Fear of an Exploding Toilet

Minor spoiler alert for Game of Thrones Season 4 (just in case you’re significantly behind and actually care).

Plumbing issues. My worst nightmare. I live in constant fear of flooding or backups. Surprising to many, I can do a few minor repairs. Not quickly mind you — but I can complete them — eventually. For example, I went to change out a fill valve and a flapper in the toilet reservoir tank a couple of years ago, and it took me 5 days to finish it — about 4 days, 23 hours, and 40 minutes longer than it should have. And that was a relatively easy task. I guess I’m missing a handyman gene — I’m always worried about screwing something up, so I tend to be overly cautious. Plus, any moderately complex task is beyond me. Trust me, I discovered it the hard way during my highly ambitious, though short-lived, handyman phase.

My woes begin

My problems started when one of my toilets began rocking anytime someone sat on it (That someone being the Houseguest as the toilet in question was in her bathroom). Since there was no water leaking out of its base, I didn’t really worry about it because, well, the toilet in my bathroom didn’t rock. But the Houseguest found the motion disconcerting, so I told her I’d look into fixing it. Eventually. (Which was a couple of weeks later.)

When I finally got around to trying to diagnose and solve the problem, I Googled some suggested fixes. The simplest was to use toilet shims to level it. These were small, plastic wedges I bought at Home Depot. I pushed them into the gap between the toilet and the floor, hoping that would stabilize it and solve the problem — and watched them promptly disappear. Huh, that was a little unexpected — and alarming. And they had zero effect. The toilet still thought it was a rocking horse. Not good. Not good at all.

Get a handyman?

At that point, I thought about hiring a handyman. Turns out, I’d twice given a ride on Lyft to a former plumber who now works in the plumbing section of Lowes. He did side jobs and gave me his card. He would have been a lot cheaper than a plumbing company. However, three things gave me pause.

  1. The Houseguest wanted to know why he was working at Lowes and was no longer a full-time plumber (Maybe retired? I dunno).
  2. I’ve gone with cheap alternatives before — friends or friends of friends who do side work — and let’s say I didn’t always get the desired outcome. Things get awkward at that point.
  3. He was hammered at three o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday the second time I gave him a ride — the thought of him repairing my toilet while potentially drunk was not appealing.

Even though the savings tempted me, I opted not to roll the dice on him.

Back to the Internet

I went back to Google, and after much research, I determined the wax ring that forms a seal between the toilet and the pipe probably needed replacing. So I YouTubed how to replace a wax ring.

I have to admit, the process of removing a toilet was unnerving. I mean what can go wrong, right? The possibilities left me in a cold sweat. Still, I ignored all my doubting friends on Facebook who urged me to hire a plumber, and I forged ahead and bought the supplies. Then I sat there for another week dwelling on everything that could go wrong, and I watched the videos again to reassure myself. My worst-case scenario was if the wax ring wasn’t the problem, but instead, I had a broken flange. No way I could fix that.

The Houseguest was worried that if I started this project and were unsuccessful, she’d end up with an open pipe to the sewer and no functioning toilet. (Granted, well within the realm of possibility). She let me know in no uncertain terms that if we faced a cockroach armageddon, there would be hell to pay. She offered to shell out the cash for a real plumber, but I told her I was on the case and not to waste her money. I’d figure it out. The look she gave me was not one of confidence.

Taking a deep breath, when I wrestled the toilet free and removed it, the flange was intact, much to my relief. This may shock a few people, but I did manage to change the wax ring and replace the toilet and bolt it back down without cracking the porcelain. Success! I even recovered the shims. Huzzah!

Except, after all that effort, the toilet still rocked.

The author despairing over his broken toilet.
As long as no one needs to use the toilet, we’ll be okay.

Hoping against hope, I tried using the shims but, yet again, they disappeared out of sight.

Goddamn it.

The only consolation was at least the toilet still wasn’t leaking. So, as far as I could tell, the wax ring was not the culprit. But I still had no idea why the toilet was rocking. I told the Houseguest to hang tight, and I’d get a plumber on the case — after I paid a couple of bills down. Which was going to take a while…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another

Anyway, the months went by with only the occasional grumble from the Houseguest. My friend Andréa worried a sudden wave of sewage would sweep the Houseguest away one day, but the toilet sat there like a dormant Mount Vesuvius, biding its time.

