Understanding the basics of toilet function and why a quality toilet matters

Buying a toilet is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Back in the 1980s all you had to do was choose between egg shell white, pink or pea green—you know, whichever color matched best with the shag carpet in your living room.

Nowadays you’ve got one piece, skirted, dual-flush, extra tall, elongated, wall hung, flush assisted and many more! The possibilities are mindboggling. Choosing the right one for your bathroom remodel can be confusing, particularly if you don’t understand how a toilet even works.

To help, here’s a quick rundown on the basic science behind how a toilet functions and how quality affects reliability and efficiency. You may not learn enough to quiz your plumber, but by the end you’ll have a better understanding of what does what when shopping your plumbing supply warehouse.

Gravity, oh gravity

While some commercial toilets use air-bladders to create an assisted flush, most toilets get all their force from gravity. This is why the water tank is located above the bowl.

When you pull on the handle a small chain pulls up on the flapper, a rubber device used to seal the flush valve (the hole where water leaves the tank and enters the bowl). When the flapper is lifted the water from the tank is allowed to enter the bowl from many tiny holes surrounding the rim and at the bottom via the siphon jet. The siphon jet helps to provide a little extra push when emptying the bowl into the trap. The trap is where waste leaves the bowl.

As the bowl fills with water, the atmospheric pressure is great enough to push the contents of the bowl up and over the trap into the drain and down to the sewer or septic tank.

A one-piece toilet works in a slightly different fashion as the flush assembly is contained within a plastic cylinder which utilizes a rubber gasket to create the flush valve seal instead of a flapper.

Refilling for reuse

Once the tank has emptied the flapper returns to its original position to recreate the seal over the flush valve.

At this point the ball float will have dropped, opening the intake valve and allowing water to flow from your water line into the tank. As the tank slowly fills, the ball float rises until the tank is full, at which point the rod attached to the ball float will reclose the intake valve.

Along with filling the tank, a small hose from the intake valve runs to an overflow tube which runs down the back and into the bowl. A toilet must have some water in the bowl to prevent odors from returning from the septic system and to help create an ideal flush.

The trouble with low quality toilets

One of the issues with going cheap when buying a new toilet is that budget level commodes provide the absolute bare minimum when it comes to all these moving parts that make up the innards of your toilet.

When valves and seals fail you wind up with leaks, water wastage and potentially huge expenditures from damage or water bills depending on the type of problem.

In addition, low quality toilets are not properly engineered to maximize siphoning and often produce what’s known as an “incomplete flush.” An incomplete flush is when not all waste is removed from the bowl.

Problems with the molding process are also common with discount brand toilets. If the holes around the rim are not formed properly or if the toilet is built with a misshapen trap, it’s entirely possible that the toilet will never flush properly, even if it’s brand new right out of the box.

In short, ignore the sticker shock when shopping for toilets. Saving a few hundred bucks now isn’t worth the headache of dealing with a malfunctioning unit for years to come.

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