Home & Garden Columns

About the House: If You Think You Can’t Replace a Toilet, Think Again

By Matt Cantor
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 10:00:00 AM

Water conservation is a global warming issue and an energy issue and a cost issue. It’s global and it’s local. It’s a water availability issue and a pollution issue. The population of the planet was estimated at 6.2 billion in 2000 and expected to increase by 3 billion by 2025 (mostly in the developing world, of course, since we’re not allowed to talk about birth control or distribute condoms). That’s only 16 years from now.  

Many, if not most of the things that we need to do to stave off the ruin of our communities are within our grasp. Simple things like eating less beef and taking shorter showers. It’s hard to imagine how these things affect our atmosphere and the lives of people living in distant places but the work world is getting smaller and smaller and the planetary impact of everyday activities is becoming more discernible as the days pass. 

It may be surprising to learn (well, I was surprised, anyway) that toilets use 30-40 percent of the water in our homes, far exceeding all other single activities. Delivering water takes energy, electricity to be specific, since it’s pumped to our homes from great distances.  

While we do take advantage of the natural fall from the Sierras, we still use over 10 percent of our total state energy budget moving water. Making electricity generates carbon in many cases (we do have some hydroelectric power in the state as well as some nuclear) and this increases global warming as well as the acidity of the oceans just to mention two of the effects we’re aware of. 

As of Aug. 1 this year, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has us on a Drought Emergency Rate Schedule for water service. You’ve probably heard. Families will be expected to keep their use under 172 gallons per day or pay at a higher rate. The base rate is $2/100 cubic feet of water and goes up to as much as $3.05 if you can’t get your teenager out of the shower in something under an hour. 

With all this in mind, I suggest that you take on the, relatively simple, task of replacing one or more of your toilets. It’s actually not that hard. 

First, let’s take a look at low-flow toilets. I’d like to talk a little about them primarily because there are concerns about their effectiveness that I would like to dispel. The old guard of toilets from before the 1950s used roughly seven gallons per flush or over four times the current models. Toilets improved in water efficiency over the decades decreasing to 5.5, then 3.5 and eventually to our current 1.6 gallon models. There are even dual-flush models (developed originally in Australia where water conservation is a very big deal). These units allow you to designate what kind of deposit you’d like to make and potentially use less than a gallon for liquid equity investments. These are really worth looking at and it’s a very easy adjustment to make (several types already exist and they’re at the store waiting for you right now). 

While the early low-flow toilets often suffered from two-flush syndrome (they didn’t really flush effectively), most of our current stock are very effective as the industry has been forced to address these issues due to a huge financial incentive (how many toilets get sold each year?). 

Replacing a toilet is a relatively simple job in many but not all cases. If you have a house from before 1915, you may have a more complex job facing you and in any event it’s a good idea to be prepared to call an experienced plumber if you get stuck but this is very likely a job you can get through without calling for help if you have a modicum of experience with screwdrivers and pry-bars. 

Before you go shopping, measure the distance from the center of the toilet outflow at the base to the wall. There are usually two screws (sometimes covered with caps) located just to the right and left of the centerline of the outflow at the base. This is usually about 12 inches but you want to be sure. Modern toilets are often smaller than older toilets in this regard and end up with a gap at the back when replacing older ones. This isn’t a crisis but it’s good to plan ahead. 

If you shop at the better plumbing outfits, like Moran Supply or Rubenstein’s (both in Oakland), they will be able to give you very specific information about fit. At the dreaded big-box stores, which will remain nameless, you’ll be lucky to find the toilet you wanted in stock. I strongly recommend calling in advance to be sure there are several of the model you need. Consider a Toto as they’re on the best toilets on the market. Kohler and American Standard also make good quality china, while Gerber, Eljer and Briggs also make a valid contribution to this growing market (It’s hard to go wrong selling toilets!). 

Once you’ve picked out your model, be sure to also buy a new flexible water connector. There is one that is specifically for toilets, so be sure that the store gives you the right one. A good trick is to take the old one with you to be sure you have the right fittings on both ends. Some older shut-off valves (that the little valve near the floor that feeds water to the toilet) have oddly sized outputs and you want to be sure that your connector fits. Get it a little longer than you think you’ll need. This can prevent screaming plumber syndrome (not to mention saving gas not used going back to the store one more time). 

I actually favor replacement of this little shut-off valve if it doesn’t feel beyond your skill. When doing this, you’ll need to turn off the water to the house for a while and I would suggest you allow enough time to take the valve off and take it to the store. Again, this increases the likelihood that you’ll come back with the right one. 

The new toilet should be assembled according to the instructions (most need some assembly although many single piece toilets are ready to install right out of the box) and test fitted where the old toilet sat. When you unbolt the old toilet (it’s usually just two screws on the base (these may be under plastic or ceramic caps that you have to “pop” off with a screwdriver or putty knife) take a good look at the bottom and see how it fits. Look at the remains of the old wax ring and see what type it was. There are some that use only wax and some that include a plastic funnel shaped piece that is nested into the wax. 

Many older toilets used only wax and when plastic is used, you must be sure that is not inhibited and has a good seating because these can actually cause leaks. I usually buy one of each just to be sure and they cost so little that it’s not worth another trip to the store (have you detected a pattern here?). Actually, I usually buy two of the plain wax rings because they can be stacked for a better fit when the “flange” or ring the toilet will rest upon is much lower than the little snout on the bottom of the toilet. It’s not a big deal to use too much wax because it will just smoosh out when you seat the new one. 

It’s also a very good idea to get a new set of toilet bolts, nuts and caps (or covers). By removing the old toilet before you shop, you can remove the bolts and nuts from the old flange and take them with you. There are two common sizes and the person at the store can help you get the right ones. As soon as you see these two common sizes, you’ll know which one you need. Get two sets of washers so that one can be set on top of the flange and another on top of the base of the toilet. Install the bolts so that they stick straight up on the exact right and left of the hole in the flange (where the ‘gators come out). There are semi-circular slots with an entry point that is about 30º around from the place where they belong. When you remove the old ones you’ll see how this works. You put them into the opening and slide them around to the right spot and then tighten up a barbed washer or a small nut (depending on which you buy) that will hold the bolt upright. Then place the wax ring you’ve chosen right on top of the flange. Again, you’ll see that there is a specific place for it to sit and then … pick up the toilet and lower it carefully down onto the two bolts and the wax ring. A second person makes this easier especially if one can hold the toilet while the second guides it down (sort of a orbital docking kind of thing). 

At this point, I usually straddle the toilet and rock it gently until I’ve smooshed the wax enough to just reach the floor. One this is accomplished, you can put on a washer and nut on either side followed by plastic cap. (Note: most plastic caps have a base that goes under the washer and the nut so get the order right). 

Lastly, you can replace the valve if you bought one and the install the replacement flexible connector. Most replacement connectors come with rubber seals installed in either end. Make sure that they are there before you leave the store and again before you install. This is yet another scream inducer and gas waster. Also, I recommend that you use a metal covered “no-burst” connector to decrease the likelihood of a leak. 

There you have it. A way to save upwards of 25 percent of your water bill if the statisticians are correct. 

We’re all going to have to get used to much higher water cost and greatly increased water conservation over the coming decades. Changing toilets is easy and relatively cheap (do-it-yourselfers will generally pay under $250). Getting your teen out of the that shower in under an hour? When I figure that out, I’ll get back to you.