During this period, the sink in the Houseguest’s bathroom started dripping — it was slow at first, but over time it picked up the tempo tap – tap – tap. Hearing it day after day became psychological torture. It was the Universe telling me my house was a victim of entropy (which is not surprising since it was built in 1981).

I Youtubed sink repairs, but when I remodeled that bathroom six years ago, the contractor put in some fancy faucets, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. So, I added it to the list of things my imaginary plumber would theoretically fix at some undetermined point down the road.

Can things get worse? What do you think?

Then one day, the Houseguest called me in a panic. There was a large puddle of water — but not in her bathroom. No, it was under the kitchen sink. Oh geezus. Instant alarm set in. It turned out the garbage disposal was leaking water out of the bottom. So we stopped using the left side of the double sink. However, it still kind of leaked when we used the right sink (which shares the same pipe) if we ran the water too fast.

So back to Youtube I went and watched garbage disposal repair videos. From what I could deduce, it looked like my disposal had corroded and I would need to replace it. That gave me pause as it seemed more complex than the other things I’d already failed at. This time there were wires to connect.  If a project involves electricity, I want no part of it. I’d already shocked the shit out of myself back in the mid-’90s trying to fix a beard trimmer (Temporarily burned off my damn thumbprint). I still suffer PTSD from it, so I was less than keen to add running water into the equation.

man working on wires of garbage disposal
Okay, which wire should I not touch?

Damn it. I was finally going to have to call a plumber.

But I didn’t. Instead, I stuck a small plastic tub under the leaky garbage disposal and told the Houseguest to ease up on the water flow. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried rinsing dishes with the water that dribbles from a melting icicle, but that’s about where our water flow was at to avoid flooding under the kitchen sink. It was an incredibly inconvenient way to wash dishes. After a couple more weeks of that, I’d had enough. I called a plumbing company, and a few days later, they sent a fellow over. My hope was I could get this all taken care of for a couple of hundred bucks. Call me an optimist.

A shadow darkens my door

The morning the plumber showed up, when I opened the door after his knock, I almost slammed it in his face. I don’t know if any of you are Game of Thrones fans, but in the show, there is a psychopathic character nicknamed The Mountain that Rides (played by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, who has held the title of the world’s strongest man). A savage, bearded knight, The Mountain is a veritable giant of a warrior who is capable of crushing an enemy’s skull with his hands (which he did in Season 4). There, standing on my doorstep, was a slightly tinier version of The Mountain — in other words, still a giant human being — sporting a beard and muscles. The resemblance was unnerving.

The Mountain from Game of Thrones fighting Oberyn
Now imagine him holding a wrench instead of a giant sword.

The Mini-Mountain set about his tasks. When I explained the toilet situation and my failed remedies, his brow creased with concern. He told me it would be $200 to pop the toilet off and replace it, and depending on what he found, there could be thousands of more dollars involved if he had to jackhammer the floor up and reposition the pipe. It was very sobering. Anyway, he decided to tackle the sink and the garbage disposal first.

Flirting with danger

The problems started right away because it’s my house and why wouldn’t they? First, the fancy faucet required some expensive cartridge ($125!) and he didn’t have one on hand, so he had to go to Home Depot. Gone for half an hour, he called to tell me the store didn’t have the cartridge — apparently, my contractor had bought a faucet that used a rarer cartridge, so the Mini-Mountain had to go to a plumbing supply store.

When he got back, he swapped out the cartridge. Ready to tackle the disposal, he went to turn off the water at the street and disappeared for ten minutes. Curious, I stepped out the front door to find out what was going on. He told me he couldn’t shut off the main valve. His tool was ineffective and could not budge it — so he had called the city to send a worker out. I could sense his frustration.

I stepped back into the house. The Houseguest was sitting on the couch watching TV and asked for an update. I explained we’d hit a snag and she wanted to know why a strapping fellow like the Mini-Mountain couldn’t turn a valve.

