Low-flow Toilets: How (Not) To Install One

Winston Churchill (who had an American mother) is supposed to have once quipped in a moment of wartime frustration with his best allies that:

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

I'm a bit like that as a handyman. The job gets done, usually without serious injury or loss of expensive parts, and gets done fairly well. But it rarely seems to be as smooth, efficient, or rapid as it could possibly be. But perhaps my bumblings can save you a bit of time. Let's see--if, that is, you want or need to replace an older, inefficient toilet.

Upgrading to low-flow toilets is a popular DIY project these days, and for good reason. If you have older toilets, you are probably using from three and a half to six gallons per flush. (Mine used about 4.5 gpf.) A modern low-flow model uses 1.28 gpf. For simplicity, let's say that the saving is 3 gpf. Obviously, the water used will be the gallons per flush times the number of flushes times per day. So, if there are ten flushes per day, 30 gallons will be saved daily--and 900 gallons monthly, or 9,195 gallons a year.

For some of us, those numbers will produce dollar savings worth mentioning. Some--especially those of us who live in areas whose water supply is stressed or at risk--may just wish to do our bit to help conserve a valuable resource. And for those concerned about carbon footprint, all that water is pumped electrically--and the biggest proportion of US electricity, nearly half of the total, is generated by the most carbon intensive method--burning coal. (You can read more about that at this link.)

And there's another motivation, too. Like any other device, toilets wear out. This is a great time to replace them, as many areas are offering subsidies to go to low flow units. In our case, we picked high efficiency units priced at $106. They are eligible for $100 rebates. (Enough said.)

So, what's the project like? Not too bad. Let's go step-by-step.

Image courtesy McGill & Wikipedia Commons.
Image courtesy McGill & Wikipedia Commons.

That old toilet's got to go. . . OK, that was bad.

The first step is removing the old toilet. As shown in the image above, most toilets are 2-piece affairs, with separate tank and bowl. So you have a choice of removing the pieces separately or as a unit. Most people prefer to remove the pieces separately for ease of handling. However, situations are different, and a shelf unit above and behind our toilet restricts access to the inside of the tank. Since that's where the bolts holding tank and bowl together are, it made more sense in my situation to remove both as a unit--which means no pictures of this part of the process!

Luckily, it's not hard to figure out how to remove the tank. First, turn off the water! (There's virtually always a valve controlling the water supply to the toilet. You can see a photo of this below.) Then flush the toilet to empty as much water as possible. You can bail out, or soak up, the rest of the water in the tank if you like, or simply put a container under the first bolt you remove from the tank--realizing that you'll have some mopping of the floor to do.

Once the bolts are removed, disconnect the water line. The tank can then simply be lifted off the bowl and set aside.

Old base, bolt with decorative cap

Removing the bowl

Removing the bowl--with or without tank attached--starts with removing the decorative caps covering the bolts at the sides of the bowl's base.  The photo above shows the bolt, with the cap next to it.  The covers differ, but usually it's just a matter of pulling or prying it up.  Perhaps some may unscrew, though I haven't encountered any that do.

If you're lucky the nut will look more or less like the one above--it's a bit corroded, but not so much so as to be frozen to the bolt--and not like the one below.

Old bolt

Bad bolt options--and how not to illustrate a Hubpage

This is a closeup of the other bolt.  The glop on the right is wax from the tank seal, but the salient fact is that the nut is corroded right onto the bolt.  It just isn't going to come off.

(By the way, you'd be able to see this much better had I not chosen to document this project using my cellphone camera.  Clearly, a second-best choice--or maybe not even that good.  Lesson learned.  And sorry about that.)

You have several options for removing the bolts in situations like this, as shown in the next several photos.

Tool of choice for removing old bolts

But we've already established that that didn't work in my case. In fact, the shoulders of the nut were so corroded that the socket couldn't grip them.  So. . .

Next best tool for removing old bolts

Sometimes a large pair of slip-joint pliers, such as these, can firmly grip what the wrench cannot. But that didn't work either, since the nut and bolt were firmly "at one." And there really wasn't enough space to try to hold the bolt end still with a second set of pliers. So, could I cut the bolt. . .?

Maybe a Jigsaw can cut that old bolt

Not with a jigsaw. . . the base meant that I couldn't get the blade onto the bolt.

