How a Toilet Works: Things My Three Sons Better Know Before Moving Out

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. Today's lesson: how a toilet works!

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.

Life Lesson #17- How a Toilet Works

Toilets fascinate me. Sure, humans have invented a lot of cool things- the wheel, the light bulb, penicillin, internal combustion engines, microprocessors, pimento cheese, air conditioning, etc. Nothing has had a more profound effect on civilization- on a daily basis- than the modern toilet. It is a marvel of engineering that has improved sanitation and prevented the spread of disease.

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How did I get into toilets? It actually started with damp laundry. My wife and I had not been married long and were living in a townhome. We inherited all of the appliances (including a leaky dishwasher) from the previous owners. We ran clothes through several cycles in the dryer to no avail.

The stupid dryer must be broken, we concluded, so we headed to Lowe’s to buy another. We described our plight to the salesman and, to his credit, he suggested that maybe we didn’t actually need a new dryer. He thought our problem might be a blocked vent hose trapping moisture inside the drum (and in our clothes). Check the vent hose and, if need be, unclog it- seemed simple enough, right? Yes, except that the hose fed to the floor and down into the crawlspace where it spanned several yards to an exterior wall.

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. Today's lesson: how a toilet works!At that point in my life, had earned bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in psychology. I was well on my way professionally but my do-it-yourself skills were pretty limited, really. Beyond psychology, I could change a tire, jumpstart a car (I grew up in Montana, after all), and had a bit of experience house painting. That was about it.

Being a new homeowner and responsible husband, I rolled up my sleeves and headed into the crawlspace. In no time I found a sagging section of the plastic vent hose. I sliced into it and out poured water and clumps of soaked lint. I replaced that section with an aluminum pipe and . . . victory! Henceforth our clothes were dry.

My confidence surged. Handyman would have been way too strong a term for what I had become, but I was starting to complement my liberal arts education. Soon after I learned basic electrician skills (so that’s why circuit breakers are so important!) to install an overhead fan in our bedroom.

Then came my journey of discovery with the modern toilet.

In our downstairs half-bath, we had a toilet that was . . . temperamental. After flushing, we heard water continue to gurgle inside the tank (the big thing behind the seat). Sometimes it wouldn’t flush no matter how many times we pressed the handle. Buoyed by my newfound self-confidence, and realizing that heading to Lowe’s to buy a new toilet was ridiculous, I took on the challenge.

I had to get into the toilet and figure out what was wrong, which meant I first had to understand how it was supposed to work. Mind you, this was before the invention of YouTube, so I couldn’t just view an instructional video. Plus, I wanted to find out whether I could do this on my own.

I started by lifting off the tank lid, maybe for the first time in my life. There were lots of gadgets in there, but I was surprised by how few moving parts I found. I tinkered. I experimented. And soon I understood how it worked. Curious about what sorcery transpires within that mysterious contraption? Please allow me to elucidate . . .

Everyone who is potty-trained knows the flushing process starts by pushing the handle. Water is stored in the tank. Tanks used to hold up to 5 gallons of water for each flush; newer models use about 1½ gallons per flush (better surface design has led to more efficient water flow).

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. Today's lesson: how a toilet works!Pushing the handle (or button, in newer models) moves a lever that pulls up a piston at the bottom of the tank, forcing some water through a siphon. This causes suction in the siphon and the rest of the tank water follows into the bowl through a short pipe. The water sloshes around the rim, down the sides of the bowl, and out through the drainpipe, cleaning the bowl and carrying waste in the process. Awesome!

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. Today's lesson: how a toilet works!Ever wonder why some of the clean water stays at the bottom of the bowl? It’s because modern toilet drainpipes have an ‘S’ bend designed to remain filled between flushes. That water in the ‘S’ bend blocks stench from the drainpipe and sewer system. Now you know.

The piston at the tank base is designed to be sucked out of the way by the water rushing through the siphon. With the tank emptied, a membrane drops back onto the piston, once again blocking the water flow. After flushing, float ball has dropped to the bottom of the empty tank

An inlet valve controls water entering the tank, allowing in water when the tank is empty. Water re-entering the tank lifts that float ball, which is attached to a float rod connected to the inlet valve. When the tank is full, the float rod presses against the inlet valve to turn off the water flow. The toilet is now ready for the next flush!

What I diagnosed in our temperamental toilet was that the membrane had started to break down, which meant it no longer formed a good seal on the piston. As a result, water continuously leaked out of the tank and into the bowl, rendering the toilet unflushable. Replacing that membrane was an easy fix, after which I literally pounded my chest and quoted Tom Hanks from Cast Away– “I have made fire!” My wife rolled her eyes, but I know she was appreciative of (and secretly impressed by) her capable husband.

I’ve since made more repairs to that and other temperamental toilets. I have replaced handles, float rods, and float balls. One time I headed off major water damage by identifying where a rusty bolt was allowing leakage from a tank onto a bathroom floor. When it comes to toilets, I’ve got game.

Even in an ever-changing world with technology constantly advancing, toilets are here for the long haul. So for my sons to know how they work, and how to repair them, makes sense as a life skill. Speaking of which, they need to know how to unclog a toilet, including why a plunger works and what to do if you don’t have one handy (pouring a bucket of water into the bowl works great!). I want them to have competence and confidence around a household.

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. Today's lesson: how a toilet works!The bigger picture, though, is their education. With STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) such an influential movement, they may learn plenty about the physics that explain how a toilet works. Should they pursue educations more steeped in liberal arts, like their parents did, being able to fix a toilet would go a long way towards balance.

The modern toilet is a little science lab where lessons can be learned about levers, valves, buoyancy, feedback loops, gravity, pressure and suction, conservation principles, hydrodynamics, etc. A temperamental toilet is an opportunity to practice analytical reasoning- it’s a puzzle to solve. And I’m not one to flush away a teachable moment.

Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!

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Dr. Craig Pohlman
Craig is a learning expert who has helped thousands of struggling students in his psychology career. He’s written extensively about learning issues, including the book How Can My Kid Succeed in School? He has three sons, so he has been up close and personal with things like cramming for tests, scrambling to finish homework, shuttling kids to sports practices, stuffing backpacks, etc. Follow him on Twitter - @DrCraigPohlman


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