“He told me his tool is too small.”

I wasn’t trying to be funny, but the Houseguest snorted a repressed laugh.

“Did you just say — he has a small tool?” she asked, full of mirth.

Wiener humor is generally not part of her comedic repertoire, but of course, she chose that moment to regress to junior high. I could hear the Mini-Mountain crunching around in the landscaping rock five feet from my front door.

I hissed at her to shut it, jerking my thumb back over my shoulder.

“Are you trying to get me killed?”

In his frustrated state, I was afraid the Mini-Mountain might snap at her mockery. In most cases, when a woman riles up a large guy, it’s her innocent guy friend or significant other who becomes the punching bag. Moreover, if the Mini-Mountain got started, it wouldn’t take much punching at all to make short work of me. He looked like he could crush me with one thumb. I kept envisioning Oberyn Martell’s horrific fate on Game of Thrones.

The Mountain crushing Oberyn's head.
No one’s Houseguest makes fun of my tool!

Under pressure

While we were waiting for the city worker, I mentioned that the guy who installed my water heater had thought that the water pressure to my house was too high. The Mini-Mountain grabbed a pressure gauge and checked it and became instantly alarmed. The pounds per square inch should have been between 50 to 60. The water pressure for my house? 100 psi. My house was the equivalent of an old man with high blood pressure who was ready to stroke out at any moment. The Mini-Mountain told me of all the things wrong with my plumbing, the water pressure concerned him the most.

Flooding living room
So, you’re saying it’s a little high? Is that a problem?

He pointed out the pipe leading into my house had an old valve system and said he’d need to cut the pipe out and install a new one with a pressure regulator. All the day’s work would cost me $1,009.35 — assuming he didn’t discover unexpected complications once he removed the toilet. At this point, as much as that number depressed me, I just wanted to avoid a plumbing disaster, so I told him to add the pressure regulator installation to the work order.

Pipe problems

Once the city worker had done his thing and left, the Mini-Mountain got to work. He re-plumbed the kitchen sink and set to work outside. Finally, we were making some headway — or so I thought.

The Mini-Mountain cut out the old pipe and then began soldering in bright, shiny copper piping. He had to leave at one point to go to the store again because he was missing something. When he returned, he began soldering again. Through the open front door, I could hear the steady jet of flame from his torch that kept going and going and going. Then it stopped. Then it started again and kept going and going and going. This went on for a while, which seemed odd. After an eternity, he came back in and described the trouble. It had something to do with the copper pipe, moist ground, and electrolysis. Anyway, it had been inhibiting his attempt to solder part of the pipe, but he eventually got it finished.

On to the main event

Finally, he was ready to tackle the toilet. Once he had removed it, he quickly diagnosed the problem. Someone had chipped the tile too far away from the flange — the back of the toilet base had nothing to rest on and when someone sat down, the toilet rocked back. When the contractor remodeled that bathroom, his plumber must have half-assed the job (no pun intended) or whatever temporary measure he’d used had failed — I’d never noticed it before because I didn’t use that toilet.

The good news was it was a solvable problem and wouldn’t require massive amounts of work. The bad news? The Mini-Mountain needed to add concrete to give the back of the toilet base something to rest on. That would cost an additional $300. Already late to his next appointment, The Mini-Mountain informed me he couldn’t do it that day, but he could come back in three days. However, he said I could save money if I knew how to work with concrete. I told him I didn’t, but I could probably Youtube it. He said if I did the concrete, he could come back and reset the toilet, or he could leave me the wax ring, and I could do it.

Before he left, he turned the water to the house back on. We heard running water, and alarmed, we hurried around trying to find it. Luckily, it was the front toilet. The fill valve had chosen that exact moment to malfunction. I couldn’t believe it. It had acted up once before but only for one flush. Now it kept running. The Mini-Mountain fiddled with it and said he would need to replace it, but he didn’t have time to do it. Accepting the fact the plumbing gods had it in for me, I told him not to sweat it. So, he collected his tools, I paid him, and he left.