Or perhaps the Hacksaw can reach it better

The hacksaw could at least reach the bolt, but I wasn't sure that there was enough clearance to cut all the way through.  I didn't want to damage the finish on the porcelain.  And the nut really got in the way, making progress glacially slow.  So. . .

Tool of last resort (but it's guaranteed to work)

Remember, the title of this page starts, "How (not)".  I'm not recommending use of a hammer, OK?  Broken porcelain has some really, seriously sharp edges, and a person could cut themselves very seriously.  (A broken casserole lid once got me for a trip to the ER and several stitches.)

It's just what I chose to do.  And I was awfully careful cleaning up those sharp bits of porcelain, as well as handling the old toilet--understandably, I suppose, given that casserole lid episode lurking in the back of my mind.

Clean up tool of choice

A vacuum is about the only thing that will get all the small shards. It also keeps them far away from your fingers during the cleaning process, which is a very good thing. Of course, I started by sweeping up the larger pieces . . . carefully.

At this point, I needed a break. Having made one questionable choice, it's important not to have the consequences of that choice create a cascade of further bad choices. So I took a few minutes to clear my head, let the frustration disperse, and just think about the project in an unpressured sort of a way.

All this is to say that managing one's mood is important during any DIY project. Calm is the most important tool we have.

An especially powerful tool

Looking back, I'm wondering about this choice, too.

Dirty Floor/Clean Floor

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Here's a before-and-after set of the area. It's worth mentioning that the "before" set isn't nearly as nasty as it might appear to be. The smudges are a compound of rust, ordinary dirt, and that sticky wax from the seal that I mentioned. No need to feel squeamish!

Note that the flange is plastic, and sits above the tiles. Older flanges are metal, which has the unfortunate habit of corroding. And when the tile is laid over the original floor, the flange is very apt to be below tile level.   (Both were true of the other installation I did in our house.)  More about that later.

Flange with new hardware

Nice new shiny bolts!  One is in place already.  The instructions for our new unit didn't make clear where the plastic washers were supposed to go, but it seemed logical to me that they should go between the metal nut and the porcelain of the base of the bowl.

In & out of the box

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We chose the Glacier Bay High Efficiency Toilet, a Home Depot house brand. It's very economical and has received some decent reviews. It works great so far--we'll see how it holds up over time.

These photos show the box on a furniture dolly I used, followed by the contents unpacked. The dolly is a great convenience--even a necessity for some--as the stated gross weight of the box is 95 pounds. Alternately, you could partially unpack the unit to split up the weight. (One reviewer mentioned that he did just that in the store parking lot!)

Original and Extra Thick Seals

The photo I hate the worst in this Page! But I thought it was important to show seal options. On the left is the supplied seal; on the right, an extra-thick seal you can buy separately. If you have one of those below-floor level flanges, you're going to need the thick one. If above floor level, just use the supplied seal.

The annoying thing is that unless you've removed the old toilet before going to the store, you don't know which you're going to need. (The extra-thick seal went back to the store, in this case.)

New bowl installed

Mounting the bowl is fairly straightforward, and in the case of our unit, the supplied instructions were quite good. They suggest placing the seal on the inverted bowl, twisting and pushing gently to adhere the wax to the porcelain, and then lowering seal and bowl together onto the flange. (I had a picture of this, but it's absolutely unusable.)

I had to line up one bolt, set an edge of the bowl down, and use one hand to guide the remaining bolt through the other hole. Then simply apply plastic washer, metal washer, then the bolt. Follow that up with the decorative cap, according to the directions supplied.

Remember that you really, really don't want to overtighten the metal bolt. The following picures, I think, make clear what can happen if you do.

The old toilet--don't let it be the new one!

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One other trap should be mentioned here. The instructions specifically told me to make sure that the flange bolts were the correct length before doing the installation of the bowl--otherwise the caps won't go on.

I forgot all about that part, since I hadn't had a problem with bolt length on the first toilet I'd done. Bad idea--while the first one had had a low flange, the one here had a high flange, making the bolts way too long. I had to cut them, either in place or after removing the bowl again.

I went with cutting in place, mostly because I was afraid of mangling the seal too badly to reuse. That put me right back with the hacksaw, though it worked better with the new bolt than the old. But I did put small scratches on the finish, and incur a minor ding on one knuckle.

