The flush is off the old commode

April 03, 1999|By ROB KASPER

ONE RECENT Saturday afternoon I found myself sprawled, stomach down, on the basement floor. Passers-by who happened on the scene might think they were witnessing a strange religious ritual, a prostrate man paying homage to a plumbing fixture. It would be a good guess, since most homeowners feel the need, at one time or another, to plea for mercy from the deities of plumbing and heating.

Yet on this occasion I had come to the basement not to honor the water closet, but to repair it. A faithful servant, the ball cock assembly, the oldest- surviving piece of plumbing in the 110-year-old house, had given up the ghost. It had labored for probably the last 70 years, refilling the toilet tank every time it was emptied. It still required parts made of leather.

It had not gone quietly. Its demise was preceded by a month-long series of incidents. First, there were the days of running water. These were marked by the sound of water from the recently flushed toilet continuing to flow from the tank into the bowl.

In addition to jacking up the water bill, this behavior was annoying. I surmised it was the tipsy-tank ball syndrome. This happens when the rubber tank ball misses its target. Instead of obediently sliding down a guide arm and coming to rest in a hole at the bottom of the tank, the ball wanders, sometimes hitting the hole at the bottom of the tank, sometimes not.

This syndrome is common in older units. I had dealt with it before by terminating the services of the old ball, then sanding down the guide arm to make sure the new ball traveled a straight, narrow path.

However, this time when I lifted the lid off the toilet tank to minister to the tipsy tank ball, I quickly saw signs of other trouble. The ball cock, a venerable brass fixture that normally was the pillar of rectitude, was behaving like a kid with a new water gun, firing off streams of water at all comers.

Experience has taught me that when a ball cock starts squirting, it is a call for help, a signal that the washers and other packing parts deep in its interior need to be replaced.

The troubled parts resided in a small plunger buried in the belly of the ball cock. This set-up was a relic, a reminder of ball cocks gone by. Over the years, most of the other toilet tanks in our house had fallen victim to the forces of modernization. In bathroom after bathroom, the ancient, elaborate metal workings of the toilet tank had been replaced with newer, simpler structures made of plastic.

But down in the basement, the area of the house that serves as a sanctuary for many forms of endangered domestic life, the toilet's old innards had survived. When the toilet faltered, I would nurse it back to health, sometimes making trips to several hardware stores to find the part I needed to make things right.

Intent on keeping the old ball cock alive, I carried the afflicted part, the small plunger, to my neighborhood hardware store. There Maurice, one of the hardware-store guys, found some new leather packing to fit around the plunger's middle. He couldn't find a flat rubber washer for the bottom of the plunger, so he flipped the old washer over.

With the new and repositioned parts in the place, the plunger was fatter. This was good, because when the plunger goes back inside the ball cock, you want a tight fit, like a wide body squeezing into a pair of tight jeans.

However, as I tried to maneuver the freshly fattened plunger back into its old home, another part of the assembly, the rocker arm that holds the plunger down, snapped and broke into a couple of pieces. That kind of thing happens in life; something gives years of solid service, then things change, and it snaps under stress.

As I looked down at the broken ball cock, I knew it was the end of an era. A piece of household history had died.

Shortly after it expired, I got down on my stomach so I could look underneath the toilet tank and see what kind of wrenches I would need to remove the deceased. I let the old apparatus lie in state overnight, but the next day, I removed it from the tank and set it on my workbench. Soon I was back in the hardware store consulting with Mickey, another hardware-store guy, on how to proceed.

He recommended that I spring for a new float-cup refill valve. It was the latest model of ball cocks, it sported an anti-siphon feature, and its height could be easily adjusted to fit tall tanks. It was also plastic, and felt flimsy compared to the hefty, brass assembly it replaced.

I took the new refill valve home and began to install it. The toilet is in a tight spot in the corner of the basement. As I squirmed, I remembered that it wasn't just sentiment that had kept me from yanking out the old toilet parts. It was also the fact that replacing them in such tight quarters was a nasty job.

The job took me the better part of the afternoon. But thanks to a little help from my 18-year-old son, whose strong hands compensated for his weak interest in home repairs, I was able to secure the new valve snugly in place.

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