(For fixing a wobbly toilet, or installing a new one.)
If I learned one thing from my first day of work with the Handy Maniac, it was: I need to go shopping.
At first, HM is excited when I tell him this, thinking I want to buy some tools.
“No,” I clarify. “I need a new outfit. Like yours.”
“I DO NOT. WEAR. OUTFITS.”
“You wear the same thing every day: Carpenter’s pants, a pocketless T-shirt (short sleeved in summer, long sleeved in winter), crew socks, work shoes (Vibram sole, ankle height), a belt with your Leatherman and a pocket flashlight attached. Sometimes you hook a tape measure to it. What do you call that?”
“WORK CLOTHES. As opposed to CHURCH CLOTHES.”
“We don’t go to church.”
I don’t bite. “If I am going to be serious about learning this trade, I need the right attire. I can already see the need for the side-leg pant pocket: So I don’t break my pencils and have to keep Abe Lincoln-ing them.”
He can’t argue with the logic or subtle flattery. He hands over a $20. “Fine. Go to Modell’s for the pants. But everything else – go to the basement!” (This is where HM has tool aprons, old Leathermen, flashlights, and every piece of crap he has ever taken off of a job…in triplicate.)
I am giddy as I pull on my new 5-pocket Smith’s denim carpenter’s pants. My favorite part of any new job is figuring out the perfect outfit. I figure if I have the right costume, it will help me slide into my new role. The problem is, I usually show up in what I imagine the right costume is, not what people actually wear. For example, Bun-ettes at Nathan’s Famous July Fourth Hotdog Eating Contest don’t actually wear red mini-skirts, sequined tank tops, high-heeled sandals and dangly star earrings or have big hair. Go figure.
Tackling the Toilet
Today, HM is responding to an emergency call at our local watering hole, where there is water leaking into the basement.
He has already diagnosed the problem. “Water was showing up in the basement and we didn’t know where it was from. The supply pipe connections seemed solid. Went down to basement. Flushed the toilet. And water showed up. So we figured it was the toilet.”
I marvel at the deductive reasoning. “I suspect a loose wax ring around the base of the toilet,” he continues. He is wearing rubber gloves and holding a bottle of Lysol bleach bathroom spray like a cocked pistol. “First thing you do is clean. Because you know you’re going to be handling it.”
“Hang on,” I say, starting to get an inkling of what’s in store. “Are you saying we have to take off the toilet bowl? Is this really something a home owner can take on?”
He assures me this is all in a homeowner’s grasp. But he does caution: “This is a public facility that gets a lot of use, so it is going to be a worse situation than it would be in a home.”
I decide this is an excellent time to type up some notes. From about twenty feet away.
After cleaning the toilet and floor thoroughly, HM removes the toilet seat and carefully sets it aside. Next, he shuts the water supply to the toilet off. He flushes to get rid of water in the tank, and plunges the toilet to get rid of the water in the bowl. Then he disconnects the hose line from the toilet tank and drains it into a small bowl. “DOGGIE BOWLS WORK GREAT,” he calls out. It does seem preferable to anything a human will ever eat out of again.
Now the toilet is completely empty of water. Here’s the fun part:
“Sometimes the Johnny bolts are too rusty to get off with wrenches.” We debate how to spell Johnny. (Jonni, Johny, Jonnie) The Internet doesn’t really settle it. It takes me awhile to realize they are called Johnny bolts because they bolt the “John” to the floor. There are a lot of terms like this in his line of work. I start to contemplate an OED for construction. ...but I am jolted back to the reality.
“The amount of water and urine has completely disintegrated these bolts.”
All together now: GROSS. (And sorry, but this happens in private homes too.)
He gets out the HACK SAW. “You need to be careful not to scratch the porcelain when sawing right at the bolt,” he warns. “Sometimes you saw DOWN THRU the bolt. Sometimes it’s LOOSEY-GOOSIE and you can get underneath it and saw ACROSS the bolt. You’ll figure it out.”
He removes the toilet. “That’s where the wax ring is supposed to be.”
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. THE FOLLOWING PHOTOS CONTAIN GRAPHIC IMAGES OF TOILET REPAIR THAT ME BE UPSETTING TO SOME.
1. With the toilet removed, it is clear the wax ring has deteriorated. 2. The paper towel trick to block sewer fumes. 3. Removing the WHOLE SHEBANG to fix broken flange and waste pipe problems. (Grad-level). 4. Installing a new flange.
“YOU WANT A TIP?” he calls out.
“Always. That’s what we’re here for!”
“While you’re working on an open toilet drain, take a wad of paper towels, preferably wrapped in plastic and put it in the hole to stop the fumes from coming up from the basement/sewer while you’re working.” (See photo 2, above.)
Well, maybe not always.
“VERY IMPORTANT. DON’T FORGET TO TAKE IT OUT BEFORE YOU PUT THAT TOILET BACK ON.”
Spoken like a man who has made that mistake.
“Now you go back and PREPARE THE FLANGE.”
