Life in the Toilet

October 14th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

One of my probably too often repeated shticks is how I want a super. When you pay mortgage instead of rent, you are the super.

I suppose the rich or indolent types call someone when the toilet stops working, the sink leaks or the light switch doesn’t switch. Having grown up moving every couple of years between small, medium or large towns, I liked the apartments with superintendents best. Where we had to fix things, that we was invariably I, as the alleged man of the house headed by a divorced mom.

Many little useful skills were part of the non-super life. They are at least as useful as camping and survival knowledge from Scouts and family. Yet, every time the house presents an awful or new repair challenge, I long to pick up the phone.

Toilet trek

Head down, face inches from the procelain bowl, I was not re-enacting the stereotype of penance for overdrinking. In fact, I was using all my weight and force to set the wax ring under the new toilet.

At that moment, even knowing that not even tap water had yet touched the bowl, I knew the cultural, hygienic bias against that receptacle for human waste. It took me back decades to a college course we j-school students all seemed to take — a vocabulary curriculum based on Havilah Babcock‘s I Want a Word. I don’t recall whether porcelain is in the book or the prof added it, but I do recall the etymology. While some dictionaries use the derivative basis of cowrie shell, that comes from its resemblance in color and shape to a sow’s vulva. Apparently farmers can tell you how the whiteness and folds bring hidden pig parts to mind. Thus, whether for waste handling or food display, porcelain ware is forever smirking.

When water dripping down from the first floor roused me in my basement office, I could have used a super. The toilet was gushing from its failed valve inside the tank.

The very old-style toilet still looked easy enough to retrofit with new works, but nooooooooooooo. I had replaced the parts in other tanks and figured this was a one-hour fix. Instead, the metal fittings inside were frozen to each other. No amount of tools and straining could loosen them for the fix.

In a final effort, I figured that if I got the tank off, I might be able to turn it to leverage the self-welded connection. Of course, the bolts and nuts holding the tank has been dripped on for decades and were also petrified beyond wrench power.

Pressing middle son Eli into service, we paired to remove one nut/bolt set. He then used a small hacksaw for a long time from underneath while I used the big screwdriver above. Eventually, we got the second bolt and the tank off. It was a wasted effort. The connection to the works was so fused, we could not budge it.

Well, simple enough, right? I’ll just replace tank and affix the new one to the bowl. After all, it’s an Eljer, a brand with lots of installations. Not so fast, handyman.

Neither Home Depot nor Lowe’s had anything comparable. after finding the gigantic supply place (Economy) in Mattapan closed on Columbus Day, I was there early Tuesday to find new disappointment. Regular readers know how I love to point out the provincialism of the Boston area, where even simple shopping often requires finding the one local spot that carries something. This case transcends that.

I ended up going to three plumbing suppliers to find that this or that did not carry Eljer. Finally, I got assurance that Ellsworth in Dorchester did. I was crushed again to learn 1) they do have some Eljer, but the company hadn’t sold my tank model for many years, 2) that tank’s holes for connection to the bowl are not a current standard, so other brands wouldn’t fit, 3) if they could get the exact replacement, they would need a special order, which would be both as expensive as a whole toilet and take a long time.

Learning experience

Happening to have the compendium of home repair from Reader’s Digest (a self-serving gift from my mom when I was her super), I saw that installing a new toilet was not a very big deal. In fact, it should be quicker and easier than the work Eli and I had already put into the failed repair.

Heading home with a van one-third filled with porcelain and related goodies, I recalled a second of our four toilets that needed replacement tank works. At least I still had those I had bought for the first-floor unit.

Sure enough, replacing a toilet where there’s existing framing and pipe is not all that big a chore. I did make one mistake — a honking big wax ring goes under the bowl the seal the works to the flange in the floor. I scraped and rubbed the disgusting previous wax off and got the toilet ready to tighten to the floor, when I saw the plastic gasket that should be in the drain. It was clean and ready to use, but on the floor across the bathroom. Harrumph.

A trip to the hardware store for a new wax ring preceded lifting off the new bowl and scraping away the not-yet-disgusting wax. Then I found myself leaning, pressing, twisting and looking down into the bowl to flatten and spread the wax for many years of leak-free evacuations and flushings.

How does that line in Matthew 11 run? Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Of course the necessary, cynical corollary is that there is no rest for the weary.

Ecuadorean torture

If you pardon, flush with success on the ground floor, I looked at the leftover Korky toilet-valve kit and may have spoken aloud to myself, “This won’t take long.” That’s always the teaser in a sitcom.

Sure enough, the basement toilet I had shut off a month before for its water running slowly but non-stop into the bowl would torment me. I had replaced the flapper, but its troubles were in the valve instead. The period of ignoring it were over. Here came Toilet Man!

Well, this newer model must have been on sale when the previous owner paid for the half-bath across the basement from the office. As I bent to check the connections, I noticed MADE IN ECUADOR. Other than hippie hats knitted with alpaca wool, what’s made in Ecuador? Not good toilets, I soon learned.

I had no reason to check in or under that toilet, other than to replace the flapper. Doing that, I had noticed that the bolts connecting the tank and bowl were heavily rusted. I was willing to ignore that last month. Oh ho.

Feeling under the tank and looking against the wall, I saw that the bolt were not plumbing-standard brass, but some ferrous metal. They also had lousy washers and had dripped and leaked, like for years at a slow rate. Suddenly, I felt like a surgeon going in a patient for a simple operation and finding a questionable tumor.

The short of it is that:

  • I needed another trip to the hardware store for a decent set of bolts, nuts and washers. Those came in keen professional plumber toilet installation blister pack.
  • Removing the now corroded and frozen bolts and nuts was serious work but within 30 or 40 minutes, I had chipped away to rust in and under the tank, and used pliers, wrenches and screwdrivers to get them out.
  • The valve was also nasty, but once the tank was on its side, I was finally able to work my leverage scheme that failed upstairs.
  • I replaced the parts, reassembled all, and cleaned up the bowl, seat and floor from all the rust, grime and I-don’t-want-to-know that oozed, flowed or rubbed out.

My wife suggests that we celebrate, a potty party as it were. (Imagine getting Bostonians to differentiate between those words.)

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2 Responses

  1. Uncle says:

    You did well…and you did nobly not to dwell too much on the fact that the household lares et penates conspire to make sure this stuff happens on holidays. One more reason to be glad the Blue laws have (almost) gone away.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Big yuck under Mnemosyne’s prodding — a Thanksgiving with the kitchen sink and disposal clogged beyond my ability…and 16 guests awaiting dinner.

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