Humans have needed toilets for their entire existence and they have taken many forms throughout the ages. We don’t know what the earliest humans did for toilets, but we do have a history that dates back a few thousand years.
The Evolution of the Toilet
As far back as 3000 BCE, there is evidence of toilets in the area that is now Scotland. Archeologists have found pipe systems used to carry waste out of buildings to the outdoors. A palace constructed in Greece in 1700 BCE had large, earthenware pans connected to a flushing water supply for their toilets.
In medieval times chamber pots were often used. Much of the time people would toss their waste from the pot out into the street below. The smell was probably so very awful.
More affluent families would sometimes have a garderobe – a room that hung out passed the rest of the building with an opening in the bottom. They would do their business over the opening and the waste would drop down into a moat or onto the ground below. Oftentimes people would also hang their robes in this room as they believed the odor in the room would keep fleas off their robes.
In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented the first flushing toilet for his godmother Queen Elizabeth I. It has a cistern on a floor above the basin that took 7.5 gallons of water for every flush. Even though the technology now existed, flush toilets did not gain widespread use for another 200 years.
In 1775 Alexander Cummings was granted the first patent for a flushing toilet. He created the s-bend even modern-day toilets have. This shape keeps sewer gases from escaping back up into the bow. During this time and into the 1800s, flushing toilets continued to gain popularity.
Up until the mid-1800s, all wastewater from toilets, chemicals, and horse waste continued to find its way back into drinking water and the spread of disease was rampant. In 1865, in London, a complete sewer system was completed and deaths from typhoid, cholera and other waterborne illnesses dropped drastically. It was a huge step forward in humans’ health and understanding how diseases are communicated.
In the late-1800s and into the 1900s Thomas Crapper (a name famous in toilet history) and many other inventors worked together to improve toilet technology. Crapper did not invent the toilet as myths say, he invented the ballcock fill valve used today. This group set the stage for the changes that happened to the toilet in the 20th Century to bring the toilet to what it is today.
Types of Toilets Used Today
A gravity flush toilet is what Sir John Harrington invented in the 1500s and it is still the most common toilet used in the world. It has a tank full of water on the back of the bowl, when the water drops into the bowl, everything in the bowl is pushed down into the sewer pipes and out of the house.
A dual flush toilet is a type of gravity flush. It has two different flush options that can be used each time the toilet is flushed. The first is a half flush that, as the name suggests, uses half of the water in the tank. It’s used for liquid waste. The second flush is a full flush, a complete emptying of the tank, and is used for solid waste. This type of toilet is more expensive at the outset, but better for the environment and your wallet over time as less water is used.
Double Cyclone Flush
One of the newer types of toilets being used now is a double cyclone flush toilet. It, like the dual flush, uses less water but does it with every single flush. It uses nozzles to fire water into the bowl to create centrifugal force so that the toilet flushes fully and more efficiently.
A pressure assisted toilet couples gravity with pressurized air for a more powerful flush. There is a sealed cylinder in the toilet tank that houses the air. These toilets use less water, are good for more frequently used toilets, and tend to be noisier than gravity toilets.
Composting or Waterless Toilet
A composting toilet is much like a compost pile in a yard but contained. They are often used in RVs, boats & public places. Like a compost heap, the waste is allowed to break down via microbial action. It kills germs and viruses and when it’s done, the leftover “humanure” is safe and easy to dispose of.
Upflush toilets don’t use gravity. In a place where it may be very difficult to drill into the bathroom floor and install a complex plumbing system, these can be helpful. These have a macerator that takes any solid waste and processes it much smaller. The waste is then flushed through an upward pipe to a sewer line. The sewer lines for these toilets can be as small as ¾”, much smaller than a standard gravity flush toilet.
Breaking Down the Elements of a Toilet
Toilets have three main elements: the tank, the bowl, and the seat. Each element has standards and variations that can be explored.
The Toilet Tank
The tank of a toilet is the upper portion of the toilet that rests above the toilet bowl. Some toilets have a tank that is a separate piece of porcelain from the bowl and some are all one piece. The tank can typically hold about two gallons of water.
There are parts inside and outside of each tank. On the outside you have the tank itself, the toilet handle – the lever you push to flush – and the removable lid to the tank.
The inside of the tank houses the most complex parts of the toilet. Inside the tank you will find:
- Trip lever – this attaches to the handle on the outside of the tank and to the chain inside.
- Lift Chain – connects the trip lever to the flapper
- Flapper – a rubber stopper at the bottom of the tank that seals the opening to the bowl. When the handle is pushed, the lever and chain lift the flapper, and the toilet flushes.
- Fill Valve – this is attached to a water line and refills the tank after it’s been flushed.
- Float ball and rod – the float ball is attached to the fill valve by the rod. As the tank fills up, the ball floats. When it reaches the maximum level, it will cause the fill valve to shut off. It keeps the water from continuously running.
