Restoration Guide: Kitchen and Baths Toilets

Susanne Clemenz

Editor's Note: This is article 8 of 8 in Chapter 6: The Kitchen and Baths Guide of Old House Web Restoration Guide. This guide was developed and edited for old homes from original materials in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Rehab Guide.


This section focuses on the repair and maintenance of toilets and bidets, suggestions for conserving water in the bathroom, and tips to maximize accessibility and function.

Section 1--Plunging into Repair and Maintenance

The mechanisms inside most toilets haven't changed much in decades, nor have the recurring problems--leaky connections, inaccurate float levels, and stuck valves. Your bathroom may not have room for bidets or urinals, but a bidet attachment can fit on your existing toilet, and gravity or pressure-assisted flushing systems can give you other options. Before any improvements, clean fixtures thoroughly, especially around bacteria-prone seams and connectors. Wall-hung fixtures can also enhance sanitation.

  1. Cracked china repair: The vitreous china that your toilet fixtures are made from is strong, but not immune to pitting and chips. Turn off the water, drain the bowl, clean and disinfect, and let it dry. Apply two or three coats of a ceramic epoxy, which dries in minutes and becomes invisible. PROS: Easy. Works well for small dings. CONS: Refinishing an entire fixture is seldom cost-effective.
  2. Water seepage: Water seepage due to cracked rubber washers or damaged wax rings can ruin floors and subfloors. Wear rubber gloves. Disinfect the fixture. Empty the water, disconnect the riser tube and lift reservoir off bowl. Replace worn washers, unbolt the bowl. If floor and subfloor are wet--clean, repair, or let them dry thoroughly. Replace wax ring and reassemble fixture. PROS: Restores floor and toilet, saves water. CONS: Time-consuming.
  3. Run-away toilet water: Here's the reverse sequence of toilet water replacement in a standard tank--the float rides up and down on the reservoir water and controls the inlet valve. The inlet valve opens as the float sinks with flush activation. The rubber tank-ball controls reservoir intake. Replace the float ball if it stays submerged, or bend the float-ball arm or tank-ball rod until water stops. There are also other toilet systems. PROS: Repair is easy, cheap, and saves watter. CONS: Call a pro if this doesn't work.

Section 2--Conservation: Materials and Techniques

Federal standards today require only 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) for toilets and 1.0 gpf for urinals. That's about 1/2 of 1980's standards and 1/4 of prior use. Gravity and pressure-assisted systems are both used.

  1. Add water-wise devices: In addition to home-made devices (pebbles in sealed bottles, for example), stainless steel and vinyl panels, bladders, and other space-reducing reservoir products can cut water usage. If your toilet bowl fills faster than your tank, simple devices can speed the tank filling while slowing the bowl filling. PROS: Saves toilet replacement costs. Devices are inexpensive, savings are big. CONS: Low-flow toilets save more water. Devices don't work in all toilets.
  2. Gravity-flush toilets: Siphons or air vacuums help empty toilet bowls, but old, clogged, rough-surfaced cast iron piping prevents smooth outflow. Evaluate pipe size, vent, pressure level, and reverse pitches before purchasing. WaterSense labeled toilets are high efficiency toilets (HETs) designed for effectiveness with minimum water use. Many water providers offer rebates on these. PROS: Models available at many prices. CONS: Gravity-assisted older toilets require double-flushing, yet clean incompletely.
  3. Pressure-flush toilets: A pocket of air pushes water into the bowl at 25 cubic feet per minute (cfm), assuring excellent waste removal and cleaning. Toilets must be designed for this system. Rebates possible on WaterSense labelled units. PROS: They work very efficiently. CONS: They're pricier and noisy. Styles limited.
  4. Urinal installation: Urinals fit between wall studs and are very compact. WaterSense models may qualify for a rebate. PROS: Low maintenance and space use. Excellent water savings. CONS: Pricey and require additional plumbing.

Section 3--Improving Accessibility

Remodeling an old house should provide for present and unexpected future needs. Toilet use can be difficult for the handicapped or elderly. If possible, your home renovation should have a clear space of about four square feet in front of toilets or bidets and 18" clearance to a side wall.

  1. Seat height: Special seats that fit between the bowl rim and seat raise the sitting level and assist standing up. PROS: Adjusts to changing needs. CONS: Not decorative.
  2. Toilet height: By extending the drain line and constructing a 2"x4" frame under the toilet, the entire toilet can be raised to a seat height of 18". Cover the frame with matching flooring or easy-cleaning tile. PROS: Improved safety and comfort. Great for tall people. CONS: Difficult for small children.
  3. Grab bars: A 42" long grab bar mounted parallel to the floor at 33" to 36" should be installed beside toilets and bidets. Because studs and blocks can't be seen in an old house, use a stud-finder to locate studs. Mount a solid wood, waterproof 2"x5" or 2"x6" board to studs, and mount grab bar on it. A rear wall grab bar is also helpful. PROS: Improves both safety and access. CONS: Some wall repairs needed if bars are removed.
  4. Wall-hung toilets: Pipes and water tanks are hidden in 6" walls on which these sleek, easy-to-clean toilets and bidets are hung. Seat can be at any height desired. Flush mechanism is on a rear pipestand or mounted on installation cover panel. Choose a WaterSense model for possible rebate. PROS: Quiet operation, choice of seating height. CONS: Roomy wall panel needed for access to tank.
  5. Toilet-bidet duo: If home restoration space allows it, a separate bidet can be added by the toilet. But there are two alternatives--toilets with built-in bidets and accessory units that attach to the rim of the toilet. Because hygiene can be especially difficult for the elderly, one of these systems may be just what's needed. PROS: Combination fixture serves two purposes in limited space. CONS: An auxiliary water heater is a separate cost. Combo units can be expensive.

Kitchens and bathrooms are two of the most important rooms in the house--these guidelines for improving functionality, accessibility, and appearance can help your kitchens and bathrooms stand up to the challenge.

About the Author
Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and interacted with the contractors every day of the 6-month project. She started drawing floor plans and making models in the early '70s after purchasing several building lots. Recently she expanded and remodelled her newly-purchased home, working with contractors on the floorplan, electrical changes, painting, installation of wood laminate flooring, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and a landscaping. Researching and keeping up on issues and products related to home design and maintenance is an ongoing avocation.

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