I think this sounds noble: "Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant! Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die, salute you!”
He ignores me as he scrapes off the water-damaged wax ring (now deteriorated by urine and water and gunked-up with dirt) and places it on old newspaper.
“LOOKIE HERE!” He says triumphantly. “We’ve got a BROKEN FLANGE. Which explains EVERYTHING.”
“What’s a flange?”
“It’s right here at the top of the waist line.” He points and I realize he means waste line. In some wishful listening, I have heard the homonym. This job is making it hard for me to stay in the present. It is triggering a strong escape response.
“It’s a receiver that receives the bolts to the toilet and the wax ring. It connects the bottom of the toilet and the top of the flange.”
“You have to MUCK AROUND to get the broken flange up.” He pries and bangs with various pliers.
I look up from my Instagram of construction photos and he has disappeared. I hear scratching and poking like a rat trying to come up the paper-towel-stuffed hole. I realize he has gone to the basement. (Can you spot HM and his flashlight below?)
When he returns I ask what he was doing. I don’t want to miss out on any crucial steps.
“Disconnecting the 4-inch pipe down in the basement so I can pull up the WHOLE SHEBANG and diagnose it up here.”
After much twisting and yanking he announces: “THIS IS HOW YOU GET TETANUS! Time to go to PLAN B.”
“Call a plumber?”
He agrees this is beyond the typical home-repair job: “This is basically like a Myth Buster’s explosion gone bad.” Still, we are not beyond HM’s skill set. So you, dear reader, get to witness this slight detour into advanced techniques.
He pulls out his corded drill and drills out the flange. Once he has the whole thing out, he decides to check the other connections in the basement, suspecting some of those may be bad. “GOOD A TIME AS ANY,” he says as he heads towards the basement for the twelfth time.
I’m starting to feel like a fraud in my carpenter’s pants.
“Can I do anything?” I offer half-heartedly.
He hands me a bucket and tells me to pour it slowly down the floor drain so he can check for leaks down below. I do this job very well, IMHO. I am learning the fine art of patience. Just a week ago I would have sloshed the water all over the floor, pouring too fast. But now I am slow and steady.
“ARE YOU DONE YET???”
“I am doing it slowly. Like you asked.”
“WE DON’T HAVE ALL DAY!” He finds a couple more slight leaks on the connecting pipes. “Nothing too tragic.” They just require some band-tightening.
He returns. Now he has to rebuild the whole busted section he has pulled out: flange and waste pipe. He re-sets the newly-rebuilt waste pipe and screws in the new flange. (He Boy-Scouts it and cements in the new flange since this is a high-volume facility). He inserts the Johnny bolts into the key ways on the flange so they are sticking up, ready to go through the holes in the base of the toilet.
The Part the Homeowner Can Do
Now we are back to where the homeowner can rejoin us: The final step. The new wax ring.
Remember: typically the flange is fine in most houses, the toilet bowl has just gotten loose. “So lets assume all this nonsense was a grad school course. A typical homeowner can lift the toilet away to see the underside, clean off the old wax ring – and seat the new wax ring on the base. There are different thicknesses of wax rings. …”
“Uh oh,” I say. He sighs. He is not about to get into the finer points of wax-ring thickness. “Just have a discussion with your retailer.” Anyone who’s selling them should be able to talk you through the tile issues in your bathroom that dictate the thickness you should use. You want the wax to be thicker than the gap it is filling (and that’s determined by your floor tile).
He sticks the wax ring on the base of the toilet, then drops it carefully on top of the Johnny bolts. “THIS IS PROBABLY A TWO-MAN JOB.” Once the wax is pushing against the top of the toilet and the flange, jiggle the bowl to compress the wax.
“I like to use toilet bolt caps (sometimes called china caps), to keep urine off the bolts.” Good plan.
You put the base of the china cap on over the bolt, then the bolt’s metal washer, then the nut. Then you might have to saw off the bolt to fit the cap on top. (See photo.)
“I like to the jiggle toilet as I am tightening to see if I have a bad spot on the floor. I want to make the toilet level,” he explains. If it moves too much, take plastic toilet shims and place them under the base until it is steady and level. (Place your level across the bowl.) Cut the shims if they protrude.
Last step: Flush the toilet a few times to check for leaks. When you’re satisfied that there are no leaks and the toilet is centered and level, tighten the bolts down. “Don’t go crazy tightening,” he warns. You just want the bolts firm and for the toilet not to rock when someone sits on it.)
“The last thing I do is put a bead of clear silicone around the whole base. THIS IS IMPORTANT.” He likes to seal the deal.
As we go over the fine tuning of the article over a well-earned beer, HM’s frustration is palpable. He suggests that this column may be OUT OF SEQUENCE. “People are always wondering why the handle jiggles and the toilet keeps running….Maybe we should address those issues first.”
I argue that this is what the day brought. It’s part of being the Handy Maniac. This is Blogging Verité. Besides. I am not writing another post by tomorrow.