Your home may have a constant minor leak that will eventually take a chunk out of your bank account!
You might think that the water on the floor between your toilet and tub/shower are due splashing or overrun from bathing/showering, but it could very well be from a leak in the flange/toilet seal.
If tiled, pay particular attention to existing grout lines around the toilet (if any), if they are darker than usual, or wet/dark from the toilet outwards (when the rest are dry) and you’ve not showered or bathed there in a while or there is no existing shower/bath in that room, then you may have a problem.
Also, keep an eye out for loose grout coming out from between tiles in the toilet area and/or cracked/broken tiles. If any, the floor may have been incorrectly prepared before tiling, or the tiles were incorrectly laid, or worse, the sub-floor is rotting due to a persistent leak – or any combination of the above.
If you have vinyl flooring and your toilet seems loose or is rocking more than usual, check to see if the floor feels excessively soft around the toilet.
If you have laminate flooring or carpet and your toilet seems loose or is rocking more than usual, check for expanding/swelling,
mould or rot in the floor area directly around the toilet.
Hardwood, check for mold/rot, black/white or discoloured wood.
If you notice any of the above signs (and if there is access to living space directly below), check for water or water damage (bulging paint, cracks in drywall seams), stains, and or mold/mildew growth.
If any, you could have a big/costly issue on your hands.
If you are unaware of local building codes, unsure of your capabilities, don’t have/don’t know or can’t procure the correct materials or tools to get the job done, seek out a professional. The money you spend WILL save you money in the end (trust me).
Setting a Toilet
Before beginning, the following should be mentioned…
There are building/safety codes in most reasonably populated areas that should be adhered to.
Codes are different everywhere and one should always check with their local jurisdiction and it’s particular codes.
In reality, some building codes are absolutely ridiculous and force folks to choose between moral and legal responsibilities/actions when building or renovating a home.
I am by no means stating that if there are codes, that they are better for your individual living requirements, However, adhering to them may prevent you from personal damages; loss, fines, death or your insurance company denying a claim, should the need arise to make one.
Due to the fact that there exists an untold amount of toilet brands, models, styles, individual applications and materials that can possibly be involved in any given toilet installation/replacement, I may not cover every one in this article, but I will do my best to cover the basics at the very least. Tool requirements are obviously varied as well, so you’ll need to have ready those required for your particular application and materials.
If you have questions, just ask and I’ll do my best to answer in a timely manner.
That said, let’s get started…
Other than the initial assembly – when purchased new from the box (following the manufacturers instructions), and connection to a water supply, the most important part of installing a toilet is “setting”. Setting is the process of securing the toilet to the floor by means of the water closet (WC) flange (also known as a “closet flange” or simply “flange”) and a “seal”, which goes between the toilet and flange to prevent leakage of effluents exiting the toilet to the sewer drain system.
There are a myriad of flange types manufactured all over the world for numerous varied applications. Typically, flanges in North America are Toilet caulked to floor
made of ABS or metal and are normally anywhere from 3/16”- 3/8” thick, but again, depending on the location and application, there are variables. If your toilet flange is cracked or broken (but not causing a leak) there exists a multitude of “repair” products. There are also numerous adapters to; adapt older plumbing to newer toilets, extend the length of an existing flange, or to slightly move (off-set) a flange.
In older homes you may encounter metal or lead flanges. A lead (pronounced “led”) flange is actually long lead tube, which is connected to the drainpipe below. It protrudes up through and above the sub and finished floor and is then bent or pounded down/out past the edges of the hole to form a somewhat flat, circular surface on which to install the seal. It can often be reused if it hasn’t been before – or perhaps reused once or twice, properly). If broken at floor level, you can purchase an adapter to solve the issue.
A flange should sit on top of the finished floor (the final, decorative covering), and should be screwed or bolted through the finished floor to the sub-floor, preferably using stainless steal or coated screws/bolts which won’t rust. Flange height can greatly affect toilet installation and type of “seal” required, if too low below or too high above the finished floor.
