Toilet trouble

I believe every homeowner should be able to patch a hole in drywall, install a ceiling fan and stop a running toilet. If self-reliance and resourcefulness aren’t Southern traits I don’t know what are.

My two-week battle with a running toilet tested my convictions in ways that both surprised and infuriated me.

It all started with a stuck flapper. The upstairs commode used primarily by our three boys would run because the flapper would somehow become stuck in the upright position, allowing water to flow ad infinitum from the tank into the bowl.

In addition to an inflated water bill, this relatively minor nuisance also produced one or two incidents of overflowing the bowl when one of our dear offspring clogged it. After several weeks of having to remove the lid and push the flapper back into place, I finally committed to making what I knew from experience to be a simple and inexpensive repair.

FAIL! Do not attempt to install a Mansfield flapper valve on an American Standard toilet. I believe the technical problem is, as my plumber told me, "It don't work."

I stopped into Home Depot, headed for the toilet plumbing aisle and was reaching for the $2.98 rubber flapper when I was engaged by an under-utilized employee, eager to help. The orange-aproned gentlemen announced he was a plumber by trade and insisted I purchase a top-of-the-line, Mansfield flapper valve and not just the flapper itself. This device, which I had never seen before, was $8.98.

Still inexpensive enough not to raise any alarms, I was taken in by his expertise. He then proceeded to explain the wonders of the pressure valve and asked if I had ever tested my home’s water pressure. Naturally, if one doesn’t know one’s water pressure, one cannot begin to work on a toilet.

So I added a $20 water pressure gauge to my nearly $10 flapper. As I scanned my items at the do-it-yourself checkout lane, my certainty and pride at addressing root causes rather than just surface symptoms began to wane. Doubt crept into my mind as I walked slowly to my car, studying the packaging on the two items.

First, I realized that I had been talked into spending 10-times what I had intended. Second, I discovered that to install this “best flapper valve in the world,” I would have to remove the tank.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and I should have stopped right there, turned around and exchanged my purchases for a $3 flapper that would have fixed my known problem. But I didn’t. Good ol’ Southern self-reliance, remember? No, instead, I spent the next two hours wrestling my toilet.

After I finally got the old flapper valve out and the new one installed and tank reattached, I turned the water back on to the tank and proceeded to clean up the mess.

That’s when I heard it: the first shot in the uncivil war between me and that toilet. The refill valve kicked on for a few seconds and then fell silent. I suspiciously eyed the toilet and decided it was just adjusting to the new valve.

After two weeks of the toilet sporadically running for a few seconds every three or four minutes and my changing the level of the refill valve float dozens of times, I finally decided it was more than an adjustment period that was the problem.

I attached the water pressure gauge to the spigot at the back of the house. The Home Depot expert had informed me that a household pressure should be between 40 and 80 PSI. I left the gage attached for 12 hours to allow for any pressure fluctuations. It topped out at 120 PSI.

I reluctantly returned to the scene of my first debacle and detached the tank again and started the process over. With my laptop on the vanity showing the “how to stop a running toilet” video, I checked every possible cause of the problem. Finding no obvious mistakes in my handiwork, I reattached the tank and discovered a new problem.

Not only was the toilet still running every few minutes, it was now leaking. At the pinnacle of frustration and depth of despair I sought the phone number of our neighborhood plumber. The cloud of failure overtook my mood, and what started out so well was now headed into the dreaded contractor zone – all because of a $3 flapper.

This is my toilet tank, conveniently labeled for all you do-it-yourselfers and arm-chair plumbers to marvel at. This is how it looks after someone who knows what they are doing has fixed it.

A few days later, our plumber friend came over and had our toilet working properly in less than an hour. As it turned out, the “world’s best flapper valve” only works on toilets made by that manufacturer. He replaced the refill valve, which was also damaged in my repairs, and we were back in business. The tank looked exactly as it would have if I had simply replaced the flapper as I had originally intended.

