Tom Clyde: Fear and loathing in the plumbing aisle
I’m a pretty good plumber. I wouldn’t want to do a whole house, but when it comes to most repairs, I can handle it. Of course my house is relatively new, and the plumbing is at least made of stuff they still have in hardware stores. That’s not the case with one of the old farm houses that we rent out. Nothing in there is standard. There are parts from the old milking machine spliced in there.
The tenants there have been great, the kind of neighbors I hope will stay forever. The central part of the house dates from about 1880. There are additions on all sides, some from the 1930s, the 1960s, and again in the 1980s. Each of the additions has a reasonably solid foundation. The core of the house is red pine logs on bare dirt. So it rises and falls with the frost. The part of the house that has all the plumbing in it dates from the 1930s when the bathroom was first moved inside.
The tenants reported that the toilet was leaking. It was a pretty typical leak in that gasket between the tank and the bowl. They get old and brittle after, I don’t know, maybe 75 years or so. The easy solution would have been the $10 gasket kit. But the bolts holding it all together were rusty beyond recognition. It needed a new toilet.
Home Depot has a sign advertising that they have over 600 toilets available. Frankly, the world doesn’t need 600 different toilet designs, and I didn’t want to choose among them. But it turns out that the old toilet in the house is an oddball. Apparently since the beginning of time, or at least the dawn of indoor plumbing, the hole in the floor is 12 inches from the wall. Except this one, which is only 10 inches.
That narrowed the selection process considerably. Having eliminated the other 599 options for elimination, that left only one on the shelf that didn’t require redoing the drain system. I was surprised to find that toilets have names. There was the "Santa Rosa," the "Monterey," and one curiously named the "Memoir." I’m still wondering about that one. My favorite was the "Champion Max," which sounded like it could handle the most aggressive high fiber diet you could throw at it. In the 10-inch rough-in line, there was only the "Cadet-10."
I’ve learned a few things about plumbing through the years out here on the ranch. One is that trying to get a real, licensed plumber to drive out here is nearly impossible. I called the guy I’ve used several times, and he said it would be August — of next year — unless he could stop by during the deer hunt in October. He’s been in the crawlspace under this house, and I suspect he’s never coming back. The other lesson is that a job will either take a half hour, or result in a complete remodel of the bathroom. There’s usually not a lot of middle ground.
The fear with plumbing this old is that you put a wrench on a rusty old pipe in the bathroom, and something will twist off out in the old dairy barn a quarter mile away, and before long you are chasing it all the way up to the spring. Fortunately, somewhere through the years, the supply line to the toilet had been replaced. The shutoff valve actually worked.
Pulling the old toilet out is always filled with anticipation. The reasonable expectation was that the floor would be rotten, and that for all these years the toilet was held up by nothing but the flexible tubing on the supply line. But the floor was dry and solid. Things were looking up. Except that where there was supposed to be a "floor flange," a piece of hardware that the plumbers of the world have all agreed on as the standard mounting system, there was something made of cast lead, cattle entrails, and horse hair.
So on the second trip to the hardware store, I bought a floor flange, which had to be remodeled in the garage to fit inside the lead casting. The toilet connects to the floor flange with two bolts, one of which was not included in the box that advertised that it was "everything you need for a no-tools installation." Everything, except one of the critical bolts that will keep the toilet from tipping over. Oddly enough, there was one of those out in the barn in the box of miscellaneous, oddball bolts. Overall, it took a couple of hours, two trips to the hardware store, a half hour of fabrication out in the shop, and a Scottish blessing to get the new flange to fit. Not bad.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.