I blame the beer.

Bloody knuckle

Oh, well. Onto the tank installation. Below are two photos; one shows the hardware, resting on the bottom of the inverted tank; the other shows the tank interior, with the lever installed. (I chose to install the lever before mounting the tank, because of that shelf unit obstructing tank access. Usually it's better to do it the other way.)

This was one instance where the instructions were not so good. A good bit of the hardware you see is apparently superfluous. Perhaps some--and here I'm thinking mostly of the plastic bit on the connection for the water inlet line--is meant to protect parts during shipping.

I chose not to try to use the oblong metal washers and the wing nuts you can see. They are flimsy anyway, and not found on the other installations I've dealt with. So far, nothing bad has come of that choice.

I also wondered a little bit about the logic of pulling that foam gasket over the threaded tank outlet.  Why thread something, then cover up the threads?  But the instructions were clear on that point, at least--and the old toilet had a similar arrangement.

Tank installation

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Tanks need water lines, right?

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Yep, they sure do.  Here are photos--the good one is of the old line, still in place on the 1/4-inch line from the wall.  The crumby one of its replacement, a 12-inch PVC line.  I needed a replacement because the new toilet is a 17-inch high model--these are increasingly common, as being arguably more comfortable to use, and more friendly for aging knees--and the line was meant for the old standard of 15 inches.

Still, it really looked like it was going to be long enough anyhow.  Another trip to the store, darn it.

Attaching tank to bowl

In case you're wondering, the photo above shows the tank mounted on the bowl and tightened down. The point is that the tank is even and level--and the bolts are not over-tightened. You want to go slowly and carefully while tightening down the tank bolts. (If you're unsure about the importance of this point, scroll back up and contemplate the "old toilet" photos again.) You do want the attachment to be firm, of course--but no more than that.

Water On!

With the tank attached, and water line connected, you can turn the water on.  It's a good idea to check for leaks, particularly at the water line.

Somewhat uncharacteristically, I didn't find any.

If you don't either, enjoy the moment, then proceed to check the water level in the tank--our instructions had procedures for adjusting this, but everything was fine as it was--and attach and connect the lever, if you haven't done so earlier.

The only thing left to assemble is the seat.

Installing the seat

The instructions were a little vague again at this stage, but then it's pretty self-evident what needs to happen.  In the case of our unit, the rubber--should I call them washers?--clearly had to go where the photo shows them.

Seat installation is apt to differ widely from brand to brand.  For that matter, upgrading seats is pretty common--you can buy various replacements at a whole variety of price points, if you wish.

All done!

Satisfaction!

It took about four hours, including modifications to that shelving unit I've mentioned, and two trips to the store. An ace could have done it in two, I'm sure, and maybe in close to one. But in case you hadn't already realized it, I'm no ace. But the price was right, and I got to share the experience with you, bumbles and all.

Perhaps I could have saved a couple of bumbles had I found this site before I did the installation:

http://www.toiletabcs.com/toilet-basics.html

Try it and let me know!

Update

After 6 months of use, these units have performed well. Oh, there have been a instances--probably fewer than half a dozen--requiring a second flush. And once I had to reconnect the chain connecting the flush lever to the valve. Cheap hardware!--but probably fixed for good with a simple squeeze of the pliers. We're still very satisfied!

Second Update

The units discussed are still doing OK in 2014, five years after initial installation. There were some further issues with the chain/flush lever, and the seats are still cheap and annoyingly needful of periodic tightening. But overall, we're still quite happy with these units; witness the installation of a third Glacier Bay toilet in our lake house!

That unit is even stingier with water, using just 1.0 gallon per flush. It works great, and installed much as the previous two. The instructions are still poor, and there were superfluous parts included with the kit once again. The seat is better quality, though, noticeably more solid. Who knows? Maybe it won't need tightening quite so often.

Either way, this Glacier Bay unit performs well, saves water, and costs comparatively little.


But wait--there's more!

You can check out my other Hubs by clicking on this portal.

I've got book reviews, articles on science history, and a how-to-article on "How (not) to apply lap siding."

The latest is Inuk Was A-Positive: A Brief Meditation-- a piece on a very intriguing bit of scientific research--science, imagination, and life in maybe 400 words!