But the not-so-helpful Home Depot helper was right about my water pressure. Our plumber told us that Lilburn runs its water pressure higher than most municipalities, and he gets a lot of business in the area replacing home water pressure valves. Failure to address this problem, which is not something undertaken by even an ambitious do-it-yourselfer, leads to much more costly failures such as the hot water heater, faucets and even washing machines and dish washers.

All told our bill was about $400, roughly half of what it would have been were not for our friend’s aggressive discounting.

So what life application could I derive from this encounter?

I amended my credo about what home projects everyone should know how to do. I now believe every homeowner should have the phone number of a good drywall contractor, electrician and plumber.

Your mental health is worth something.

Can you tell a similar tale about a household project gone wrong? Are you still kicking yourself for turning something simple into a complete mess? Share your story by leaving a comment below. It’s therapeutic!

New South Bracketology

There are times I pretend to be an expert: any discussion of running, life in the New South, Star Wars and fantasy football.

There are other times when no amount of pretending can cover up glaring ignorance: parenting, relationships, basic plumbing and filling out NCAA tournament brackets.

2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket
Here it is, in all its glory: the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket. After one day, mine is taking on water.

The mania that has swept the country during the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments (although primarily the men’s) overshadows real news of importance in people’s lives. The never-ending Republican primary plays in the background as gas prices soar, tensions rise in Afghanistan and Iran and severe weather spreads across tornado alley through the Midwest and South.

All that stuff impacts people’s lives, but for a few days, the NCAA tournament distracts us from all that and gives us something else to think about.

NCAA Final Four logo
What teams did you pick for the Final Four? Leave a comment below with your picks and join the madness!

Of course, the Internet is to blame for this. Back in the day, you had to go out and buy an actual newspaper to fill out a bracket. I can’t remember the last time I put pencil (definitely not pen!) to a bracket on newsprint. Maybe 1997? In any case, the ubiquitous bracket online and the obnoxious presence of ESPN have conspired to empower anyone to fill out a March Madness bracket.

The result? More ground lost to women in the battle of the sexes.

That’s right, the bracket is no longer male-only turf. All it takes is for one woman to post a bracket on Pinterest and suddenly, millions of women discover that they, too, can compete. Perhaps their significant others have been hiding this bracket from them in order to preserve the last bastion of competition where men can pretend to have superiority.

The democratization of the bracket now has more women entering – and winning – NCAA tournament pools. Why? Women aren’t bogged down in details like offensive rebounds, road records and defensive styles. Their picks reflect the truly random nature of the NCAA tournament.

Vandy takes down Harvard
The Harvard of the South defeated the actual Harvard in round one of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Thursday.

Back when I worked in newspapers, it was always the sports writers who did the worst. All of their knowledge only clouded their judgment. The newsroom pool was usually won by a copy editor with a degree in English literature who made her selections on the basis of which school had the best library or most published authors.

I’m just grateful that my wife hasn’t shown any interest. The humiliation of losing to her in an NCAA tournament pool would only add to the list of subjects in which I can no longer debate her with any credibility. That list includes colors, the arrangement of furniture, baby names, etiquette, television and relationships.

This is really the only week the tournament matters. After the field is narrowed to 16 this weekend, the majority of the country’s brackets will be hopelessly mangled, and the tournament will join the other current events as background noise to our lives. Only the real, hardcore fans will stick with this thing to the end on April 2.

Besides, the real fun lies in figuring out a way to avoid work on Thursday and Friday of the opening week to watch the games. Again, the Internet has brought about a huge sea change on how people slack off from work to watch basketball.

Back in the day, you had to sneak away for a three-hour lunch to watch games or somehow get a portable television into your office. Now you can just log on to and let the Gamecast take it from there – not that I would EVER do that.

When the number of games diminishes to three or four a night, and they all appear in prime time, the illicit nature of the tournament will be gone, along with most of our final four picks, and life can return to normal.

So at the risk of being held accountable by my faithful readers, I will reveal my Final Four selections: Kentucky, Missouri, Florida State and North Carolina. I predict North Carolina will beat Kentucky in the championship, 76-69.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Have you filled out your bracket? Who made your final four? Who is your champion? Leave New South Nation your picks in a comment below and join the fun!