We use toilets several times a day, but most homeowners have no idea how they work or fit into the home’s plumbing environment. If something goes wrong, the first line of defense is usually to “jiggle the handle” — and when that works only temporarily, the next thing to do is “jiggle the handle” again until you finally get fed up and call a plumber.
In the next several posts we look at traditional toilets. The information is presented to give homeowners a basic understanding of what’s involved with toilets and what they can do working alongside a plumber. (There are “newfangled” toilets with new hardware, but we’ll cover these in a future post.)
How a Toilet Works
Let’s get the basics out of the way first: How does a toilet work?
A toilet has two major components:
- the tank
- the bowl
The tank stores water to flush out the bowl. A little known fact: The tank water is actually fresh water and drinkable, which may come in handy if there ever is a zombie apocalypse. Do not attempt to drink the water in the bowl. That’s gross.
- When you press the handle (or in some instances, pull a chain) the stopper in the bottom of the tank opens and allows the water to drain out of the tank into the bowl.
- As water from the tank enters the bowl it overflows and the excess water runs out of the bottom into the drain line underneath.
- As water goes down the drain, a siphon is created to pull the waste contents of the bowl with it.
- Siphoning continues until there is no more water in the bowl and air enters the drain.
- The air breaks the siphon and more water enters to bowl to refill.
- If too little water is used to flush out the bowl, little or no siphoning occurs and the bowl is not purged.
- If the water from the tank enters too slowly, water runs down the drain but there isn’t enough to start a siphon.
- To flush out the bowl completely, there must be enough water and it must pour in suddenly. (Don’t you just love physics?)
- When most of the water drains from the tank, the stopper drops back into place and the tank begins to refill, along with the bowl.
- The water level rises inside the tank until it reaches the float and lifts it high enough to shut off the fill valve.
- The next time the toilet is flushed, the process is repeated.
- Because low flow toilets use less water, the pressure generated by gravity may be too low to purge the bowl, often leaving waste in the bowl. The force of the water is increased with a jet assist device. The jet assist blasts the water through the bowl, cleaning it while using less water.
How To Install a Toilet
Replacing a toilet is something many homeowners can do themselves, although:
- The tank and bowl each can be heavy and awkward to carry, hold, and position. If it slips out of your hands onto the floor and cracks, you buy another toilet.
- Toilets are often installed in “water closets” inside the larger bathroom and this space can be small and cramped for some people to work in, especially the elderly or folks who have a hard time getting up and down off the floor.
If these present a problem for you, call your plumber. Plumbing is an interesting beast, so to speak: Everything looks easy to do, but once homeowners get involved they find unexpected issues that may be beyond their grasp to handle, and that’s when they call in the professionals.
Before You Begin
A word of advice: verify that the new toilet will fit.
Before you go new-toilet shopping at an area home improvement center or a plumbing supply, note the dimensions of the existing toilet and the location where it’s installed.
Some newer models, particularly low flow toilets or taller potties (easier for people to sit down on), may have a wider base or are longer, which could cause installation problems in some locations. (Plus, these may be heavier and more difficult to work with.) If you don’t want to mess with recording dimensions, take a picture of the toilet and its installation location with your phone to refer to it while shopping.
Make sure you have the needed tools, properly sized, at the ready for when you need them. There is nothing more frustrating and time-wasting than starting a project and having to go to the garage 17 times to find the right wrench, screwdriver, tool.
Removing the Old Toilet
Turn off the water
Yes, homeowners forget to do this.
Drain the toilet
If there is any water left in the tank or bowl, use an old towel to soak it up as best you can.
Disconnect the water line
Degree of difficulty: easy.
You should be able to do this by hand. If not, use slip-joint pliers to loosen the nut and get you started. Have an old towel handy or small container to catch any water from the hose and fill valve.
Old Toilet: Separating the tank from the bowl
Degree of difficulty: mostly easy to do.
- Separate the tank nuts and bolts from the bowl. You will have to loosen the screw inside the tank while holding the nut under the bowl. You may need to vice grip or slip-joint pliers to help loosen the nut.
- As you loosen the tank bolts, any water left in the tank will spill onto the floor. Placing a towel on the floor behind the bowl will help to contain the mess.
- Once the two apart, set the tank out of the way. Use part of the cardboard box the new toilet shipped in to set the old parts on to avoid damaging flooring.
- If the tank bolts will not loosen because the nuts are corroded in place, try spraying the nuts with penetrating oil. Give the oil time to work and then give it another try.
- If they still hold fast, then you will probably have to cut the tank bolts. One option is to use mini-hacksaw to saw between the bolt head and the tank or the nut and the bowl. Most bolts are brass and not too difficult to saw through. Be sure to use a metal cutting blade.
- Another option is to drill out the tank bolt. To drill out the bolt, you will need a metal cutting drill bit of the same diameter as the tank bolt. You should drill at low speed and keep the drill perpendicular to the ground. Start drilling in the exact center of the bolt head. Drill down about half an inch. This will weaken the bolt enough that you can pry up the head or easily cut it off with a mini-hacksaw. Be careful to drill straight down, if you hit the ceramic tank material, you may damage it beyond repair.
Remove the nuts securing the bowl to the floor
Degree of difficulty: easy.
- The toilet bowl is held in place primary by gravity and two small bolts. Snap open the bolt covers on either side of the bowl. Use a wrench or pliers to remove the nut from each bolt.
- Some installations use caulking between the foot of the bowl and the floor. Use a razor knife to cut through any caulking before attempting to lift the bowl.
- Also, before removing the bowl, have a place prepared to set it down. The heavy bowl can scratch floors, will spill some water and will have a sticky wax gasket underneath. A sheet of cardboard or a heavy towel will work well.
- Carefully lift the bowl straight up (using your knees, not your lower back!) until it clears the bolts and move it out of the way.
- Take a large rag, towel, or wad of newspaper and stuff it into the drain in the floor. Just make sure it is large enough not to accidentally fall down into the drain. Sealing the drain will help keep sewer gas from entering the room and prevent you from dropping tools and parts down the hole.
If anything unexpected happens along the way, it’s best to call a plumber. In one example, a homeowner needed to replace a toilet in the second-floor bathroom. Once the toilet was removed, he found a rusted, possibly compromised flange secured to the floor. What to do then?
We will examine installing a new toilet in the next post.