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In 2005 Pete the Plumber submitted a hair sample to test for heavy metals. The results were “off the charts” for arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, copper and a few other nice guys. It required abandonment of habits and chelation therapy to rectify. It’s now no more bending solder, with teeth, or, breathing fumes; and, it’s gloved hands before I get out of the truck and until I get back in.
One metal though, brass, an alloy, is one of a plumber’s better friends (in most water quality conditions). This is especially true when it comes to kitchen and especially bathroom ‘finish’ plumbing. I often wonder if insurance companies keep detailed records of the sources of their losses, to the nit, so I could ask them: “How many millions did you pay-out last year for water damage to bathrooms and kitchens, and also the floors and structure to adjacent rooms? And, how many claims from policy holders for such damage did you deny?
You know what? There is a metal that is guilty for a majority of those damages. You wanna guess what it is? Not a betting sport? Well, the answer is STEEL, coated, plated, or not. Most of this damage results from steel bolts and washers and nuts used to hold the toilet to the floor, and in the case of two-piece toilets, steel bolts, washers and nuts used to install the tank to the bowl.
Steel has no place, outside of the wall, in a bathroom. Why? It's big enemy? : urine, and moisture in general. If all men were “sitters” instead of “hip shooters” the situation would be somewhat less dire. But, toilet bowls anchored to floors, and tanks to bowls, with plated steel hardware, are time bombs. (If you could procure and view one of the early printings of Alexander Kira’s book, The Bathroom, it would be optically self-evident.) How can you tell whether the closet and tank bolts you purchased, separately, or those which came with your fixture, are solid brass or brass plated steel? Sometimes, without scraping the parts, it can be tricky to tell. The fail safe is a good magnet.
Want to guess the antidote for this folly? This evil practice that destroys so much property? This crime of greed committed by both unscrupulous manufacturer and distributor alike? The answer is: solid brass. NO MORE deceitful brass plated steel, that far too many purveyors of plumbing hardware peddle. Pete the Plumber has a saying: “Brass Is Best”. (And, “have a quality magnet on your key chain or in your pocket.”) I can’t tell you how many hundreds of structural and finish floor damaging, leaking/seeping toilets Pete the Plumber has dealt with, to date. Of those, the vast majority leaked because the installer had used brass plated steel anchor bolts and tank bolts, and plated steel washers and nuts. In a small, humid, often closed-off space constantly subjected to urine splash (Kira’s “The Bathroom”), the plated steel hardware “dissolves” with time.
In the case of the anchoring-to-floor bogus closet bolts, as the steel bolts and washers corrode away, the toilet begins to move, sometimes imperceptibly at first, and the wax seal is compromised. Then seepage begins and often before you know it wooden sub-floors begin to rot. On slab, the moisture can migrate under the tile or linoleum to the lower plates of the walls, rotting them. From there the moisture creeps up the walls in the gypsum board. In both instances this “water”, where it doesn’t belong, by itself damages the structure and puts out a clarion call to termites and other insect pests, not to mention molds. All this because of inferior parts that exist solely due to greed.
In the case of tank to bowl hardware for two-piece toilets, the inferior parts corrode away and let water seep/drip out of the tank under the rubber washers on the tank bolts, and from the foam rubber tank-to-bowl gasket. In the case where the toilet is set upon a sheet goods finish floor (see the author’s recommendations in his book: Installing And Repairing Plumbing Fixtures), the leak is often misdiagnosed as a wax seal failure because water escaping from the failed rubber washers and/or foam rubber gasket seal, adheres to the sides of the bowl, and gravity takes it to the floor where it pools around the base/foot of the bowl. l have, and almost everyone (including other plumbers), on one or more occasions first (mistakenly) suspected the wax seal had failed.
So, maybe after unnecessarily lifting and resetting the toilet you may discover (if you are fortunate), the tank-to-bowl leak. In many cases this leak can be tricky to detect. The author suggests that before you lift a toilet to replace a suspected failed bowl wax, that you test by using wads of toilet tissue held to the upper back and sides of the bowl as you flush the tank. Tanks joined to bowls with the inferior plated steel hardware may be rusted solid with no way of separating the tank and bowl without a grinder, from underneath, or in rare occasions, with a hacksaw blade, in-hand, placed between a sufficient gap between tank and bowl, if it exists. Grinding the nut and bolt from below without lifting the toilet and laying it on its side (with all the time and mess of preparation) can make for a stiff bill for a customer.
Did an installer, employing the inferior steel hardware, at the time, know that he/she was contributing to the early demise of their or someone else’s investment? This author’s guess is no, in most cases. However, I have witnessed merchants of marginal financial standing (and marginal conscience) selling only the bogus product.
What are the odds that the tank-to-bowl bolts shipped with a new, two-piece, boxed toilet are solid brass? And what about the flat washers and nuts? They too should be all-brass, nickel/chrome plated or stainless steel. Accept nothing else. The sleaze bag manufacturers who make brass plated steel and/or plain steel closet hardware (both bowl and tank) and the fixture manufacturers who ship this junk with their fixtures, are not your friends, to put it mildly. When you go shopping for a new fixture, ask that the tank carton be opened (in the case of a two-piece toilet) and use your magnet to test the tank-to-bowl hardware. They will come in a poly bag. With your quality magnet, you can tell if there are any duds without opening the bag. Detect any steel? If yes, politely tell them you will look elsewhere for your new fixture unless they provide you with solid brass bolts and nuts and solid brass or stainless steel washers.
The closet bolts, nuts, and washers used to anchor the bowl to the floor are not usually shipped with a new fixture. These you usually need to purchase separately. Whether you purchase them at a wholesale plumbing supplier or a hardware store, keep that magnet handy. Even solid brass closet bolts, both tank and bowl, when used with plated steel flat washers, and/or plated steel nuts, spell doom.
In my next post I will tell you about another instance where plated steel causes great angst and brass is best.
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.