Time for a quick rental property maintenance update. A couple of weeks ago, the boyfriend’s tenant texted him on a Sunday night and said there was a broken GFCI outlet in the second bathroom. She said that in addition to that, the electrical outlets and the overhead lights in the other bathroom weren’t working, and neither was the ceiling fan light in the master bedroom. And to pile on a little further, she said the toilet was leaking in the second bathroom, too. What the heck?!?!
It was already about 8 pm on Sunday night, and I literally had a head full of hair dye. I was about 15 minutes from time to rinse it out. Home Depot would be open until 9, so there was a small chance we could rush over there and get at least one of those problems solved that night. But I really wasn’t excited about rushing over there on a Sunday night, as late as it was getting. Nonetheless, I want the tenant to feel like we’re responsive, because she is paying the boyfriend a lot of money every month, so keeping her happy is high on our priority list.
I asked the boyfriend to text her back and ask her for more details on the toilet. Was it leaking, as in dripping on the floor? Or was it leaking into the tank below, i.e., was it constantly running? I don’t know if you remember the broken dishwasher issue from January, but this tenant can sometimes be a bit inaccurate when describing the problem. She said then that the dishwasher was not dispensing soap. It actually was dispensing soap, it’s just that the dishwasher wasn’t circulating water during the wash cycle, so the soap was just lying there. The solution we had researched before we arrived was useless when the problem turned out to be entirely different than what she initially said.
Anyway, I wanted to be sure to get more details about the specific problem this time so we could try to home in on the right fix before we got there. Fortunately, she did a great job of figuring out the exact issue with the toilet. She said it was leaking from the tank onto the floor, and it appeared to be a slow drip coming from the left tank bolt. Great! We asked if she wanted us to come by that night (Sunday) or after work the next day. She said the next day was fine.
The Leaky Toilet
After work the next day, I headed straight to the property, and the boyfriend met me there. I checked out the toilet first. Here’s the problem bolt:
The way to stop the leak: tighten the bolt. Easy. Before I did that, though, I checked to make sure there were no cracks in the porcelain around the bolt hole. Looked good to me. It just seemed like somehow the bolt had gotten looser over time, or (more likely) the rubber gasket had shrunk a little or weakened, letting a small amount of water dribble through. Either way, same solution: tighten the bolt. To do that, you need a wrench to hold the nut underneath the bottom piece of the toilet (see photo below), and then you need a long handled flat-head screwdriver to tighten the bolt from inside the tank (the bolt head is where the purple arrow is in the photo above). Just don’t tighten too much, or the tank and/or bowl will crack, and you’ll have a bigger problem.
Two minutes, and that was done. The tenant also mentioned that sometimes when that toilet is flushed, the flap stays open too long. Jeezo. One more thing. I disconnected the chain between the flapper valve (grey thing to the right of the arrow in the upper photo) and the flush handle arm (that stick-looking think from the flush handle over to the center of the tank where the flapper valve is). I flushed the toilet by manually pulling up on the chain and immediately lowered the chain again. The flapper valve closed normally. So it looked like the flush handle arm itself was getting stuck, not the flapper valve. I hopped on YouTube to figure out how to fix a sticking flush handle. The solution appeared to be unscrewing the little plastic nut on the inside of the tank where the handle is (see the little black piece on the far left of the upper photo), cleaning the threads, and screwing it back together well. So I did that. And it worked. Sweet! Saved a plumber trip. Cost of repair= $0 so far.
The Broken GFCI Outlet
Next comes the electrical. I have a mixed reputation when it comes to electrical. I’ve changed out a ton of light switches and outlets before—literally every place I’ve ever lived has had new outlets and switches by the time I moved out—but I did run into some trouble when the boyfriend and I were swapping out the outlets and switches in his house. You see, when you replace an outlet that is operated by a switch (like an outlet that is designed to turn a lamp on/off by using the wall switch, versus an always-on outlet), there’s a little metal tab on the hot side between the terminals that you’re supposed to break off. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it. We’re moving on here.) Anyway, long story short, I snapped off the tab on both the hot and neutral sides, which means that all of the electrical outlets that were downstream from the switched outlet on that same circuit were dead. There apparently needs to be continuity in the neutral lines to keep the circuit going. #learningbyfailing
Here’s the point behind that embarrassing confession: when I accidentally tanked all the outlets downstream from one of the switched outlets, I learned which outlets were linked together on that same circuit. And I remembered that when the GFCI in the second bathroom wasn’t operating correctly before, it also knocked out the lights and outlets in the master bath. So the good news is that I was pretty sure that as soon as we could fix this one GFCI outlet, the other electrical components would magically start working again. (“Magically.” Seriously. This is why I’m not great at electrical. It’s all magic to me.)
All right, so here’s your basic GFCI outlet (see below). GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. They’re also sometimes called GFI outlets, or apparently RCDs in the UK and Australia. I would explain what they do, but you should probably hear that from someone who doesn’t think electricity is sorcery, so here’s the Wikipedia link for you. What I am qualified to tell you is that the GFCI outlets have two little buttons in the middle of them. Assuming they are installed right side up, the reset button is on top (purple arrow) and the test button is on the bottom. If your outlets are installed sideways or some other such nonsense, you might want to buy the GFCI outlets with the red and black buttons on them, so you will know by color coding which button is which. Or just bust out some reading glasses and a flashlight to read the teeny print on the buttons.
When you push the test button on a GFCI outlet, the power to the outlet should go out. To restore power at the outlet, you push the reset button in, and it should click into place. With this outlet, though, the reset button wasn’t clicking. If the reset button isn’t clicking into place, the outlet won’t work. I was thinking the problem could be one of two things: either the circuit was being constantly tripped (e.g., someone had stuck a fork in another outlet on the circuit and was standing in a pool of water), or the outlet itself had died. I didn’t see any half-fried people standing in buckets, so I figured that maybe the outlet itself was just old/fried. I’ve never heard of a GFCI outlet doing that, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
So we bought a replacement outlet at Home Depot, came back, and installed it. STILL not working. Son of a… Then it dawned on me that there could be a third reason the GFCI wasn’t working: it wasn’t getting any power, i.e., something else upstream had taken out this outlet and the others downstream from it. I asked the boyfriend if there was another GFCI outlet in the other bathroom. He couldn’t remember. We checked, and there wasn’t one. (Those outlets were downstream from this faulty outlet, so they didn’t need their own GFCI, because they are protected by the GFCI from the other bathroom.) I asked the boyfriend if there were any other GFCIs anywhere in the house that he could think of. The garage!
We went out to the garage, and it took us a while to find the outlet behind the tenant’s boxes and other stuff stacked in front of it, but finally we moved some boxes and found it. It was tripped, so I hit the reset button, and it clicked in. Everything started working again, from the new GFCI we just installed, to the master ceiling fan, the master bath overhead lights, etc. I felt so dumb. We didn’t need the new GFCI outlet at all. At least we figured out the issue, though, and BONUS, we didn’t have to hire an electrician to find the stupid mistake. Repair cost = $20 for the new outlet (which we didn’t need, but couldn’t really return now, anyway. We kept the old GFCI as a backup).
Hooray! We were able to fix two totally unrelated problems without calling anyone for help and without shelling out any more than $20! Sure, we burned half of a weekday evening, but we probably saved a couple hundred bucks in service calls.