How to Turn a Simple Two Hour Toilet Replacement into a Murphy’s Law Two Day Marathon

A marathon toilet replacement project? Yep. Murphy’s Law blindsided me repeatedly. How to deal with old Murph’s curve balls and sliders, that turned out to be the question. Hadn’t I already doubled the time a pro would normally take for a job like that?

Yes. Yes, I had. But when you’re dealing with a forty-five year old mobile home, upgrades don’t always cooperate with preset time estimates. Not by a long shot.

In the beginning, all went smoothly. The new Summit model Toilet To Go (“Why else would you want a toilet?” I asked the sales clerk.) bragged that everything needed was right there in one cardboard box. Simple, right? The toilet shutoff valve in Pam’s bathroom worked fine, not a drip to worry about, so it was not necessary to crawl under the home to shut off the main. The tank came off easily. The nuts were equally easy to remove from the toilet-to-floor-flange bolts…in fact, they were barely more than finger tight in the first place.

Ah, but then.

The toilet bowl refused to lift free from the bolts. The so called floppy seal had squished in around the bolts and hardened to the consistency of rubber, practically welding the bolts to the porcelain bolt holes. Before I knew it, I’d lifted too hard and the whole thing came off the floor a good inch before I came to my senses and lowered it back down. The screws holding the flange to the floor had gotten wet at some point, rotting the wood around them. Did this mean the flange could not be secured at all? Was there no way to secure the flange without ripping up tile and wood, locating joists, and replacing part of the flooring? I certainly hoped it didn’t come to that.

But first the old toilet had to be freed from those bolts. Enter the sledge hammer. The toilet came free, free, free at last! …in shards!

Old toilet bowl after being removed with a sledge hammer.

Shards in box.

At this point, one might wonder why the old toilet needed to be replaced at all. Before being shard-ified, that is. There were two reasons:

1. The now-hammered toilet had been an elongated version. Pam didn’t do well with it, being as tiny as she is; sitting on it gave her neuropathy and bruised bones, or close to it. She needed a round bowl with a padded seat.

2. Despite a recent reworking of the old toilet’s tank innards, it still had a problem. More often than not, the flapper would stick in the upright position after a flush, leaving water to run until the tank lid was lifted and the flapper flicked back down. Inconvenient.

That motivation, to ease Pam’s burden, was important when the floor flange finally came into view. It was so rusty that it was amazing it held together at all. Even fatter screws stuffed down into the screw holes found no purchase at all, nothing but rot, rot, rot.

The nasty, rusty floor flange. Can you spell ick?

A closer look…if you dare!

Not only was the floor flange looking like a reject any respectable junkyard would refuse, it also stuck up above floor level–which is not a good thing. The instructions that came with the new toilet stated,

“…top of the flange must be level with the floor…if you must use a flange that protrudes above the floor, it must not extend above the floor more than 5/16″….”

So, did the flange lunge up farther than that? It was impossible to tell for sure, but several minutes with a straightedge and a tape measure made it clear it wasn’t any less. It was going to be very, very close. Yet the old toilet had survived that flange. In the end, there really was no option; it had to be tried. My best guess was that the screw heads on/in the flange were going to end up at least touching the underside of the porcelain. Not an ideal situation, but workable? Maybe.

When I first went to R & C (Home Improvement) to get some fatter screws to try (which did not work), I’d walked in holding an old, rusty, skinny screw aloft and announcing proudly to Shannon, “I have a screw loose!”

Yeah, she lost it a little. Confirmation of what she already suspected, no doubt. Back home, there were more than a few screws loose in that rotted subflooring. But there was one last thing I could try, namely drilling a series of new holes in that rusty metal flange, all around the perimeter, as close to the outer edge as possible. Hopefully, screws plugged into some of those new holes would find un-rotted wood to grab…and thankfully, that worked. In the end, the flange sported a rim-riveting circumference of four fat screws and ten skinny screws, and the flange was well secured.

Flange secured with four fat screws and two skinny screws. The two toilet bowl mounting bolts don’t count.

Time to add the wax seal (which we’ve always called a floppy seal) and set the bowl in place? No, not quite. For whatever reason, the top layer of vinyl flooring had been left incomplete. That white area needed to be covered, or at least mostly covered, to make the bowl mounting surface level, let alone for aesthetic considerations. Fortunately, the former owner left some unused bathroom tiles in the garage. Unfortunately, I grabbed the first one I saw and didn’t realize it was the pattern for my bathroom, not Pam’s, until after it was cut to fit and in place. Not that it will show after the toilet is installed and a rug added, but still.