After flange installation, two “T-bolts” (see image below) must extend upwards from two slightly curved “keyhole-type” holes
(on the left and right sides of the flange when looking straight-on to the toilet from the front) in combination with two washers and two nuts, to bolt the toilet to the flange. I personally prefer the thicker brass bolts/washers/nuts (as opposed to any other metal) because they don’t rust or seize. There are varying lengths of T-bolt, and some have a “break-away” feature for ease of installation (explained later).
Only hand-tighten the nuts and slightly snug with a wrench or socket! Over-tightening can crack/break your toilet base, and also distort, crack or even break your flange. It is helpful to have someone sit on the toilet to compress the seal and make certain that the toilet is firmly on the floor when you are tightening the nuts.
For aesthetics, you can install a pair or colour matched plastic caps that hide the bolts, nuts, and washers, and also protect them from rusting. Just be sure to install the special plastic base washer on the toilet base before the metal one, then the nut, and tighten. You must then cut the bolts off above the nuts in order to fit the plastic caps.
Be careful how you cut the bolts!!
In some installations, there isn’t enough room to fit bolt cutters, a reciprocating saw, or even a small handsaw between the toilet and walls or other fixtures/obstacles. If you have a plastic flange, you don’t want to heat up the bolts or they can melt through it – nor do you want the bolts wiggling all around and loosening/stripping or breaking the flange, so a power saw isn’t the best choice.
In cases like this (and in general) it’s best to use the “break-away style” T-bolts because they have a thin area at a standard height, which can be snapped off (with a pair of pliers) easily enough in tight quarters), or if left intact, their length is enough for a taller/thicker toilet base (or a lower flange).
There are many types of toilet/flange seals on the market, some are wax-based and others are wax-less. Although generally preferential, there are instances when only one is right for the job. Any seal made for the particular installation you have will work if it (and the flange) have been installed correctly. Most seals will fit a 3” or 4” drain flange, but always measure prior to purchasing a seal – because every flange in your home could be a different size.
Wax-less toilet seals generally last longer lasting than wax versions and can be stacked
(which makes it easier for just about anyone to “set” a toilet without leaks), but under no circumstances is it recommended to “stack” wax rings.
It is recommended however that wax-type seals be replaced every 13 to 15 years regardless of a leak. Reason being that; because it is a non-glycerine substance allied to fats and oils, it is prone to degradation from temperature variations (typically warming) and microbes/enzymes.
If your toilet is rarely used – like basement or spare-room toilets, the lack of “flushing” which commonly allows cool water to enter and cool the bowl and stiffen the wax, can warm the bowl and soften or even melt the wax. Depending upon room temperature (particularly if a heater or heat vent is nearby), the life expectancy of the seal can be seriously shortened. Microbes and enzymes work faster when warm/moist as well, also speeding up the degradation process.
This is the most basic of all toilet seals, has been around for ages, is a very reliable (although it can be messy – like most wax seals) but is still a great choice in many circumstances. If the flange is a minimum 1/4” above the floor level (as it should be) then a wax ring is a reliable option, although nowadays most plumbers use newer/better versions. (Pictured at right is a wax seal on a white extension ring which has been caulked to seal it to the floor. You can see the “T” bolts on either side)
Wax Rings With Sleeve
Wax rings with sleeve (often called “deep seal bowl wax”) come in various thicknesses. If your closet flange is standard height, then a standard wax ring with sleeve will suffice.
If your flange is floor level or slightly below then you can use an extra thick wax ring. If the flange is lower than a 1/4” below the floor level then you should use a flange extension to raise the flange height or remove and replace the old floor flange and set it to the right height. (Do NOT sandwich wax seals & extensions like in the photo @ left).
Felted Wax Rings
Felted wax rings are for wall hung toilets. The felt helps keep the wax in place to provide a good seal. Felted wax rings are also used for urinals; they are just smaller wax rings.
There are a few types of wax-free gaskets available for those who dislike wax rings. Their special rubber seals fit onto the bottom of the toilet, and then a deep seal flange goes into the drainpipe, sealed by an O-ring that prevents splash up. It also prevents noxious sewer gas from entering the room and can be reused multiple times. *Fluidmaster manufactures one such ring that adapts to 3” or 4” drains.
