The excitement of the house's first flush


June 27, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

We're so excited, we just have to tell someone. You see, we just reached an important milestone in our house rehab. We have a flush toilet in the family bath.

That may not seem like a big deal -- yes, we've both lived with indoor plumbing for some time -- but for this particular old house, it's something of a first.

The house was built about 120 years ago, so it didn't have indoor plumbing to start with. When we bought it a few years ago, the only plumbing was a hodge-podge of water pipes and drains that ran through a back addition built sometime in the 1940s. When we worked on the walls we found some evidence of earlier plumbing at the back of the ground floor and the first floor. But that's it.

So this toilet is the first decent modern plumbing the house has ever had. Of course, the space is not exactly a bathroom yet. The tub is installed, and it has cold running water. But the walls are only framed, so it's somewhat drafty and not at all private. It does have a harbor view.

Actually it's a little early to be installing a toilet. The plumbing is the first of the "systems" to go in after the walls are framed. (Heating/air-conditioning is next, then wiring.)

The 'rough-in'

This early stage of the plumbing is called the "rough-in." All the drains and water lines are installed to the point where drywall can be hung. That means any water pipes or drains that extend into a room -- for sink and tub faucets, for example -- are in place.

Also, all the pipes are filled with water. That's so if you accidentally punch a hole in a water line -- say, with a drywall screw gun -- you will find out right away. If the pipes were empty, you could punch numerous holes in them and not realize it until the first time you turned on the water. If that happened to be after the walls and ceiling were complete, it would not be a fun discovery.

Bathtubs are normally installed at rough-in because they're attached to the framing, underneath the drywall. Toilets, however, usually aren't put in place until after the ceilings, walls, floors, and floor finishes are complete.

But when you're working long and odd hours on a project, a working job-site bathroom can be a real luxury.

As it turns out, it's a good thing we got into the fixture-selection process early, because we discovered that since the last time we did a rehab, the rules have changed.

Until the late '70s, toilets used about 5 gallons of water for every flush. Then, concerns about water conservation and the environment caused the amount of water flushed to be reduced to the current 3.5 gallons.

However, another reduction is in the works, in Maryland and many other states. According to Dennis Carroll, an assistant state attorney general who is counsel to the Maryland State Board of Plumbing, a regulation adopted by the state board requires that toilets manufactured after Jan. 31, 1992, use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush -- so-called ultra-low-flush toilets, or "ULFs."

"Maryland has a general water-saver requirement," Mr. Carroll says, "if a fixture is nationally tested and accepted, we have to adopt it." However, not all local areas are under the state board jurisdiction -- the Washington (D.C.) Suburban Sanitary Commission, for instance, is one area that isn't.

Mr. Carroll estimates, however, that about a third of the states have adopted the newer low-flush toilets. "Clearly it's a national trend," he said.

The ULFs are not universally loved among plumbing professionals, as it turns out.

"The self-scouring action of the [ULF] toilets isn't the same as the 3.5 toilets," explains Larry Ellinghaus, of Ellinghaus Heating and Plumbing, Inc. of Baltimore. Drain pipes have to slant down to drain properly. "We work on a fall of 1/8 inch per foot. That's supposed to give you a velocity of 2.6 feet per second" -- how fast the water moves through the pipes.

The problem with ULF toilets, Mr. Ellinghaus said, is that a 1.6 gallon flush may not provide enough velocity to keep the pipes from blocking.

Mr. Carroll concedes that earlier models weren't always as efficient as they could have been, but he says there's no problem with current models. As more and more states adopt the ULF standard, manufacturers will begin halting production of the 3.5-gallon-flush models. There are still some in retail stock, however.

Check local standards

If you're planning to install a new toilet any time soon, you should check with your local plumbing inspector to find out whether the new standard is in effect. However, regardless of any mandate, you need to decide which is more important to you: water conservation or water scouring.

In our case, the less modest members of our construction crew (and one intrepid visitor) have really enjoyed the new 1.6-gallon, name-brand, white toilet. It seems to be scouring just fine. And if you look out the window, far to your left, you can almost see Chesapeake Bay.

Next: Getting your ducts in a row.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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