Comments 33 comments

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

I'd love to hear from you on this page--was it helpful? Have you had similar adventures in Plumbingland? Did I make some horrible error that I must correct immediately? And did you enjoy it?

This inquiring mind wants to know.

Also, please check out my other hubs at this address:

http://hubpages.com/author/Doc+Snow/hot/


Kendal 7 years ago

You are so NOT a candidate for "Canada's Worst Handyman". If you want a laugh and to see how DIY can become REALLY ugly, check it out on Discovery. Good job well done and well documented.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks--I saw some episodes of that when I was up in TO last Christmas. LOL, indeed!

And yes--like (I suspect) many thousands of others, I was thinking "Hey, I'm not so bad, compared to these folks!" Of course, the good folks at CWH probably aren't accepting candidates from Atlanta anyway!--even if I was drinking good Canadian beer.


sabu singh profile image

sabu singh 7 years ago

What a well-documented and helpful Hub, Doc Snow. Fortunately or unfortunately, DIY is still in its infancy in India. That apart, our water supply is still free so many people are sadly unaware / unconcerned about water conservation


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, sabu.

It's interesting to hear that DIY is not so prevalent in India. I wonder if the spirit of ingenuity and "making do" lives at humbler levels of society--I'm thinking of people finding creative uses for cast-offs out of necessity. Very different, in my imagination at least, from the home-improvement industry as it exists here, but not altogether so.

I sometimes wonder about the water rates we pay--they seem quite low given that our major reservoir was recently as low as about 4 meters below full pool, and that there is a major legal challenge to our continued ability to draw drinking water from that reservoir. (Our household's monthly bill is about one hour's work at an average wage.) How can you blame people for not valuing--and conserving--something that is so cheap? Yet there are those for whom an increase would be a hardship, especially in these recessionary times.

Your hub--http://hubpages.com/hub/Climate-Change-and-Global-... for those readers here who may not have seen it--makes it quite clear that India's supply of drinking water is at risk, too.


sabu singh profile image

sabu singh 7 years ago

Absolutely right Doc Snow. The Himalayan glaciers are of utmost importance to us as well as our neighbouring countries too.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

So many are not aware of this aspect of the problem, either with respect to central Asia, or Western North America, which is already feeling the water pinch. They only think "Hey, I wish summer were longer and winter warmer."


Water Damage profile image

Water Damage 6 years ago

Thanks for that Doc Snow - it's a great hub with fantastic info on how to do it right.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Hey, I appreciate that, Water Damage--particularly coming from someone whose professional background is a little closer to the topic than mine is!

Stay in touch!


elf_cash profile image

elf_cash 6 years ago

Wow Doc, Sounds like you had one heck of a journey with this project. I love to help people out especially those that have that DIY spirit, its too bad I couldn't have lent you a hand with this one. Overall though anyone who takes the time to read through your account here should have some good info before they go into the "bathroom battle". Check out a few of my hubs for any future plumbing adventures. I'm just getting started on hubpages but I plan to post several useful resources like this one. Overall, nice hub!


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, elf!

It wasn't *that* bad--and hey, how bad can it be if you get a Hub out of it?


whitton profile image

whitton 5 years ago

Great Hub! Very informative and great step by step pictures.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, whitton! I appreciate that. I hope you'll check out some of my other "How (Not) To's," which take the same approach. (They can be clicked through in series using the forward and back buttons just above the comments.)

I will say, it's been surprising to me just how popular my "toilet pictures" have been!


VJ 5 years ago

Thanks for your help. The instructions were very vague about attaching the tank. Without your assistance, it would have taken longer. Took us 45 min from removal, scrubbing floor, and new installation. In Key Largo, we try to save as much water as possible, due to inadequate rain.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

VJ, thanks so much for the feedback. I'm really delighted to know that this Hub helped somebody out in a tangible way.

And 45 minutes? Call yourself an "Ace," my friend!


whitton profile image

whitton 5 years ago

This is a very informative Hub. Nice job!


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks so much for coming by to check it out, Whitton!