Wax-Free Foam Gasket
*Sani-Seal is a wax-free, very soft, treated foam gasket that can do one thing that is not recommended for wax seals; it can stack. These gaskets are big enough to seal a toilet with a flange height from 3/8” above finished floor level to 3/8” below, if more height is required they can be stacked. Unlike most other types of seals, foam gasket seals maintain a good seal even if the toilet base rocks/twists. Also, unlike wax rings that get mushed once and need replacement, this type of gasket allows a toilet to be set multiple times without replacing it.
Sponge style gaskets can be used as an alternative to felted rings and are mostly used for wall-hung toilets and urinals. They can also be used for floor-mounted toilets if specified. Sponge gaskets come in various thicknesses, so be sure get the thickness that is right for your application.
After setting, there is a conundrum…
Caulking a Toilet to the Floor
There is certainly no shortage of debate among home-builders, plumbers, renovators and DIYers (Do-It-Yourselfers) on the topic of whether or not to caulk a toilet into place. Although the pros and cons on (either side) have merit, I personally feel that the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis, but be sure to check with local building codes (if you want to cover your assets).
1- Can help to secure it from rocking/twisting;
Due to it being bolted-down, the weight of the toilet itself, the water in it and the weight of a person, rarely is this an issue. However, there are occasions when it could be beneficial, such as when larger people sit/lean to one side when doing their “business”, or when attached apparatuses (like the one pictured at right meant to aid elderly/physically challenged individuals to sit/stand or steady themselves) are installed.
2- Prevents liquids (of any type) from getting underneath;
Which can cause mildew/mold growth and create germs/smells, or leakage into a lower cavity (if one exists and the flange has not been properly sealed to the floor).
3- Occasionally makes for a more “finished” look;
Blending a white toilet to a white floor without dark gaps, or when a floor isn’t quite flat/level – leaving irregular gaps between the toilet base and finished flooring (if you can colour match the caulking to the toilet/flooring).
1- Rocking or removal of a toilet that has been caulked to a vinyl floor;
Can stretch or even tear a “glued” finished floor away from the pre-finish floor (usually a thin sheet of very smooth plywood or other specifically designed for vinyl installation). If the vinyl is of the no-glue type, it can pull the entire floor right up. Any attempt to cut away the caulking can damage the finished flooring.
2- It takes longer to remove/replace the toilet (due to the above);
Creating higher cost for those who don’t/can’t “Do-It-Yourself”.
3- If done improperly it can make one hell of a mess (not all plumbers are good at caulking);
It is extremely hard to clean/remove silicone/silicone rubber, particularly if the surface it’s applied to is not absolutely smooth or non-porous (and even then), worse if it’s a soft vinyl.
4- It can create an “outline/ring” which can’t always be removed;
Residual silicone from a previous/poor installation may not be covered by the footprint of a replacement toilet base (if shorter/thinner) in the future, and leads to the following point…
5- The surface qualities of silicone/silicone rubber;
Have a tendency to collect dirt/debris making it look dirty/unsightly requiring more frequent and rigorous cleaning.
And lastly but most importantly (IMO)…
6- It does not allow possible effluent leaks between the toilet and flange to escape onto the floor;
Where it can be seen, allowing one to notice it and (hopefully) take measures to prevent extensive damage to the floor/ceiling below – if not on a concrete slab or if a lower level exists.
As you can see above, there are more “cons” to caulking a toilet to the floor.
One could argue that if/when done correctly (meaning the flange is completely caulked/sealed to the finished floor/sub-floor sealing any possible holes through which liquids/effluents can leak into a lower ceiling cavity or living space) it would eliminate any worry that a potential leak goes unnoticed because the toilet is caulked to the floor.
That said, in my many years of experience I have yet to see a builder/renovator properly seal a flange to the floor, and I have personally fixed dozens of leaks and repaired/replaced dozens of damaged floors (and ceilings) due to that fact.
Whether or not you caulk/seal the flange to the floor; always flush the toilet a minimum of 5 times and check for leaks when done.