While we might enjoy watching the various home improvement shows filling up cable programming, many of us can’t complete the most basic of home improvement projects. The How Do I Fix That? series will show you how to tackle a range of problems that have plagued homeowners for time immemorial. Each installment will provide a walkthrough for the problem at hand so you’ll know what to expect before you get started. Now, get into your old work jeans and roll up your sleeves – we’re going to get messy.
How Do I Install a Toilet?
While installing a basic toilet might sound gross and/or complicated at first blush, it’s really a very easy job. Plus, once you’ve completed the installation, you’ll know enough about how your basic septic system works that you’ll be able to repair other problems.
The History of the Flush
Flush toilet systems have been around since ancient times, including examples of water being used to wash away human waste in India, Peru, pre-classical Greek, and also Roman-occupied Britain. While flush toilets or “water closets” would be enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful for centuries, commoners had to make do with less sanitary means.
Making a system that could be inexpensively put in an average home didn’t occur until the Industrial Revolution when The Great Stink of 1851 in several rivers and waterways in England made the public very much aware of the growing need for public sanitation.
And up until 1872, flush toilets used lots of water when they flushed away waste. They also allowed sewer fumes to rise and collect in the bowl so that, when you opened the lid, you were greeted by a distasteful and indelicate odor. Consequently, homeowners would constantly leave water running in their toilets to counteract the smell. Unfortunately, this caused drinking water shortages in London.
Fortunately, two things happened. The first was the invention of the syphon by a plumber named Thomas Crapper. This device prevented the wasting of water as well as rising sewer gases, and nasty smells. Then, in 1883, a potter named Thomas William Twyford based in Staffordshire, England began selling the Unitas — a one-piece free-standing ceramic flush toilet that incorporates most of the same features we have today. Meanwhile, Crapper’s own designs and strong branding not only won him accolades of royalty, but also the amusement of US soldiers stationed in England during World War I who saw his name proudly displayed on toilets everywhere. According to tradition, “Crapper” now meant more than just a man’s name.
Your average toilet has two sections: the bowl and the tank. Outflow from the tank connects to the back of the bowl and the tank is held in place usually with a pair of bolts and rubber washers that prevent leakage. The water supply line connects to the bottom of the tank.
Modern toilet bowls are equipped with a variety of channels to flush away waste through a combination of induction and siphonic action. The bowl sits on top of a flanged pipe fitting called a “closet flange.” Closet flanges are attached to the floor with stainless steel screws and also hold brass bolts that attach to the toilet bowl. This way, the bowl is safely held in place. Flanges were once metal, but now many are made of PVC plastic. The flange and soil pipe are required to be set 12 inches away from the wall.
Seating the Bowl
Let’s assume you want to replace an older toilet. Start by removing the old one completely, removing the old wax from the closet flange, and stuffing a rag into the closet flange to keep out the sewer fumes. Depending on your new toilet, you’ll want to make sure the closet flange is the correct type and that it’s setup at the correct height for your toilet.
In most instances, this doesn’t pose a problem for basic toilets; however, if you’ve installed a new subfloor and tile, then the existing flange might now be too low (if not recessed into your new flooring). and you’ll need to install a new flange or find a flange extension kit. If the flange is too high, you may need to raise the toilet, or if the flange is too high by several inches, cut out the old flange and soil pipe and install new stuff.
All the same, you’ll need to get an accurate measurement because this is one joint you want to make sure is a clean fit. Otherwise, you’ll have sewer gas and waste water leaking out the bottom of your toilet.
With the flange in place and ready, it’s time to pull out the rag and get the flange gasket ready. There are many kinds of flange gaskets but the most common and cheapest is a beeswax flange gasket. It’s a sticky soft wax ring that can squish down and provide a water-tight seal between the bowl drain and the closet flange.
There are two ways of installing the gasket: 1) Place the gasket onto the flange and then putting the bowl on top ; or 2) Place the gasket onto the bottom of the bowl and place the bowl on top of the flange.
While it’s not impossible to do the job by yourself, it’s a good idea to have a partner help align the flange anchor bolts while you lower the bowl in place.
- Once the bolts are through the holes in the bowl base, press the bowl down into place firmly. Do not twist or rock it! You want to exert even pressure downwards so the beeswax squeezes out seals evenly around the joint.
- After the bowl is flat and in place, tighten the nuts onto the anchor bolts.
- Use a carpenter’s level to make sure the bowl sits level.
- Avoid over-tightening and wipe away any excess wax that squeezes up through the bolt holes as this will attract dirt.
- Cover with the bolt caps that come with the toilet.
Attaching the Tank
- Place the tank on the back of the bowl so the tank drain spout is seated securely inside the tank-to-bowl washer (“spud”). This washer is usually already inserted into new toilets.
- Next, line up the tank anchor bolt holes and insert the bolts through their rubber washers, through the holes in the bottom of the tank, and through the bolts holes on the back of the bowl.
- Make sure the rubber washers are seated properly against the bottom of the tank. On each bolt, place a nylon washer onto a bolt and thread on one of the nuts after it. The nylon washer presses up against the porcelain and helps seal against water leaking out.
- Twist one bolt and then the other until both are “finger-tight.” Paying attention to keeping the tank level, carefully tighten the nuts with a wrench until the tank is firmly set. Again, do not over tighten the bolts.
Most new tanks come with the flushing mechanisms already installed. In this case, it’s just a matter of attaching the flexible nylon supply lines from the cold water supply valve to the tank valve and then tightening them into place. These lines are designed with compression fittings and can be attached easily. Be careful with plastic compression fittings as these may crack even if they’re over tightened just a tiny bit.
- Lastly, attach the seat and lid assembly put putting it into position and inserting the bolts through the hinge assembly.
- Slide on the plastic washers and metal washers and thread on the bolts. Again, you’ll want to alternate tightening so that the seat remains level.
- Tighten until the seat is firmly in place without sliding or wobbling — and yet again, be careful not to over tighten.
When you turn on the water, look for leaks. Only fill the tank up part way and look for signs of water drips around the tank bolts and compression fittings. When you’re satisfied everything’s solid, let the tank fill and flush it several times. Keep an eye out for water leaking from under the base of the bowl. If there’s no sign of water and you don’t smell anything, then it’s ready to try out.
General Repair Tips
Basic flush toilets tend to be easy and inexpensive repair jobs. Since water hardness can have an effect on the components, often the first thing to fail is the flapper valve which will harden and lose its seal, causing water to leak through the tank outlet and the toilet to keep refilling. Replacing the flapper valve takes just a few minutes and costs less than your average latte at Starbucks.
However, once in a great while, the beeswax gasket can fail and leak waste water out the bottom of the toilet. If you’ve done the installation, then the repair is easy: clean up any mess, turn off the supply water, dismantle the toilet, and install a new gasket (cost $4 to $10).
And at any time during the repair process if you feel overwhelmed by the work, don’t hesitate to call a professional plumber to help! It’s the 21st century – you need a working toilet in your home!