Bidet Seat 5 years ago

You a right job.this is an informative pages.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, bidet seat! By your Hubpages "handle," I suppose your approval counts as expert opinion!


condor 5 years ago

I used a reciprocating saw with a short metal-cutting blade to cut off the bolt and nut off of base of toilet. Using a medium speed, I was able to cut the bolt off without damaging the porcelain.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Excellent tip, Condor. That's just the sort of useful info I love to see on Hub pages--especially mine!

Thanks for sharing with the readers here!


condor 5 years ago

After posting the above comment, I thought of a couple of other things that might be useful that I learned the hard way. First, when you set the toilet down on the flange you usually need to push down to fully seat the toilet and wax seal to the flange. Be sure to push straight down - do not wobble the toilet! If you wobble the toilet you can cause the seal to leak. The second thing is a lot of people want to put caulk between the base of the toilet and floor for a clean look. If you have wood floors, don't do it! A leak would not show and the water would be captured under the toilet. You would not know you had a leak until the floor is damaged. If you have a house built on slab and feel the need for caulk, you can get away with it. However, I suggest that you caulk only the two sides and front. That way a leak would show up at the back side. The only other suggestion I have is to have a second person help you align the bolts to the base (if you have room for them). It makes the job a lot easier.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Excellent! That's a great hint about the caulk. Sometimes when we think we're solving a problem we're really just covering it up, and making it worse--and this would be a case in point.

Thank you very much for coming back to share with us!


Barrie-ite 5 years ago

Really really good how-to and commentary hub on installing a Glacier Bay toilet! I was baffled by the extra tank hardware (elongated washer and wing nut). You solved my problem - thanks!

JJ


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Glad to help, Barrie-ite!

(By the way, is that "Barrie, Ontario?" I used to live on the other side of Lake Simcoe, near Sutton.)


jenni 5 years ago

dear god you saved me at least an hour of fretting over this darn toilet.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

jenni, that may be my favorite comment here ever! So glad to have been of service!


Knittz 4 years ago

I have a couple tips to add. Measure the base of the toilet from the wax ring to the back of the tank to ensure you have sufficient clearance against the wall for the new toilet. My new TOTO toilet was very tight and touches the back wall. The previous toilet had at least a half inch of clearance. Another tip that works well for placing the toilet bowl onto the flange is to take a thick milkshake straw, cut it in half and slip the pieces over the flange bolts. You can then guide the bowl into place with the straws and minimize potential damage to the wax ring by trying to fiddle with the bolts. A plumber that I know also suggested using some rough grit sandpaper on the plastic flange to clean it up and get all the old wax off. The roughing from the sandpaper also provides a more positive seal.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Knittz, many, many thanks! These are very useful tips. I appreciate you taking the trouble to share them with us!


Ryan 4 years ago

Forget WAX SEALS! There are better options out there that mean you don't have to worry about moving the toilet upon installation and breaking the seal. I just did an install with the Sani Seal and it worked great. I did one other toilet in our house with the Fernco no wax seal, but the Sani Seal was easier. I hate the mess wax seals make as well and the inability to adjust the toilet position.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Ryan, great tip! Thanks for sharing your experience with the Ferncos & Sani Seals. I'll have to give no-wax seals a try next time I have to install a toilet. (Though I hope it isn't all *that* soon!)


ccormac202@comcast.net 4 years ago

How to adjust float. It keeps tripping now with additional water flow every few minutes.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

I believe that adjusting the float can be done as follows.

There's a u-shaped 'fork' at the top of the valve. The inner faces of the fork have grooves into which fit studs on the top of a pushrod coming up from the top of the float itself. If you (carefully) spread the fork's 'tines' slightly, you can slip the pushrod out of the grooves. Its lower portion is threaded, I think, which allows adjustment by rotating the rod. (I tried this, but it was slow and awkward going, and hard to be sure if it was doing what I think it was doing.)

That said, it sounds to me as if the problem is not the float, but with the seal at the bottom of the tank: the only way that water can keep entering the tank without overflowing is if it is also escaping somewhere--most likely at the flapper valve (which is what the main "bottom of the tank" valve is called.) If that's the case, you can adjust the float valve all you like and you'll see no improvement.

To check, you could turn the water supply valve at the wall off and wait--if, after a few hours, you can see that the water level in the tank has dropped, then you'll know you have a leak somewhere. (Of course, you'll have to keep everybody in the family from flushing the toilet too soon and wrecking your test!)

Maybe a real pro can comment?

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