The woman behind the counter at our favorite lunch and column-outlining spot has had it with her toilet. "I can't fix it," she said. "I've tried everything. What do you suggest?"
We suggested a new toilet.
Toilets generally provide many years of trouble-free service, but eventually they do wear out. It's actually not that much harder to install a new toilet than to fix a balky old one. And you can count again on a long term of trouble-free performance.
Toilets are mounted on a flange that is screwed to the floor. If the flange is in good shape, then toilet installation is a fairly easy do-it-yourself project. Only if the flange is cracked, or the drain pipe connected to the flange is broken, could you need a plumber. A small leak could simply mean the wax ring sealing the toilet to the flange is worn; if there's no evidence of damage to surfaces below, there is a good chance the flange is OK.
Replacing a toilet requires few tools -- just an adjustable wrench, a 2-foot level and a putty knife or scraper.
What you will need
Equipment you will need: the new toilet (two-piece toilets are easiest to install); a seat (they are sold separately); a wax ring; two new toilet hold-down bolts to fit the existing flange; plumber's putty and pipe tape or joint cement for water line connections; good-quality latex caulk. You may also need a roll of aluminum flashing, for cutting shims.
Before you buy a new toilet, check the "rough-in" distance -- that's the distance from the wall to the hold-down bolts in the toilet base. (If there are four bolts, measure to the back two.) Most rough-ins are 12 inches, but sometimes they are 10 inches or 14 inches. Standard toilets are designed for 12-inch rough-ins; if the existing space is different, you may have to order a toilet to fit.
You can install a toilet designed for a 12-inch rough-in on a larger rough-in but not on a smaller one. A larger rough-in will mean the back of the toilet tank is not resting against the wall, so you will have to install a pad, or shelf, of 2-by-4 or other lumber for the back to rest on. Otherwise, when someone sits down the tank could move and break the connection to the bowl.
Timing is important
You may even want to wait to buy the new toilet until the old one is out and you've seen the flange. If this is your only toilet, timing of the job may be important. While the process isn't hard, it's probably not a good idea to launch into the project at midnight, or any time you can't make a run to the hardware store. And, if you run into problems along the way, you may have to call a plumber.
Assuming that all goes well, here's the process for installing the new toilet:
*Turn off the water at the shut-off under the old toilet. (If the valve is old, it may not shut off completely; you'll have to find the shut-off in the basement as a backup.)
*Flush the toilet a couple of times to get out as much water as possible. Then sponge up the rest of the water.
*Disconnect the water line at the old toilet. (Leave it connected at the water-supply pipe; you may be able to reconnect it to the new unit.)
*Remove the hold-down bolts and remove the old toilet. It's easier to remove the old toilet if you can separate the tank from the bowl and take it away in two pieces. But sometimes the parts are fastened together so securely they can't be separated; in that case you'll have to remove the whole thing at once. Rock the base back and forth gently to break the seal of the old wax ring.
Check the flange
*Once the toilet is out, take a good look at the flange. It should not be cracked or broken and it should sit securely on top of, or pretty much on top of, the floor. If it's recessed into the floor, you may be able to use a wax ring with a plastic insert to extend the "horn," or molded drain connection on the toilet, to reach the flange. If that doesn't work, however, you'll need a new flange -- and a plumber. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell the location or condition of the flange before removing the old toilet.
*If the flange seems OK, carefully scrape away the old wax ring and putty. Get the flange surface as clean as you can. Don't let anything fall into the drain, to the sewer connection. You may want to plug the opening temporarily with a rag to keep debris out and sewer gases in.
*The type of flange you have will determine what kind of hold-down bolts you use. The more modern installations have a slotted flange that holds the bolts.
*Pad the floor with a towel or layers of cardboard and gently turn the bowl part of the new toilet upside down. Firmly press the new wax ring over the horn.
Make bolts parallel
*Install the bolts in the flange; for a "12-inch" toilet (designed for a 12-inch rough-in), the center of each bolt should be exactly 12 inches from the wall; the bolts need to be exactly parallel to each other. On the slotted type of flange, pack the bottom of each bolt with plumber's putty, to hold it stationary.
*Mount the bowl on the bolts and rock it gently into place to mash the wax ring so it seals tight and so the bowl sits firmly, and won't rock anymore. Put a level on the bowl side to side; if it's not level, it will have to be shimmed between the base and the floor until it is level. The easiest way to make shims is to cut small pieces from aluminum flashing, which you can buy at a hardware store in rolls. Once the bowl is level, tighten the nuts on the bolts, snugging them evenly, so the bowl stays level. They should be fastened firmly, but not over-tightened; if you crank down on them too hard you could crack the base. (You may have to cut the ends of the bolts off to make them fit into the caps. If the caps don't have a mechanism to hold them down, you may have to fill them with plumber's putty.
*Mount the tank on the bowl with the hardware provided. Tighten nuts carefully to avoid cracking the toilet.
*Connect the old water supply to the new toilet. Use pipe tape or joint cement at all connections. If you can't get the old water supply to fit, or if it leaks, replace it with a new flexible water connection -- you can buy a reinforced hose-type connector that's easy to install.
TC Check for leaks
*Install the toilet seat, turn on the water to fill the tank, and check for leaks. Flush a couple of times; you may have to adjust the flushing mechanism so the tank fills properly.
*When the toilet is installed and working, caulk around the bottom to seal the bowl to the floor.
A word about buying toilets: Buy the best you can afford. Unless your jurisdiction requires them, you may want to be wary of the so-called "low-flush," or 1.5 gallon, toilets. The goal is to save water, but we've found many of them may require flushing twice, which is hardly a saving. The higher quality "water-savers" work fine, but may cost three times as much.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.
Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.