A Guide to Toilets

A product of thousands of years of human thought, the modern toilet is ingeniously shaped to flush away its contents whenever sufficient water is dumped into the bowl. The mechanical parts inside the tank merely supply that water -- but these are the parts you need to fix.

How toilets work

how toilets work
There's quite a bit of physics going on inside your toilet, and much of it happens within the portion of the toilet you can't see – inside the base under the tank and behind the bowl. It's mostly hollow but with a wall separating the bowl from the drain. This is what keeps a certain amount of water in the bowl between flushes. But there's more to it than that.

When you press down the handle, it lifts a lever that pulls a chain, opening the rubber flapper. Water from the tank rushes through the exposed hole and into the toilet bowl. As you see the water level rise inside the bowl, it is also rising within the base and then overflows into the drain behind it. Because no air can get past the water in the bowl, the water falling into the drain creates a siphon effect that sucks the rest of the water with it until air finally enters and breaks up the vacuum.

Meanwhile, up in the tank, fresh water is streaming in to fill it up and would overflow without some mechanism to shut off the water when it reaches a certain level. This is accomplished with something that floats – traditionally a hollow ball the size of grapefruit at the end of a rod. As the ball floats on the rising surface of the water the lever eventually shuts off the water intake valve. Your toilet may not have the big floating ball, but if you examine the mechanism you'll see that it too is based on something that floats upward and shuts off the switch.

When the toilet clogs

When a toilet stops up, it's very likely that the clog is not far down the drain and you can probably take care of it using the emblematic tool of the plumbing trade, the plunger.

Hold the toilet plunger over the toilet bowl's drain hole and lower it into the water so that you've retained air inside of it and the edges of the plunger are below the water line. Position it in the drain opening and push down, forcing the air out of the plunger. Then continue with several rapid up and down movements. You may have to try this several times. Lift the plunger out of the water to let more air into it between each effort.

Are your other drains working normally? If not, the clog is apparently in the main drain and no amount of plunging will dislodge it.

If the toilet is the only fixture affected and plunging doesn't work, you could try dissolving the clog -- but don't use harsh chemical products. Put 1 cup of baking soda and 1 cup of vinegar in the toilet and let it sit for about eight hours. The chemical reaction that occurs between the two substances might help break down whatever is clogging the drain.

Was the clog caused by a foreign object like a toy or something that fell off the bathroom counter? If you have rubber gloves you might try feeling around for it because it may be lodged close to the drain opening.

If you're a dedicated do-it-yourselfer you might buy a drain auger, an inexpensive snake-like tool found at most hardware stores. Otherwise, it's probably time to call in a professional plumber.

Are those wipes really 'flushable'?

Experts are skeptical of product claims; they say most don't degrade quickly enough. Read more
flushable wipes

Preventing future clogs:

Don’t flush any materials other than toilet paper. Feminine products should go in the trashcan, not the toilet. Many plumbers even recommend against putting "flushable wipes"; down the drain because they don't degrade well and can cause clogs down the line.

Try an extra 'insurance flush' halfway through if you're having a particularly manly experience.

Keep the counter space around the toilet and the back of the tank clear of small objects that might fall in without being noticed.

Plumbers often find little green army men and other small toys that probably didn’t jump into the toilet on their own. So have a little chat with junior.

When a toilet runs

Tired of having to jiggle the handle to get the toilet to stop running? This problem is normally caused by the malfunction of either the flapper or float valve, both of which are located inside the tank.

The flapper is a rubber piece at the bottom of the toilet tank that covers the discharge drain. It is lifted by a chain attached to the handle when a toilet is flushed. It should set securely back into place before the tank is refilled. If the flapper is damaged or does not fully close, water will slowly leak from the tank. Check to see if the chain needs to be adjusted or if the flapper needs to be replaced.

The float valve is attached to the incoming water line and regulates the water level inside the toilet tank. If it is not properly adjusted or if it has become clogged by sediments, it will constantly attempt to refill the water level. First, try adjusting the float valve to a higher water level. If this does not stop the problem, the float valve should be replaced. While both of these toilet parts are easy to replace, it is usually best to call a plumber if you do not have previous experience in doing this work. This is especially true for the float valve, as it must be installed securely to avoid leaks around the bottom fitting.

When it won't flush

If nothing happens when you use the handle, the fix may be simple. Take a look inside the tank and watch what happens (or doesn't happen) when you try the handle again. If the chain has come loose it should be an easy fix.

If the toilet flushes a little, but not enough to empty the bowl the water in the tank may be low. Let the tank fill and see how high the water goes. If it stops partway there may be a problem with the float mechanism.

Many toilets use the classic hollow plastic float ball attached by a rod to the fill valve. Once the water level inside the tank reaches a level high enough to lift the float ball, the arm attached to the fill valve switches the fill valve off, stopping more water from filling the tank.

If your float ball appears to be at the correct floating height, next check your flapper chain. This chain runs from the exterior toilet flush handle to the flapper valve. When the handle is activated, it lifts the flapper valve from its seat, allowing the water from the tank to rush into the bowl. If the chain has become too slack, the flapper valve may not be opening far enough to stay up during the flush. If you can't make the correct adjustments on the flapper chain or float ball, or if that doesn't correct the problem, it may be a larger problem, such as a faulty fill valve.

It might be time to call a plumber.

Eco-friendly toilets

Before Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, most toilets used three gallons of water or more for each flush. The new law set a limit of 1.6 gallons per flush.

Should your toilet be more eco-friendly?
Learn the pros and cons of each type and estimated installation costs.

Read more

composting toilet and incinerating toilet

That was a big step in water conservation, but since that time even more efficient "low-flow" toilets have been developed that can do the job with only half a gallon of water.

Another innovation is the "dual-flush" toilet that gives the user the choice between a full 1.6-gallon flush or a lighter flow if nothing but liquid needs to be flushed.

Composting toilets use little to no water at all. Often found in areas that lack sewers or septic systems, they use bacteria and aeration to convert solid waste into an odor-free compost that can be used in the landscape.

Incinerator toilets do use some energy, usually electricity or propane, but they conserve water by using heat to transform waste into sterile ash.

A urinal for the man-cave?

This urinal was installed in a residential bathroom.

Although they're a common sight in public restrooms, American homes with urinals are rare in home bathrooms. But some men have had them installed, either in man-cave basements hideaways or in a standard bathroom.

There are some advantages. They use less water and could therefore be considered eco-friendly. And wives who complain about their husbands' poor aim may find that urinals are easier to keep clean.

On the other hand, urinals are expensive to install because additional pipes and drains need to be installed by a licensed plumber.


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