost of fixing the problem at $160 plus parts, adding that it should take no more than an hour. Gonzalez charges $225 for a service call, but recommends going to a hardware store and buying a replacement flapper and installing it yourself. “If the toilet is 15 years old or more, and you keep having issues with it, I’d advise spending a little bit more and getting a new one,” Gonzalez says.

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Bob Schmidt


Dear Angie’s List,

I am the general manager of a Seattle handyman company who also happens to be an Angie’s List subscriber and a Super Service Award winner for the last 4 years and occasionally repair toilets due to phantom flushing. The plumber quoted in the November issue of “Just Ask” probably correctly identified the problem but did not give a very cost effective response for the repair. Even the diagnostic was well thought out but the solution needs some work. I would like to submit what I think is a better response for the customer to get the most cost effective solution.

Flapper failure leaks are very often the problem but his solution is to hire a licensed plumber and then turns around and states that you should expect to pay $95 to $195 to replace the flapper. What he fails to state is that replacing the flapper alone is a 5 minute job and not very often a cost effective solution and this may be all you get for $95.

When a toilet flapper starts to leak it could be for a number of reasons. If one of them is that the chemicals in the tank have eaten the rubber flapper, they may have also eaten other things as well. Age will also cause the rubber to harden and degrade and there is more rubber in the tank than just the flapper. There are rubber gaskets between the bolts and the tank. There is rubber in the gasket that holds the fill hose to the fill valve. There is rubber between the tank and the base. If any of these rubber parts wears out (and they all do) then replacing them is the best solution. If the flapper is worn or not seating properly then just replacing the flapper might work but it also might hide the fact that all the rubber and all the other parts in the tank are getting old or worn and need to be replaced. The next time you find a problem it might mean water on the floor and not just running in the tank. The better solution to just replacing the flapper is to rebuild the whole toilet tank. A total toilet tank rebuild only costs a few dollars more than swapping a flapper and when done you can be sure every part in the tank will last as long as the new flapper.

You might get a solution for $95 but if the toilet fails in another 6 months for another reason was it really a good deal? If someone touches your toilet have them do a whole tank rebuild. If they offer a discount on a flapper swap out then hire someone else.


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