Late last week I noticed that the guest bathroom’s toilet rocked forward and back. This worried me. The Internet confirmed my fears: one site claimed that it could be a cracked flange! That sounded bad! So there was but one thing to do: ask the Internet how to disassemble a toilet.
The Internet claimed that disassembling a toilet to check the flange or to replace the wax ring was easy. Invariably, the same sites that talked about how easy this task was would follow that up by saying, “A TOILET BREAKS EASILY BE CAREFUL!!!!” The sites also varied in how detailed their instructions were, in one case even going so far as to skip the whole “removing the tank” part. As a public service, I’m going to give you the definitive step-by-step guide to disassembling a toilet to repair it. All of the steps you absolutely have to do are in bold. And as a bonus, I’ve included the Studly Meter: a measure from 1 to 10 of how studly you should feel at various steps of the operation.
Repairing a Toilet
- Search the Internet for sites explaining how to repair a toilet. Boggle at how many of them are useless.
- Since the best site you found doesn’t have an exploded view of a toilet, find one at another site.
- Give up, realizing that you could do a better diagram in MS Paint. Try to figure things out as you go. Studly Meter: 1
Turn off the toilet’s water by finding the valve near the floorboards and turning the handle. SM: 2
- Start to remove the water line between the valve and the toilet. Realize that you have to drain the tank first. SM: 1
- Flush the toilet to empty as much water as possible. Hold down the handle. SM: 4
- Remove the rest of the water from the tank using a towel. SM: 5
- Realize that you can’t get the towel back out without first removing that float ball thing and its rusty arm.
- Unscrew the float ball, remove the towel, and wring it out into the bucket you belatedly remembered to go get. SM: 3
- Now remove the water line between the valve and the toilet. This involves finding a crescent wrench to remove the compression fitting at the valve end, unscrewing the water line from the tank end, and getting wet when the leftover water in the line drips on you. SM: 4
- Remove the two or three screws that connect the tank to the toilet body. These screws have hex nuts or wing nuts on them below the tank. You may need a screwdriver to hold the screws in place while you remove the nuts, but chances are things are so icky and corroded that you won’t.
- Throw those screws and their washers away because they are so icky and corroded.
- Lift the tank straight off of the body and put it down gently. SM: 8
- Use a plunger to push most of the water in the toilet body down the drain after someone on the Internet tells you to. (Thanks, John B!)
- Take the bolt caps off of the flange bolts at the base of the toilet body. Remove the nut from the flange bolts.
- Realize that the nuts are causing the flange bolts to spin as you turn the nuts, preventing you from removing the nuts entirely. Look closely at the flange bolts. Realize someone clipped the bolts off right above the nut, causing the bolt to have a lip and preventing the nuts from being removed entirely. Realize that you’re going to have to cut the bolts off. SM: 1
- Realize that this is a great excuse to buy a Dremel tool. SM: 10
- In thinking about it, since the toilet isn’t actually leaking, realize that you could probably get away with just shimming the toilet to stop it rocking. Try re-securing the nuts to the flange bolts, only to discover that one nut won’t tighten any more. Looks like you’re going forward with disassembling the toilet! SM: -1000
- Go to a nearby hardware store. Buy a Dremel tool, a wax ring, a new gasket to go between the toilet tank and the toilet bowl because that old gasket is super nasty — make that two gaskets because there are two sizes and you don’t know which one you’ll need and you’re for damn sure not coming back here again — a new flapper because the old flapper is also really nasty, and new screws to hold the tank to the body. SM: 7
- Remember your last experience using a Dremel tool and the cut-off wheels to cut through bolts. Realize that the Dremel tool package you bought has only two cut-off wheels. Buy an extra 20-pack of cut-off wheels. SM: 8
- Excitedly show your Dremel tool to your significant other. Be told that the Dremel is perfect for cleaning Birkenstocks. SM: 2
- Put on your safety goggles, put in earplugs, and start cutting the bolts off. Watch the dust fly everywhere. Five cut-off wheels later, the nuts are cut off of the flange bolts. SM: 9
- Pick up one of the cut-off nuts. Seconds later, drop it because it is hot like the sun. When you leave the bathroom to get some ice to put on your burn, tell your significant other that you touched it “by accident”. SM: 1
- Lift the toilet bowl and place it in the tub or something that you don’t mind water pouring into. Rock the toilet back and forth to get as much water as possible out of the bowl and trap. SM: 8
- Wonder if your state is one where the plumbing codes require that someone licensed do this work. Shrug and go on. SM: 2
Inspect the flange for cracks. Finding none, rejoice. SM: 8
- Grab a putty knife and scrape all of the left-over wax from the old ring off of the floor and the flange. Tilt the toilet bowl to one side and scrape the wax off of the bottom as well. SM: 5
- Realize that the wax is really sticky and nasty. Furthermore, realize that, since you put the toilet bowl straight down into the bathtub, now there’s old wax all over the floor of the tub. SM: 2
Clean the remaining wax off of the flange and the toilet bowl with paper towels. Rubbing alcohol can help here.
