The Washington Post
Proper installation and maintenance keep toilets doing their thing
Toilets are a pretty important part of your life. They may appear simple to you, but they’re quite complex. I’m going to try to demystify the porcelain pedestal in an effort to minimize problems you might have with one in the future.
I’ve been a master plumber since 1981, so I’ve not only installed my fair share of toilets, but I’ve also helped folks like you unclog them and keep them running quietly. Let’s start with the basics.
The toilet in your home connects directly to a drain pipe. In almost all instances the pipe you can’t see has an inner diameter of three inches. Toilets have a curved passageway, called a colon, that will normally allow a two-inch-diameter ball to pass through with no issues. It’s the same thinking for central vacuum cleaners. The opening at the end of the wand as well as the wand tubing are a smaller diameter than the invisible pipe in the wall. You want to make it very hard for the hidden pipes to get clogged.
The connection between your toilet and the plumbing drain pipe must be leakproof, for obvious reasons. Not only must it not leak water, but it absolutely can’t allow rank sewer gas to seep into your home. Wretched sewer gas is a chronic problem for many people. Every week, I get a frantic phone call helping someone solve a sewer gas problem. Most are traced to a failed seal between the toilet and the special flange on the floor that is the termination of the drain pipe.
This flange must sit on top of the finished flooring material. In many cases, for a host of reasons, it doesn’t. Two classic errors are commonly made: One is when a plumber attaches the flange to the house subfloor. The other is when a homeowner installs a new floor on top of an existing one and buries the flange’s top surface below the plane of the new floor.
When this happens, a rookie homeowner trying to install a toilet might not realize the wax or rubber gasket that creates the seal is not making solid contact with both the underside of the toilet and the top of the flange.
Once a toilet is bolted correctly to the flange, the gap between the base of the toilet and the floor should be grouted using regular tile grout. Don’t use caulk. Grout dries solid because it’s no different than brick mortar. Caulk is normally flexible. You never want the toilet to move when you sit on it. If your toilet wobbles when you sit on it, trouble lies ahead, as the seal will eventually fail.
The water in the bowl serves a very important function. It prevents sewer gas and vermin from entering your home. All traps under sinks, tubs, showers, floor drains, etc., do the same thing. The issue is these other traps have much less water in them than your toilet bowl. The large amount of water in the toilet bowl acts as a target for your bodily waste.
Clogged toilets are the bane of many a person. I created an interesting video showing how to use a bucket of water to unclog a toilet. Just a month ago, a young woman avoided shame — her words — after she had clogged the toilet at her boyfriend’s house. Panicked and still in the bathroom, using her smartphone to get help, she found my video, watched it and then used the wastebasket in the bathroom as her bucket. I thought she was quite resourceful. ( You can watch this video on Askthebuilder.com.)
You might be flummoxed about the fill valve in the tank of your toilet. It’s a very simple valve, although it looks quite complex. Believe it or not, if yours has worn out or is making noise, you can usually install a new one in less than 30 minutes. It’s easy to do if the shut-off valve under the toilet works. New fill valves are affordable and extremely reliable. Your slow-filling toilet will stop whistling once you install a new fill valve.
Now’s a good time to talk about those wretched flushable wipes. Millions of these adult wet wipes are sold, and sewerplant operators despise most of them. I invested two full days a couple of years ago setting up a toilet on a pipe-scaffolding platform in my driveway. I then re-created the drain pipes you’d have in your home. I wanted to demonstrate what happens to several brands of flushable wipes when they travel down your pipes to the city sewer or your septic tank. The video I created has become quite popular.
You should absolutely watch this video at Askthebuilder.com. If you must use wipes, never flush them down a toilet. Treat them as you would an infant’s dirty diaper. Have a special trash can, with a lid, in your bathroom. Put the soiled wipes in that trash can.
Failure to do this might cause you to have to hire a draincleaning company to unclog your drain lines. This will cost you hundreds of dollars. Avoid the problem altogether by just using some common sense, a simple plastic liner for the small trash can, and cooperation from all in your home.