My house had sent the Mini-Mountain fleeing into the evening twilight.

I stood in the back bathroom contemplating the disarray. One thousand, nine dollars and thirty-five cents later and my toilet, the one problem I really wanted to solve, was sitting in the middle of the floor. And now the other one needed fixing. What had I done to deserve this?

Less than half-an-hour later, I was up at Home Depot buying plumbing parts and concrete. It just didn’t seem right.

My local Home Depot
Buying plumbing parts at my local Home Depot

So I put in the new fill valve (only took me about 10 minutes this time). Then I Youtubed how to lay concrete around a flange, and I’m glad I did because I could have caused a lot of inconvenient problems with my original plan. I opted not to tackle it that night, so the next day, Saturday, I used cardboard and tape to block off the concrete from getting into areas I didn’t want it to and was about to get to work when my buddy James the Annoyer (the one who talks through movies) stopped by to visit. He has worked with concrete professionally, so I let him take over.

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Next day, after the concrete had cured, I replaced the toilet and hooked it up. It no longer rocked! Halleluja! And it flushed with no leaking! Mission accomplished.

Doing the concrete repair myself (with The Annoyer’s help) had only cost me $13 instead of $300. The moral of the story? Tell your kid to skip college and become a plumber.


Of course, that’s not the end of the story because, with me, it never is. See, when I want to water the few surviving plants in my yard, I have to manually turn my sprinklers on because my automated control system is malfunctioning. The first time I turned it on, which was three days after the Mini-Mountain’s visit, the old pipe that connects with the new pipe he installed began gushing water. The bushes in my front yard are barely hanging on, so if I didn’t get it fixed, they were doomed. So I called the plumbing company and said their guy must have damaged the pipe while working on it. They said they’d send a plumber over in a couple of days.

burst pipe
I have terrible luck.

I really hoped it wasn’t the Mini-Mountain — I didn’t want him thinking I’d ratted him out to his boss or implied he was incompetent.

Bright and early Monday morning, my doorbell rang, and there was the Mini-Mountain towering over me. Despite my apprehension, he was cordial and set to work. After some preliminary excavation, he commented someone had repaired the old pipe before (they had), which I assumed was the set up for charging me an arm and a leg. Half an hour later, I had a shiny new copper pipe. The Mini-Mountain shook my hand with his giant mitt and then was on his way with no charge for his labor or materials.

I guess it’s true what they say — never judge a book by its cover. Even if it can kill you with its thumb.

Bonus Bud Light and Game of Thrones go a little dark in this crossover Super Bowl commercial featuring The Mountain.

6 thoughts on “Fear of an Exploding Toilet

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Thanks Basilike. I’m thinking Jamie’s gold hand would be a bit of a problem and probably a safety violation. Though he is pretty fearless and does what he wants.


  1. Sean D. Layton

    Hmmm, he’s always bundled up in that massive fur coat, so I’m not sure of his level of competency when it comes to central heating. One of these days, I’ll have to post about my unfortunate experience when it comes to a chilly winter.


  2. Oh my god you have no idea how much I identified with this post! (About a toilet? hahah) I’ve had so many plumbing issues that I’ve often been brought to tears. My saga immediately started the moment I bought my house. I have had major issues with the pipes under my shower, a plumbing issue further down the line on the council side that occasionally backs my toilet up (city workers ‘fix’ the problem at least two times year when pedestrians complain) oh and my toilet also gets backed up every month or so due to another issue (grass roots). I can actually access this section, so I can usually fix the problem myself (my dad showed me how). It’s gross but saves me a $100 call out every time. I just don’t have enough money to get it fixed properly…

    Oh but wait there’s more! I’ve also had 7 burst water pipes in my ceiling so far (lots of damage) and once had a big leak under this cement slab next to my main stairs. Had to live without water for a week while my dad helped me demolish the cement slab and access the pipes! I’m so over living like this… lol.


    1. Sean D. Layton

      Oh my God, Milly, I feel like I’ve gotten off lightly in comparison! My head would explode. By the way, I don’t know why WordPress decided to put your comment in the SPAM bin, but glad I just noticed it sitting there.


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