Know Your Toilet

The first thing to know about your toilet is that it is not magic. Things you put in it do not magically disappear forever, even if you stick your fingers in your ears and say la-la-la while the flushing is happening. There is a limit to the size of the passageway inside the toilet and there is a limit to the pipe the toilet is attached to. For those of us on the MWRA sewer system, most everything that gets flushed ends up at one of the headworks in South Boston, Chelsea or Mission Hill, or it makes it all the way to Deer Island, being processed at whatever length necessary to keep it from washing up on the beach. And you pay for that processing. With this in mind, do not put anything which does not come out of your body into the toilet, unless it is toilet paper. This especially means no dental floss, which is in a category of egregiousness all by itself. Dental floss rarely makes it past your own piping and ends up in an unremovable net of nastiness. It also means no “wipes” even if they say they are flushable. Believe me, they are not. Repeat after me: My toilet is not a waste basket.

How do toilets work?
The water used to flush the toilet is stored in a tank and released into the bowl when the flush lever or button is activated. The activator is connected to the stopper (called the flapper) between the bowl and the tank by various methods including chains, rods and rubbery tails. One way or another, the flush activator lifts the flapper and water drains out of the tank and into the bowl by gravity. When the water begins to leave the tank, a mechanism is activated to add water to the bowl and eventually to refill the tank. The water-adder is called the fill valve, or ballcock. It usually has a float of some sort (a ball or cup) which drops with the lowering tank water level and opens a passageway for water, then when the flapper closes again and the tank water level rises, the float rises and closes the passageway and the water stops. All toilet tanks have a designed water level, (newer toilets will have a mark in the tank to allow you to set the proper level) and all toilets have an overflow pipe which takes the excess flow down through the bowl if the water should fail to shut off.

Toilet bowls are designed to clear their contents over an integral trap-way when a measured amount of water is sent through them. Each bowl is designed with its own flow pattern, and the speed, direction and timing of the water release must be right for the toilet to operate properly. The smaller the amount of water to be used for each flush, the more important it is the designed pattern be followed. This is why early low flow toilets were such a hideous failure- instead of embracing new water use standards and designing toilets which would work well, American manufacturers took the cheap road (can you say K car?) and ran less water through the same bowls. People are still complaining- and this happened in the 1980’s. Low flow toilets work very well now, but it is important to make repairs on modern low flow toilets with the right parts.

Call your toilet by its proper name.
Toilets are designated tankless or tank type, and if tank type, one or two piece. They are designated as 10, 12, or 14 inch rough. Toilet bowls can come in many shapes, but the most common are round and elongated.

  • Tankless, or flushometer toilets are the kind most commonly seen in commercial spaces. There is no tank, just a pipe entering the china at the back of the bowl. Flushing is activated by pressing a handle, and a measured amount of water enters the bowl directly from the water main through the flushometer.
  • One piece toilets are just that; the tank and bowl are a single piece of china.
  • Two piece toilets have a separate tank and bowl. Two piece toilets can be high tank, flush ell, or close coupled.
  • High tank toilets are the really old fashioned kind with a (usually) copper lined wooden tank high on the wall above the bowl, connected by a long flush pipe, and activated by a pull chain.
  • Flush ell toilets have a tank which hangs on the wall just above the bowl and are connected to the bowl by a chrome flush elbow.
  • Close coupled toilets have tanks which sit directly on the bowl.

The “rough” designation refers to the distance from the wall to the outlet of the bowl. This is important to understand when locating the piping for a new toilet or when choosing a replacement for an existing one.

Choose the wrong toilet and there may not be enough room for the tank to attach to the bowl or you may have a great whopping gap behind the tank that begs to have someone unsteady on their feet fall onto the bowl and snap the tank off during a party late one night. To find the rough measurement of any toilet, locate the bolts on the base of the bowl where it sits on the floor. The bolt holes mark the center of the outlet of the bowl. If there are two sets of bolt holes (older bowls may have this) measure from the rearmost set. Measure from the center of the bolt hole to the wall behind the toilet- not the baseboard trim, but the actual wall the tank will be closest to. If you have less than 12″, you have a 10″ rough toilet. 12-14″ from the bolt holes= a twelve inch rough, 14+” = a fourteen inch rough. Flush ell toilets often have 16″ measurements- you will have a gap behind the toilet even with a 14″ rough. If you are replacing a toilet, it is best to check the specifications of the toilet with your particular layout. Dimensional drawings are available on line. Toilets are particularly unforgiving in their insistence on taking up space. You really can’t  trim or tweak them.

Which toilet is right for me?
As you can see from the information above, there is much to know and there are many choices to make. We are familiar with the good brands and models and well aware of the bad actors, the cloggers, the double flushers, the models that sound like a jet plane taking off in your bathroom, the ones that take an act of Congress to install, and the ones whose designers said oops!, then moved on, leaving no replacement parts in their wake. We will be glad to help you make a good choice.