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How to maintain the integrity of your toilet’s O-ring

The gap you see between the toilet tank and the wall should be shimmed if you want to lean back against the tank. (Tim Carter)
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Q: An unnamed person (rhymes with “house”) living in my home says that the toilet seat lid and the toilet tank are made for leaning back against while using the fixture for personal needs. In a negotiation debate with this person, I mentioned that the bolts fastening the tank to the bowl are not strong enough for leaning as one might against a standard chair. What say you, wise Tim? Do you arbitrate these touchy discords between cohabitants on a frequent basis? — Donn R., Shelby Township, Mich.

A: I live in New Hampshire, and mice are as common indoors in the winter as snow is outdoors. That said, I’ve never known one to be able to use a toilet. Oh, wait, Donn isn’t talking about a mouse! Truth be told, I adjudicate disputes — or should I say spirited discussions? — between two people living under the same roof at least once a month.

I’ve been a master plumber since age 29. I’ve installed more toilets than I care to remember. The traditional toilet tank used to have just two brass bolts that connected it to the toilet bowl. One manufacturer years ago thought this was insufficient and developed a three-bolt design. The third bolt added a lot of strength.

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The bolts in either design are plenty strong and should never break if someone leans back against the tank while sitting on the toilet bowl. The issue is with the rubber O-rings that surround the bolts. It’s entirely possible to create a leak between the toilet tank and bowl if you push back against the tank too much.

This is quite possible as the toilet ages and the rubber O-rings become less pliable. I'm sure you've seen rubber that becomes brittle with age. You don't want to hope that the rubber O-rings stay supple indefinitely. You hope for things you can't control like the weather or when a volcano might erupt.

Plumbers can install toilets so the tank is snug against a wall, but this requires quite a bit of planning. What's more, if the tank is tight against the wall, the tank lid might not fit well because the lids are larger than the tank and often have an overhanging rear lip.

It's easy to keep peace in these situations. When the leaning cohabitant is out and about having coffee with a friend or picking up groceries, you can glue some wood shims between the back of the toilet tank and the wall behind the tank.

You can use paint stirring sticks, regular tapered wood shims, and construction adhesive that comes in a standard caulk tube to accomplish this simple fix. The key thing to remember is to be sure the shims are about 1/2-inch below the top of the tank lip so the tank lid doesn't touch the shims when you put it back on.

Q: Tim, I enjoy all the videos on your Ask the Builder website. I just moved into an apartment that’s tired and old, and my landlord is slow at making repairs. Can you help me fix a closet door that wants to always shut on its own without having to use a doorstop? This same door is rubbing the frame up at the top corner. How can I fix that? Finally, the sink in the bathroom drains slowly. Is there a fast way to see if it’s clogged with something? Thanks so much. — Nancy P., Nashville

A: These pesky problems can happen in houses, condominiums and apartments, no matter what the age. I have a ghost door in my own master bathroom that wants to close on its own, and She Who Must Be Obeyed has let me know that it must be fixed. I don’t see why I have to be reminded every six months, though!

The self-closing door is perhaps the easiest thing to cure. I've had great success by simply bending one of the door hinge pins. The bend in the pin creates just enough additional friction to overcome the force of gravity that closes the door without your help.

I prefer to bend the top hinge pin. Open the door part way and slide a folded magazine or some thin pieces of cardboard under the far bottom tip of the door under the handle. This will support the door when you remove the top hinge pin.

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Sometimes the bottom of the hinge has a hole so you can insert a large nail to get the pin to move up. Once the hinge pin is out, take it outside to a concrete surface and lay it on its side. Strike it in the center with moderate force to put a slight bend in the steel shaft. Reinsert the pin, and let’s move onto stopping the door rub.

The rubbing that happens at the top of a door frame is often caused because the top door hinge screws have come loose. Open the door so you have access to the hinge screws and tighten them. If that works, fantastic. If not, then you may have to set the hinge plate deeper in its mortise. This requires the use of a wood chisel and great hand-eye coordination. What's more, leave this to the landlord as it's his door, not yours.

The slow bathroom sink drain can also be quite easy to fix. If the sink is equipped with a standard pop-up drain, the tiny prong that makes the stopper go up and down is superb at catching hair and other gunk. You can buy long plastic strips that can hook the hair and pull it back up out of the drain. You can also unscrew the nut on the back of the tailpiece, remove the lever that lifts the stopper and clear out all the obstructions. This can be done in less than two minutes. Watch the video I have on my website that shows how to do this.

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