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How To Plumbing Series: Toilets, Part 1

How To Plumbing Series: Toilets, Part 1

See the first post for a brief introduction on this How To Plumbing Series

In the first two installments of the How To Plumbing Series we looked at plumbing emergencies. Over the next several posts we will shift our focus to — drum roll please — toilets.

Yep. There’s a lot to know about toilets.

How a Toilet Works

Let’s get the basics out of the way first: How does a toilet work?

A toilet has two major components:

  • the tank
  • the bowl

The tank stores water to flush out the bowl. A little known fact: The tank water is actually fresh water and drinkable, which may come in handy if there ever is a zombie apocalypse.

  • When you press the handle (or in some instances, pull a chain) the stopper in the bottom of the tank opens and allows the water to drain out of the tank into the bowl.
  • As water from the tank enters the bowl it overflows and the excess water runs out of the bottom of the bowl into the drain line underneath.
  • As water goes down the drain, a siphon is created to pull the contents of the bowl with it.
  • Siphoning continues until there is no more water in the bowl and air enters the drain.
  • The air breaks the siphon and more water enters to bowl to refill.
  • If too little water is used to flush out the bowl, little or no siphoning occurs and the bowl is not purged.
  • If the water from the tank enters too slowly, water runs down the drain but there isn’t enough to start a siphon.
  • To flush out the bowl completely, there must be enough water and it must pour in suddenly.
  • When most of the water drains from the tank, the stopper drops back into place and the tank begins to refill, along with the bowl.
  • The water level rises inside the tank until it reaches the float and lifts it high enough to shut off the fill valve.
  • The next time the toilet is flushed, the process is repeated: The water drains out, the float drops down and the fill valve opens and starts water flowing into the tank.-
  • Because low flow toilets use less water, the pressure generated by gravity may be too low to purge the bowl. The force of the water is increased with a jet assist device. The jet assist blasts the water through the bowl, cleaning it while using less water.

We will look at various toilet issues, most of which homeowners can troubleshoot and fix themselves. In some instances, or if you’d prefer not to mess with toilet problems, you can call a Decatur or Hartselle, AL plumber for assistance.

How To Install a Toilet

Replacing a toilet is something most homeowners can do.

It’s not too difficult, although . . .

  • The tank and bowl can be heavy and awkward for some to carry, hold, and position.
  • Toilets are often installed in “water closets” inside the larger bathroom and this small space can be cramped for some people to work in.

If any of these present a problem for you, call a Decatur or Hartselle plumber for assistance. Even if a professional plumber does the work for you, it shouldn’t be too costly.

Otherwise, there are a number of steps to take to successfully install a toilet, which should take about one or two hours too complete.

Before You Begin

Before you begin, a word of advice:

Verify that the new toilet will fit. Before you go new-toilet shopping at a Decatur or Hartselle home improvement center or a plumbing supply, note the dimensions of the existing toilet and the location where it’s installed. Some newer models, particularly low flow toilets or taller potties (easier for people to sit down on), may have a wider base or are longer, which could cause installation problems for some. If you don’t want to mess with dimensions, take a picture of the toilet and its installation with your phone in case you need to refer to it while shopping.

Make sure you have the needed tools, properly sized, at the ready for when you need them. There is nothing more frustrating and time-wasting than starting a project and having to go to the garage to find the right wrench or screwdriver.

Removing the Old Toilet

Turn off the water

Yes, homeowners forget to do this.

Drain the toilet

See previous comment.

If there is any water left in the tank or bowl, use an old towel to soak it up and reduce any mess that results.

Disconnect the water line

Easy to do.

You should be able to do this by hand. If not, use slip-joint pliers to loosen the nut and get you started. Have an old towel handy or small container to catch any water from the hose and fill valve.

Old Toilet: Separating the tank from the bowl

Mostly easy to do.

  • Separate the tank nuts and bolts from the bowl. You will have to loosen the screw inside the tank while holding the nut under the bowl. You may need to vice grip or slip-joint pliers to help loosen the nut.
  • As you loosen the tank bolts, any water left in the tank will spill onto the floor. Placing a towel on the floor behind the bowl will help to contain the mess.
  • Once the two apart, set the tank out of the way. Use part of the cardboard box the new toilet shipped in to set the old parts on to avoid damaging flooring.


  • If the tank bolts will not loosen because the nuts are corroded in place, try spraying the nuts with penetrating oil. Give the oil time to work and then give it another try.
  • If they still hold fast, then you will probably have to cut the tank bolts. One option is to use mini-hacksaw to saw between the bolt head and the tank or the nut and the bowl. Most bolts are brass and not too difficult to saw through. Be sure to use a metal cutting blade.
  • Another option is to drill out the tank bolt. To drill out the bolt, you will need a metal cutting drill bit of the same diameter as the tank bolt. You should drill at low speed and keep the drill perpendicular to the ground. Start drilling in the exact center of the bolt head. Drill down about half an inch. This will weaken the bolt enough that you can pry up the head or easily cut it off with a mini-hacksaw. Be careful to drill straight down, if you hit the ceramic tank material, you may damage it beyond repair.

Remove the nuts securing the bowl to the floor

Removing the nuts that secure the old bowl to the floor is easy.

  • The toilet bowl is held in place primary by gravity and two small bolts. Snap open the bolt covers on either side of the bowl. Use a wrench or pliers to remove the nut from each bolt.
  • Some installations use caulking between the foot of the bowl and the floor. Use a razor knife to cut through any caulking before attempting to lift the bowl.
  • Also, before removing the bowl, have a place prepared to set it down. The heavy bowl can scratch floors, will spill some water and will have a sticky wax gasket underneath. A sheet of cardboard or a heavy towel will work well.
  • Carefully lift the bowl straight up (using your knees, not your lower back!) until it clears the bolts and move it out of the way.
  • Take a large rag, towel, or wad of newspaper and stuff it into the drain in the floor. Just make sure it is large enough not to accidentally fall down into the drain. Sealing the drain will help keep sewer gas from entering the room and prevent you from dropping tools and parts down the hole.

Next Up

Installing a new toilet.