First, a paper template is cut to fit the front section of missing tile as precisely as possible–which is not really all that precise with a raised flange interrupting the plane of the floor, but one does what one can. Since the only “template paper” on hand was 8 1/2″ by 11″ copy paper, two sheets were taped together for this first effort.

The template, designed as a pattern to follow for cutting the first piece of fill-in tile.

One blessing was the “cheapness” of the tile. It was so thin that a pair of ordinary household shears cut right through it, making it much easier to follow the inked line that had been traced around the template.

The first piece of tile, cut according to the template. Will it fit?

Thankfully, the first effort did the trick. The tile piece pressed into place more precisely than some of the tiles already existing on the floor.

Not bad for an amateur.

The rest of the white area could be dealt with more casually, since it would be totally out of sight under the toilet bowl. As long as the bowl could rest on tile, appearance didn’t matter. Which was a good thing, as the template paper was no longer interested in helping out at all. A few scraps of tile were cut freehand and pressed into place, and that part of the job was done.

That part of the job is done.

Okay, so we have a foundation. As long as the flange doesn’t turn out to be too high above the floor after all, the rest of the job should be straightforward, right?

Ri-i-ight. Sure. You betcha. And would you like to bid on the desert waterfront property I have for sale?

By this time, what with all the trips to the hardware stores for loose screws and drilling holes and thinking and cutting tile into jigsaw puzzle shapes and this and that, evening had arrived…and I’d started the project around noon! But the bowl seemed to be cooperating. It was looking good. I was gently snugging down the two bowl-to-flange bolts, being very careful, when–SNAP!

The wimpy little toilet bolt on one side had snapped in half! “Bleeblesnackers!” I exclaimed. (That’s a paraphrase.) Neither Pam nor I could believe it. The instructions say to be careful how you tighten the bolts, and not to over tighten lest you bust the porcelain. But I’d been applying no more than five pounds of torque max, and they never said their bolts were designed break quicker than a car just out of warranty. I mean, come on!

The busted 1/4 inch toilet bolt (left) gave way with incredible ease. On the right is the thicker (5/16 inch) bolt from the old toilet.

Oh, well. The stores were closed, so it was time to knock off for the night.

Come the morn, I had an appointment at the DMV to transfer my driver’s license from Arizona back to Montana. That’s right; you have to get an appointment to do anything with your driver’s license in Montana these days. It was scary, too, at least if you’re wary of big government. The official behind the desk called one database but then, after finding out I’d formerly had a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License), had to hang up and call another.

“National database?” I asked. Yes, she replied. Big brother does keep getting bigger.

After that, and another stop for Montana auto insurance, it was back to the toilet project. A new floppy seal and two new wimpy 1/4″ bolts, there being no 5/16″ toilet bowl bolts in town, although one man at ACE Hardware was even more disgruntled than I was when we found that out.

This time, I literally used one finger to snug those bolts down, keeping said finger as close to the head of the little crescent wrench as possible and stopping the instant the bolts so much as hinted at whimpering about the tough job they had. Those bolts are not made in America, by the way. The new toilet’s packaging swore the toilet was “proudly made in America,” and no doubt the porcelain portions were. But the bolts? No way. Not only are they wimpy, but they’re metric.

Then came the tank. Mounting that was a joy. It’s a three-bolt setup, very secure, resulting in a tank that doesn’t flop around at all. Great.

But…oops. I should have seen it coming. The new tank sits a bit higher than the old tank, and the water supply hose was one inch too short. Murphy, you Irish prankster, you!

Strangely, the hose was little more than finger tight where it connected to the shutoff valve. How it had refrained from leaking in the past, I had no idea. R & C had a 12 inch hose (too short) and a 20 inch hose (too long). ACE had a 16 inch hose, the best we were going to get. With that in place and the water turned on, we’d done it. Murphy’s Law had been survived, at least for now.

The second new (and much higher quality) floppy seal.

The new 16″ water supply hose.

Pam’s new round-bowl toilet, complete with padded seat.

And that’s how you turn a two hour toilet replacement into a two day marathon with a little help from Murphy. Bottom line, Pam appreciates her new facility and that’s what counts.