Ideas from Ed: Toilet training

“Ideas from Ed” (February 2020)

Ed is a do-it-yourselfer who is happy to share some of his ideas and experiences in this monthly column.

This month:  Toilet training

Toilets have a bad habit of leaking.  Somewhere.  The problem is that there are a lot of “somewheres” that can be problematic.  If the toilet is just leaking water from a tank-into-bowl scenario, for example, it’s a nuisance and wasteful, but not a huge problem.  However, if the floor is getting wet from leakage, immediate action is needed.

Unless yours is something “special” like a one-piece design, a wall-hung unit, or something like that, leaks can come from the supply line and valve, the supply line to fill valve connection, the tank-to-bowl bolts, the flush valve to tank connection, the tank-to-bowl gasket, and even the bowl-to-floor “wax ring” or gasket. 

This month’s “patient” for the toilet doc had a leaky tank-to-bowl bolt connection.  Here’s a pic, without the normal drop of water clinging to it or showing the wet spot on the floor that indicated the leak:

As with most plumbing projects, the first step is to shut off the water.  If you have a functioning valve right below the toilet, it’s easy.  If not, shut off the supply wherever your valve is (you do HAVE a shutoff, don’t you?).  As a last resort, you can shut off the main supply, but then all fixtures in the house will be out of commission until your work is done.  BTW, if your shutoff valve fails to completely stop the water supply, add that onto your list of need-to-repair items.  Here’s the shutoff at this toilet:

Then, flush the toilet and “swoosh” as much water into the drain as possible.  Then, use your sponge and sop up the rest into a pan or even into the toilet bowl itself.  This is NOT toilet-contaminated water, so don’t be squeamish about inserting your hands into it.  However, rubber parts, accumulated mineral deposits, and assorted “gunk” in there will make a temporary mess of your hands.  You can wear rubber gloves, but as with many plumbing projects, there’s not a lot of room to work, and I find that gloves make it harder to function.  Here’s my hand with a sponge, sopping up the water:

The bolt heads really are there, but with quite a build-up of scale over them, they are nearly obscured.  There are usually 2, but some toilets have 3.

You can possibly chip away some of the scale, enough to get the head of a large screwdriver into the slot of the bolt.  Then depending on how things are attached, you may or may not be able to remove the bolt easily, with an adjustable wrench or pliers under the bowl on the nut or wingnut that’s there. 

I say you “may or may not” be able to remove the bolts because there are 2 ways that the bolts may be installed.  Look at this picture and the notes I’ve added:

The method shown on the left has a nut (usually thinner, called a “jam nut”) immediately under the tank, pulling the inside-of-tank washer tight against the tank.  The lower nut clamps the tank down onto the bowl, but really doesn’t have an effect on the tightness of the inner rubber washer.  In the second method, shown on the right, the bolt goes through a washer (in the tank), through the space between tank and bowl, and is pulled tight from a nut below the bowl.  If the tank is assembled using method 2, the screws can be undone and removed without taking the tank off.  If attached by method 1, the tank must be removed entirely so the between-tank-and-bowl nut can be undone.  That’s how this particular toilet was assembled, so the lower nuts were undone, the tank lifted off the bowl, and then the inner nuts removed.  Of course, the water supply line had to be disconnected.

By the way, both methods are “right”, but I like method 1 if there’s enough space between the tank and bowl for that jam nut.  If the fit is too tight, you’ll need to use method 2.  With either method, but especially with method 1, you absolutely must not overtighten the nut, or you’ll crack the porcelain and will need to replace the whole toilet!  This is the only part of this whole procedure that’s an “art”, since there are no specific details on how tight is enough, or how tight is too much!  I’d say finger tight plus a smidge more, if that makes sense.

Here’s the tank on its back with the bolts being removed.  You will note that the large rubber gasket on the main discharge doesn’t look very nice, so this was a good time to replace it, too:

That main gasket just twists and pulls off, and a new one just pushes on.  Take the old one to the plumbing store with you to be sure the new one you purchase matches the old one in hole diameter, thickness, and shape. 

Clean up the areas around the bolt holes, especially on the inside of the tank, and then either install the bolts (method 1) or place the tank onto the bowl and then insert the bolts through their holes.

Or: 

Here are a few words about the bolts themselves.  Most are brass, which is relatively corrosion-free, especially as compared to raw steel or even galvanized steel.  If you’re really, really lucky, you might still find an old hardware store (or perhaps custom-order) tank bolts that are stainless steel.  In any case, be sure that all hardware used (washers, nuts, wingnuts, etc.) are either brass or stainless.  Here’s a picture of a stainless steel bolt (silver) and a brass bolt (orange/yellow color) for comparison.  You can test if hardware is stainless because a magnet won’t attract it.

Now, with the tank in place on the bowl, tighten the under-bowl nuts enough that the tank won’t dramatically rock (a little jiggle is OK) but again, don’t overtighten.  Throw a level onto the tank to be sure it’s perched properly and one side isn’t tightened more than the other.

Here’s a picture after the final tightening was done, showing the connection via method #1.  It clearly shows that if there’s not room for the jam nut, you’ll need to use connection method 2.  Note that under the bowl is a rubber washer (against the porcelain), then a stainless steel flat washer, and then the nut.  By the way, using wingnuts instead of regular nuts helps to minimize the likelihood of overtightening:

Double-check everything, then you can re-connect the supply line (hand tighten only!)  Turn on the water, and check that the toilet fills and flushes properly, and that there are no leaks.  If you followed my procedure above, you should be good to go (pun intended!).

I hope all your projects go well.  Thanks for reading, and happy restoring!

Ed