Moving the toilet and other plumbing adventures

Of course you can have the plumbing of your dreams. You can have a new whirlpool tub, and you can move the toilet over to accommodate it. You can drop a new porcelain sink into an antique dresser. You can trade a battered tub for a sleek new shower stall. You can switch the places of sink and toilet for better use of space, and you can add a bath in a former closet. You can have a new sink and dishwasher -- new faucets with a sprayer that works, a refrigerator with an icemaker.

You can have just about any plumbing you want, no problem.


There will, however, be some pain.

It may come in the form of higher-than-expected costs, or perhaps in trade-offs for other desired features.


Pound for pound and hour for hour, plumbing is likely to be the most expensive subcontracting on any job. Labor costs can be as much as $50 an hour, and the cost of pipes and fixtures will be added on to that.

It's so expensive, in fact, that any plumbing changes should be considered carefully. Good planning makes good plumbing.

Most often, it's the hardware you can't see that causes difficulties in plumbing changes -- those flanges, vents, pipes and drains that make the fixtures work. Each of these elements has its own imperatives, and when you get a lot of them in a fairly small space, a "simple" job can get complicated real quick.

Recently Randy's been involved in a rash of bathroom "adjustments," including a couple of jobs where clients wanted to move a toilet over "just a little bit." In one case, it meant replacing all of the underfloor plumbing in the bath just to move the toilet 5 inches.

Toilets come with all sorts of specifications, including how many gallons of water it takes to flush them, and how far from the wall the center of the drain will be. This is called the "rough" (for "rough opening" in which to install drain and flange); standard roughs are 10 inches, 12 inches and 14 inches. (You can usually tell the rough of an installed toilet by measuring from the wall to the back set of hold-down bolts.)

In the case above, the contract called for the old toilet to be replaced at its existing location by a new one, an old pedestal sink to be replaced with a new one in the same spot, and an old, cast-iron, muscle-defying tub to be replaced with a new "neo-angle" shower unit (basically a square with one corner cut off).

The problems began when it was discovered that the shower door wastoo wide to open in the small space in front of it -- it hit the toilet. Since the toilet was on a 14-inch rough, the obvious solution was to move the toilet to a 10-inch rough. That wasn't quite enough room; the toilet needed to go back 4 inches and over about 5 inches; that would allow it to suck in its gut just enough for the shower door to open and close.

It was time to unpack the cut saw, that marvelous tool that could dismantle a battleship and should require a separate license to operate (just kidding). The floor covering around the toilet disappeared quickly . . . revealing a floor joist 8 inches in the direction the toilet was supposed to be going, with two quite permanent heating pipes in front of it. It was going to be a snug fit.


This bath also had a standard old-house plumbing connection, with tub and sink drains connected to opposite sides of the toilet drain. The connections were made with copper and 4-inch cast iron to the large and inflexible pipe connecting the toilet drain with the main vertical drain in the wall. That meant the toilet drain had to be cut near the vertical drain -- a task sure to take a minimum of 4 cut-saw blades at $3 each.

Then the connections to the tub and sink had to be rerouted using new PVC pipe. The toilet got a new PVC flange and drain, connected back to the cast-iron main drain by a rubber connector and screw-downradiator hose clamps.

When the toilet was moved, it left the water connection hanging in the middle of a wall -- so that had to be moved as well.

If you think all this sounds like a lot of work to get a shower door open, you're right. But there are lessons to be learned here:

*There's probably no such thing as a simple plumbing job in a rehab, where you are modifying old, inflexible connections with modern materials.

*Before you consider moving any existing plumbing, try to get as much information as possible about the parts of it that are under the floor. A good plumber can usually make an educated guess about the under-floor installations.


*Don't set your heart on a particular plumbing situation; you may need alternatives.

*Since so much of plumbing is hidden under the floor or in the walls, any change in fixtures is likely to bring a corresponding need to tear out the floor covering, or to open a wall to install a vent pipe through the roof. Expect water, dirt and dust.

If one plumber tells you there's "no way" to do what you want, get a second opinion -- or a third. Unlikely as it seems, there's a lot of creativity in getting plumbing that works properly, meets code requirements, and goes where the customer wants. If you're paying for a masterpiece, you might as well hire an artist.