Monthly Archives: January 2013

Remember When the Toilet Worked, Part I?

I know I haven’t blogged in a while.  I’m working on a book – my first – and just coming up with the right approach has taken up all my writing juice for the past month.  I know what Kristin Lamb would say about that line, but there it is.  I appreciate your patience, and pray that you’ll be even more patient as I experiment a little with these posts.  -MK 

The toilet ran every ten minutes whether the flush handle had been pressed or not.  I could not sleep at night.  I would lie in bed, waiting for that lonely sound of water rushing into the porcelain tank.  When the sound would start again, I would tense up as if startled by gunshot or a wild animal.

To understand what was wrong with my toilet requires some knowledge of toilet physics.  The toilet comes in two large pieces: the bowl and the tank.  Prior familiarity with the bowl is assumed.

The tank has three internal organs: the fill valve, the flush valve, and the flapper.  A pipe from the wall sends water into the tank through the fill valve.  The fill valve stops the water from coming in when the water level in the tank is at a certain level.  That is what is happening after you flush, and you hear the water running, and then it stops suddenly.  The water level in the tank has reached the appropriate level and the fill valve has stopped the water from flowing into the tank.

Attached to the outer side of the tank is the flush handle, colloquially called “the handle,” as in “jiggle the handle.”  And at the base of the tank is a large hole that leads into the bowl.  Under normal conditions, a piece of rubber known as the “flapper” prevents the water in the tank from flowing through that hole into the bowl.  Attached to the flapper is one end of a chain, and the other end of the chain is attached to one end of a long lever that runs parallel to the base of the tank.

The other end of the lever is attached to the handle.  So when you press on the handle, you push one end of the lever down, causing the other end of the lever to rise, in turn pulling up on the chain, that lifts the flapper, and permits gravity to pull the water in the tank down into the toilet bowl.  This is the act of the flushing.

When the handle is released, the flapper is brought back down by the force of gravity, once again sealing off the tank from the bowl.  So the tank begins to fill with water again, and does not stop until the fill valve stops it as explained above.

The flush valve is a vertical tube.  The flapper is affixed to the base of the flush valve in two points, around which it pivots when pulled up by the chain.  The flush valve definitely does something else, but I’m not sure what it is.

The entire premise of the tank rests on the assumption that when the flapper is in the down position, it will not allow any water to leak from the tank into the bowl below it.  For if water is permitted to leak from the tank into the bowl when the flapper is in the down position, the water level will fall, causing water to rush into the tank because the fill valve now thinks that the toilet has been flushed.  And since the fill rate is far greater than the leak rate, the water level will of course rise enough to stop the flow again, until the leaking lowers it again, and on and on into infinity.

For some reason, water was leaking through my flapper even when it was in the down position, causing the infinity cycle just described.  This was why I could not sleep at night.

I bought a shiny new flapper.  A red one.  When I returned home and took the top off the tank, there was the old flapper.  “You’ve had a good run,” I said, and unhooked it from the base of the flush valve and dropped it in the bathroom wastebasket with a great showing of respect.

I hooked the new flapper onto the base of the flush valve.  I could already see the difference.  The new flapper was heavier at its center, and it hung over the hole with greater authority than its predecessor.  And it was red.  My troubles, I believed, were at an end.

But mere moments after tucking myself in to bed I was startled by the sound of the tank filling up.  The new flapper had done nothing to stop the trickle of water into the bowl.  I would have to fight another day.

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