SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
In honor of my son-in-law coming over to replace the toilet in my house—as far as I know, the old one was original equipment—here’s the story from a few months back, about what happened that led to its retirement.
The best possible advice about home improvement comes in two simple words:
Call. A. Professional.
Okay, that’s three words. I screwed it up, just as I screw up every attempt to fix my home’s ancient and decrepit pluming. It’s a story old as time, just like my house.
I used to be smart about it. I used to rent. Sure, there was the possibility of an uncaring landlord who wouldn’t fix something, but at least it was on them, and not me.
But nooooo …. I had to buy a house.
My first attempt at home repair was to replace a leaky trap underneath my kitchen sink. A trap is the little curvy thing that keeps sewer gases from coming up, and also serves as the last line of defense against permanently lost wedding rings. My trap was of metal made in the 18 something’s, which was now no line of anything.
I didn’t know plumbing metal could get brittle. When I couldn’t get the couplings to turn, I hooked on a wrench and gave it a good, hard pull. The trap exploded in my face. It was a trap!
That’s not a metaphor—it literally exploded in my face. You’d think, after rinsing out my eyes and bandaging the cuts, I would have recognized that as a sign. But without money to pay a professional I persevered, which is to say continued failing.
Fast forward 23 years.
A faint sound coming from the toilet turned out to be a small leak of water, constantly going down the drain. There are far worse places the water could go, but it was still a waste. I looked into the back of the toilet, where all the fun innards are, and realized the easiest way to fix the problem would be to just take all the mechanical stuff out and replace it in one piece.
The very definition of “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.
At the store, I found exactly what was needed: the whole thingamajig, almost totally assembled and ready to be plugged right in. It even said on the box the two most important things you want to read: “Fits all toilets”, and “easy installation”. It could be installed in minutes, the packaging explained, which I automatically expanded to hours.
My wife checked the first aid kit and retreated to a safe position that was close enough to hear cries of pain. In truth, she’s better at this stuff than I am once she’s tried it the first time, but this particular job she hadn’t done before. I should have just left it to her, anyway.
At first the dog, who wasn’t around last time this happened, followed me around with wagging tail. After the first hour of hearing me talk to myself and read instructions out loud Bae continued to follow me, but kept his distance and wore a puzzled expression.
The first thing you should do is turn off the water to the toilet. Modern toilet installations have a valve you can turn. Mine was installed in the early 1900’s by a blind kid and two drunken monkeys. All untrained.
After some searching in the basement, it became clear I’d have to turn off all the water in the house, and fortunately there is a valve for that. Afterwards I marched back upstairs, emptied the toilet, and watched it fill up again.
Another trip downstairs. Yes, the main water line was turned off. Maybe it was water still in the lines? I opened a downstairs tap. Nothing came out. Upstairs, I flushed the toilet. It began filling again.
Another trip downstairs. Carefully following the maze of piping revealed that there was a way to isolate the toilet after all, by turning two different valves. Unfortunately, that shut off water to the furnace, which uses hot water radiators to heat the house; the water was back-feeding from the radiators into the toilet. Apparently it never occurred to the two drunken monkeys that the toilet might need to be fixed during winter.
An hour in, and the new packaging had not yet been opened.
You have to reach under the back of the toilet and unscrew stuff to take the internal fixtures out, something I didn’t know until after opening the instructions. The day before I’d hurt my back shoveling snow, so curling up on the floor of my miniscule bathroom was a new adventure in pain. (It was at about this time that the dog started keeping its distance.)
Still, removing the old stuff turned out to be easy once I figured out how. The biggest problem was that all the water in the back didn’t drain out until I disconnected the water line, then it all came out at once. Not to worry: I always have a stack of towels waiting. Better water than blood.
Then I took a closer look at the instructions for the “easy” installment of my new whatchamacallit:
There were nineteen steps. Nineteen.
And get this: The stuff that was all together, so that all I had to do was put it in? It had to be taken apart first. Yeah. There were three individual whojamadiggys in the package, and one was a little setup of two washers, and two plastic nuts, already connected to a long, curved plastic … thing. They all had to be separated. One rubber washer turned out to be two washers, which were apparently made one inside the other to save money. It didn’t say how to separate them. By then I was ready to use a chain saw.
Next week: It gets worse.