- Think to yourself, Is it really necessary to clean everything this carefully? Consider that, if you don’t clean it well enough, you might have to go through all of this again. Keep cleaning.
- Put the flange bolts in and lower the toilet bowl over the flange bolts to make sure everything fits okay. SM: 6
- Realize that the flange bolts are way too long to fit a bolt cap over them, and that you’ll have to cut them down. SM: 4
Realize that you destroyed the plastic bottom of the bolt caps with the Dremel tool and that, despite your best-laid plans, you’re going to have to go back to the hardware store to buy bolt caps. SM: 2
- Put an old towel in the hole in the floor before leaving the bathroom for any length of time, since otherwise nasty gas will come floating up into your bathroom.
- Go to the hardware store and buy bolt caps. While you’re there, return the extra toilet tank gasket you bought.
- Return home and cut the flange bolts down to size. Make sure the hex nut is on the bolt beneath where you’re going to cut, so you can remove the nut after you’re done, thus re-cutting the threads in case you smoosh them. While doing so, sneeze and discover that, because you forgot to wear a dust mask earlier, your snot is black from the dust and metal bits from cutting the old flange bolts. SM: 3
- Slide the new flange bolts into the flange’s slots. Give the flange bolts a quarter turn to secure them. Put the plastic washer that came with the bolts on top of them to keep the bolts in place. SM: 5
- Unwrap the new wax ring and put it on the bottom of the toilet bowl, with the wax ring’s round side touching the bottom of the toilet bowl. SM: 6
- Realize that you should have been wearing gloves for that last step, and that the wax from the ring is really really really sticky and nasty. SM: 2
- Take two straws and fit them on the flange bolts. The straws will help you get the toilet seated over the bolts properly. If the straws don’t quite fit, you may have to cut them slightly on one end. SM: 6
- Lower the toilet bowl over the flange bolts, keeping the toilet as level as possible. Once it’s down, rotate the toilet just a bit to spread the wax around. You may need someone down on the floor watching you lower the toilet bowl to help keep it level. SM: 7
- Sit down on the toilet for a bit to smoosh the wax ring down some. Then put the plastic bottom of the bolt cap, the flange bolt metal washer, and the hex nut on the flange bolts. Tighten the nuts, but not so much that you crack the toilet bowl. The toilet bowl shouldn’t rock when you’re done. SM: 7
- Realize that you bought more plastic bolt caps than you needed. Sigh. SM: 4
- Put the new gasket on the bottom of the tank and put the tank on the bowl. Put the new bolts in the tank and tighten. Make sure to put the rubber washer on the bolt before putting it in the tank, then putting the metal washer and the hex nut or wing nut beneath the tank to secure everything. The gasket will smoosh down. Tighten one bolt a bit, then switch to another bolt. Tighten until the tank’s porcelain touches the bowl’s porcelain, but again, don’t go too far. SM: 8
- Throw the old flapper away and put the new one in. Put the float ball thingy and its rusty arm back in. Reattach the water line. SM: 8
- Turn on the water, making sure nothing leaks. If the water line leaks, tighten the compression fittings again. If the tank leaks, see if it’s coming from the gasket or the bolts, and try fiddling with those. SM: 7, or 3 if something leaks.
- Thank your lucky stars that the compression fittings on the water line were fine and you didn’t have to go buy a new water line. SM: 8
- Flush the toilet, towels at the ready. When nothing leaks, rejoice! SM: 10!!!!!!!
- A day or so later, check back and see if the flange bolt nuts need to be tightened some more due to the wax ring settling.
- In doing so, discover that the toilet still rocks, just a little bit. Jam one of the toilet shims under the toilet, fixing the problem. Realize once again that you could have done this from the beginning and probably have been just fine. SM: ah, forget about it.