February 19, 2007: Adventures in Toiletry

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: March 3, 2008

This is not your typical outdoor adventure trip report... It takes place indoors during the gloomy SAD (seasonal affective disorder) months.

Either you can read the following shaggy story, possibly find it amusing, but then wonder why I bothered to tell the tale; or, you can hit the executive summary and skip the rest.

Key revelations:

  1. It's possible for a toilet fill valve to leak without ever making a sound. (This was an eye-opening education.)
  2. If you sneeze on old plumbing, it leaks. (I already knew this, but hoped it wouldn't be true this time.)

The sorry details...

Five years ago: Move into 11-year-old house with four bathrooms but pretty decent plumbing fixtures. Hope there's not much need to fix anything, like frequently changing faucet washers... So far this has been largely true. I did pre-emptively replace a lot of gray polybutyl (rupture risk) plumbing parts in Cathie's house next door, and my dishwasher hose too, just to be safe.

Anyway, my conservative habit is to turn off the water pressure in the house whenever I'm gone overnight. So far I haven't worn out the main valve in the basement (whew), which was provided by the city. (There's another identical valve below the water meter as a backup.)

About two years ago: Upon coming home and turning the pressure back on, notice that 4-5 gallons runs before it stops, and hear the sound of water going down the drainpipe... That's odd. Over time, seek out the source. (Must remember to check around the house before turning on the water!) Eventually observe that the main level toilet holding tank is empty after I've been gone for a week... Yup, that's odd.

Case closed? The flapper valve is open (not sealing), right? Well, yeah, but then I should hear the toilet refilling occasionally. But it never does... So that can't be the problem... Must be something else.

Last month: My city water bill shows "estimated" because, due to the cold weather, the ground has frozen and heaved under the fence gate, and the meter reader doesn't know to lift it a little to sneak around. (Despite taking a circular saw to the gate's pickets a while back when it first hung up. Ground must have heaved more.) This is of mild concern because, here in River City, your "winter quarter average" sets your wastewater rate for the next year. If you go over 3000 gallons in 3 months, effectively you pay ~6x the normal rate for the extra water.

(Actually ~12x! Later I looked it up. The cost for wastewater per extra 1000 gal of WQA water is now about the same as the cost per 1000 gal for fresh water year-round.)

In my testosterone-driven world, it's not the extra cost, it's beating the system the matters. There's no reason to go over 3000 gallons and pay more. And I haven't had that problem in years.

This month: New bill comes in with accurate reading, and it sez: 2300 gallons in 2 months. Oops, that's a problem. Weird too, since I'm over at Cathie's house so much.

Two days ago: Out to dinner with Cathie, shop afterward, including Home Depot for other stuff. What else do I need? Can't think of anything. I'm sure I'll be back soon, but who can predict the future?

Then: Do an experiment, turn off the pressure to the main level toilet. Hey, a little water drips out of the shutoff valve. Must need new valve stem packing, disassemble and do that... Within a few hours the tank is empty. Ouch! Fixing this just became Priority One.

(Never mind that there are three other toilets in the house, they are on different levels. :-)

Install new flapper valve (I had a spare in the house). Repeat experiment. No joy. Dang! Needs a new "flush valve". That's major, it requires taking the tank off the seal. I can never figure out why the hard plastic flapper valve seat on the flush valve goes bad, either.

Yesterday: Return to Home Depot. Buy flush valve ($6) plus bolt/gasket package ($4). Take apart toilet, admire massively corroded brass bolt heads on old tank-to-bowl bolts. Observe that shutoff valve no longer shuts the water all the way off... Sigh. Work with it dripping. "I know what I'm doing, I've done this before, be careful, hopefully it will all seal right up just fine when I'm done." Reassemble. Pressurize.

But, water leaks from the fill valve connection. Dang! Disassemble, apply teflon paste, reassemble, no joy, still leaks. Tank is now full, and also leaking from the new flush valve seal. Dang! Empty tank, turn off valve. Seems to really shut all the way off -- this time. Whew, I can leave it overnight.

Today: Turn off house water, pull shutoff valve core. Cheap plastic, but the washer looks OK, dunno why it was sloppy. Out to breakfast, then a third pilgrimage to HD, second time to the plumbing department. Buy new shutoff valve ($6), 9" hose ($4), and while I'm at it, a new fill valve ($6?) to replace the old float-style one that didn't give me any audible warnings. And buy a second shutoff valve of a different type 'cause I'm not sure which kind I need! One will go back.

(Taking back merchandise for a refund feels like male incompetence. Planning ahead to do so, moreso. But a little age and wisdom says this is smarter than getting home and finding you bought the wrong part, period.)

Back home: Go through the whole process again, methodically. Old shutoff valve body hard to remove, but eventually free. Install new valve, turn on house pressure, no leaks, yay. Mind meld with toilet tank, all parts and seals, reassemble completely. Turn it on... And it works. So far. (grin)

Toilet is happy, owner is relieved. Toilet should be happy, everything but the flush handle and seat is new. Owner can only hope it stays happy.

Epilogue: One year later, toilet is still happy, owner is relieved.