Thursday, January 26, 2017

Your Toilet Flange and You

Wow, a video from "this old house" which is actually useful! Of course, they are not repairing a broken flange but moving the toilet for style reasons.  Oh, well, still a useful video! (Note the presence of toilet wedges).

I was in Goodyear Cottage the other day - built in 1906 - and went to use the bathroom.  The Crane family used to be members of the Jekyll Island Club, so we have a lot of great "vintage" Crane toilets in the various buildings.  It struck me that after 110 years, the original toilet is still working properly, albeit maintained over the years.   What was interesting to me is that the technology hasn't changed in a Century and that you could still go to Lowe's or Home Depot and buy parts for a 100-year-old toilet and they would fit and work.

Obviously the people at Apple need to look into this.  They need to make a new iToilet that is obsolete every two years and requires a "genius bar" guy to fix it.

If you live in a Western country, it pays to learn about toilets and how to repair them.  You will use one for 80-some-odd years or so, and likely own many in your lifetime.  I think I've owned well over two dozen, including the rental properties, campers, boats, and whatnot.

They are remarkably easy to repair and work on, but do break down on occasion.   And some of the problems they have are the result of improper installation or user error.

For example, people like to put those chlorine pucks in the toilet tank to "freshen" the water.   The problem with these pucks is that they may make the water toxic to your dog - if he is prone to drinking from the bowl (Ginger never did this, Maggie did, however).   But more importantly, the chlorine will attack the seals and mechanism of the toilet causing them to fail early.   Particularly if the toilet is not used often (e.g., guest bathroom) the chlorine fumes can corrode metal fixtures near the toilet, such as the handle or the shutoff valve.

And bear in mind these are ceramic - an aspect of Victorian technology of which the British were quite adept at the time.  Ceramic can crack and break.   My brother once cracked a toilet tank top by leaning it against the wall while trying to unjam the flush chain.  It slipped and fell and broke in half, and it is damn hard to buy just the tank top for a toilet, or at least one that will fit properly.  Often you have to buy a whole new toilet, or at least a whole new tank.  When taking apart a toilet, find a place to put all the pieces, and lay them on old towels so they don't bang against a tile floor and chip or break.

Mark reports that one of the most common complaints he had selling townhouses was the "rocking toilet" - toilets that moved when you sat on them.   This is usually a sign of poor installation, and if left to fester will result in a number of problems over time.

A rocking toilet can be caused by a flange that is set too high or set crookedly.   The toilet ends up resting on the flange, instead of the floor (which should support the major weight of the toilet) and it rocks.   Tile floors, marble floors, or "rustic" tile floors may also provide an uneven surface for the toilet to rest on.   This latter problem might be helped with toilet wedges - small wedges made of plastic.   Some sloppy installers will jam a wooden paint stirrer stick underneath the toilet, which over time will compress and rot, leading the toilet to rock.

One of our toilets had a rocking problem due to poor installation.   When the plumber "roughs in" the plumbing, he may leave a foot or more of pipe sticking out of the floor.  The floor people finish the floor, and then another person comes in and saws the pipe down, in this case, with a Sawzall, which is anything but a precision instrument.  It looked like a wolverine attacked the pipe with sharp teeth.

Since the floor people poured concrete around the pipe, the installer had no choice but to use a 3" flange.  Toilet flanges come in two sizes, 3" and 4".  The 3" kind will slide inside the drain pipe, which works well when you have the outer diameter surrounded by concrete as in our case.  The 4" kind fits outside the pipe.  Most toilet accessories are set up for 4" flanges - for example, the wax rings.  So the 3" flange can be a bit problematic.

Since the pipe was cut in a haphazard manner, the flange did not lay flat on the floor, causing one side of the toilet to actually rest on the flange and not the floor.   Over time, this causes a lot of rocking, which squeezed out the wax ring from between the flange and the toilet.   Over time, it also cracked the flange where the toilet bolts attach.

The toilet bolts attach the toilet to the flange and are not designed to hold down the toilet so much as hold it in place.   The toilet bolts hold the flange to the toilet so it seals.  Gravity supports and holds the toilet down (and caulking it in place will keep it from sliding side-to-side) - not the toilet bolts.  Since the toilet is ceramic, if you crank down on the flange bolts to try to fix a rocking toilet, you will crack the toilet.   The good news is, toilets and toilet parts can be ridiculously cheap - an entire toilet can be had for about $100 or so, unless you are foolish and get a designer model for $500 - they work no better, and sometimes worse.

My first attempt to fix the problem failed, as I didn't want to mess with the flange but instead used toilet wedges.  If the issue was merely an uneven floor, that might have worked.  Install the wedges and caulk in place.  One downside to toilet wedges is that they concentrate all the stress of the weight of the toilet (and the user) in one place, which could cause cracking.   Use a lot of wedges if you take this approach.  They also sell plastic sheets that look like a bib, which can be placed on the floor to cover where the old toilet sat. If you are installing a new toilet and it has a smaller "footprint" than the old one, this can cover the exposed portion nicely.   They can also be stacked up to solve rocking problems by preventing the toilet from resting on the flange.

The toilet wedges approach didn't work for me.  Since our toilet was resting on the flange on one side, it kept rocking and within a few months I was back where I started, only worse.   The rocking motion squeezes out the "wax ring" - a sealing technique from another Century.   As a result, the seal between the toilet and floor was no longer perfect.  This meant three things - first that if the toilet backed up, water could seep from under the toilet and that was gross.   Second, sewer gasses could escape into the bathroom, which isn't pleasant (there is no "trap" in a toilet line, the toilet is the trap).   Third, drain flies, which live in sewer lines and are nearly impossible to kill, will fly through this break in the seal and annoy the snot out of you (quite literally, as they are fond of flying up your nose).  Drain flies are resistant to chlorine and even boiling water!

This was gross.  And not acceptable.   So we take the entire toilet apart again and use this opportunity to paint the water closet.  The flange is cracked and disintegrating and has to go.   I used a Dremel tool to cut it away, which reveals the problem with the pipe - it was cut crookedly with a Sawzall (or wolverine).   I grind this even with the Dremel as well.   But what about a new flange?

I can't put a 4" flange on the pipe as there is concrete surrounding it.   I could, but it would be a lot of work.   Carefully grinding away the remainder of the flange from the inside of the PVC pipe, to install a new 3" flange is also problematic and time-consuming - and might not seal properly.   Fortunately, I am not the only one to have this problem, and a company called Danco makes a nice solution to the problem.  The Hydroseat toilet flange repair kit, by Danco is pretty slick and solves toilet flange problems - permanently.

The nice thing about it is that while it uses the dreaded wax ring (which looks like poop and sticks to your hands) it uses it underneath the flange and then provides a rubber seal to the toilet.   Thus, if you remove the toilet later for any reason, there isn't ugly brown wax all over the place.  In perusing the toilet aisle at Lowe's, I noticed our friends at Korky and Fluidmaster both have rubber seals to replace the dreaded wax seal - for a standard flange installation.   So I am not the only one who hates wax rings.  It is one aspect of this 19th Century technology that really needs to be updated - and apparently has been.

There are also other flange repair kits - many of them in fact, which speaks to the problem.   Some metal rings or half-rings screw into the flange to fix the bolt slots.   But they do not fix the underlying problem of a flange that is too high or crooked.

Anyway, with the Danco Hydroseat, all you need to do is drill four small holes in the floor, mount the new flange over a wax ring, and the seat seals into the floor.  Unlike the This Old House people, though, I take the time and use Chlorox cleaner spray to clean the area first.   Mold, mildew and God-knows-what should be removed before you install.   The rubber seal extends down into the drain pipe, so it makes a nice seat, air- and water-tight.

And the toilet rests on the ground, not on the flange.   There is only one small problem, the travertine marble floor is slightly uneven, leaving a minute wobble.  But a thin strip of plastic flashing solves that problem.  And unlike a wax ring, which will be oozed out of the sealing area like a toothpaste, if the toilet rocks even a tiny bit, the rubber seal of the Hydroseat rolls with the punches and remains sealed.   Snug down the stainless steel nuts (but don't over-tighten, you'll crack the toilet), caulk the edge of the toilet, and you're done.

A plumber would charge an exorbitant amount of money for this repair.  People hear words like "cracked flange" and they think it is like a nuclear reactor or something - months of downtime required while scientists carefully study the problem.

It is like when my main waterline broke - some unscrupulous plumbers, sensing panic in the homeowner, are not afraid to charge "emergency repair" rates in the thousands of dollars.   Once I let panic subside and realized I could just connect a hose from my neighbor's house to my hose spigot (with some clever adapters) I had water, at least temporarily, and could fix the problem at a leisurely pace.   It turned out to be a pretty simple job, taking only two days and costing only a couple of hundred bucks.

It pays to be handy.   But if you can't be handy, at least understand the technology involved so that you can appreciate what the problems are and how they can be fixed - often fairly cheaply!