- Refill tube – this adds water to the bowl as the tank is refilling. It is a small, flexible tube. You need a small amount of water at the bottom of the bowl at all times to keep sewer gasses from coming up out of the sewer pipe.
- Overflow tube – If the float ball fails or if the fill valve doesn’t shut off as designed, the overflow tube allows excess water to flow into the tank so that the tank doesn’t overflow.
The Toilet Bowl
The bowl is a little less complicated. It has quite a few parts, but less of the moving variety.
- Flapper valve gasket – this connects the tank to the bowl. It is also what the flapper rests on to seal the tank between flushes.
- Rim holes – small holes around the top of the bowl that the water exits out of when it flushes to help clean the sides of the bowl.
- Siphon jet – large jet of water that flushes the water through the bowl and into the trapway. It’s along the rim of the bowl.
- Trapway – the hole at the bottom of the bowl the water goes through into the s-curve and onto the sewer pipe.
- Outlet – this is where the sewer pipe on the floor and the toilet connect via the flange.
- Toilet flange – the flange is used to connect the toilet to the sewer drainpipe on the floor. It’s usually rubber. The flange has to be sealed and that is usually done with a wax ring.
The toilet seat is usually plastic or wood and has a seat and a lid. There are also hinges so the lid can open and close, and so the seat can be opened as well. The seat is attached to the bowl with bolts. The bolts have covers to protect them from water damage.
To make the use and cleaning of the toilet more convenient, there are many accessories for it. The most common is toilet paper and a holder for it. Most holders attach to the wall, though some are free-standing. There are also now bidet attachments for toilets that can help a person remain cleaner and use less toilet paper.
A plunger is a good tool to have in the bathroom at all times. If the trapway of the toilet becomes clogged and begins or threatens to overflow, a few pumps with a plunger are often all that is needed to get the pipes flowing again.
Toilet bowl brushes make cleaning the toilet bowl quicker and more sanitary. They come in all kinds of styles and colors and stands to match any décor in the bathroom.
There are also covers for the tank lids and seat lids for the toilet. This is another way to match the décor of the room.
What to Consider When Buying a Toilet
Choosing the best toilet to fit the needs of the users and the space takes a bit of research. It must be decided if a standard height or taller toilet is needed. Also, there are regular round bowls and elongated bowls. Elongated bowls are two inches longer than round bowls and they are a bit more oval in shape.
Before choosing the elongated bowl, measure to make sure there is room in the bathroom for it. Sometimes bathroom spaces can be tight and it would be unfortunate to install a toilet and then be unable to close the bathroom door.
One must also decide which type of toilet best suits the needs of the home. Is a simple gravity style sufficient or is a pressure-assisted model a better choice for a larger family? For environmental concerns, perhaps a dual flush is the way to go.
Take some time to also look at reviews of different toilet models. The cheapest is not always the best option. Sometimes spending just a bit more makes a big difference. Spending a little time reading about user experiences and even professional reviews like Consumer Reports can save a lot of headaches in the long run.
It’s also a good idea to check with the local water utility company to see if they offer rebates for high-efficiency models. They often do and it’s a great way to save some money – and some water.
What are Common Problems that Arise with Toilets?
Gravity flush toilets are relatively simple machines. They have common issues, but often times they are not difficult to fix – sometimes even without a plumber.
The most common issue is that the toilet gets clogged. This happens when something gets lodged somewhere in the toilet or sewer pipe and doesn’t allow much or any water to flow.
Often times using a plunger to clear the clog. You may need to call a professional to snake the line or more if that doesn’t work. To avoid clogs, only flush waste and toilet paper down the toilet. No feminine hygiene products, paper towels, toys, or other foreign objects.
Sometimes a toilet will leak. There are many ways it can leak. Sometimes if it’s leaking from where a fitting exists – like the bolts that connect the tank to the bowl, or where the water line meets the tank, or out from under the bottom of the toilet.
First, check all your fittings and make sure they are tight. If that doesn’t do the trick, a valve seat or gasket may need to be replaced. If it’s seeping from under the bottom of the toilet, the wax seal may have failed and need replacing.
Another way it leaks is from the tank into the bowl. This will also present as the toilet refilling on its own. If the tank isn’t sealed well, water will seep into the bowl, then the water will turn on to refill the tank, then it’ll leak out…a cycle of water waste. If not caught, hundreds of gallons of water, and money, can be lost.
Check that the flapper is sealing correctly, sometimes it needs to be cleaned or adjusted. Also, sometimes build-up on the tank can keep it from sealing and it needs to be removed. If those things don’t work, try replacing the flapper. It’s inexpensive and often solves the problem.
If the toilet isn’t filling correctly, it could be a few things, the fill valve could be damaged, as could the fill tube. If you check those and they aren’t the issue, it may be a cracked bowl or a faulty vent pipe.
Another issue is the toilet rocks back and forth/side to side. This could be as simple as tightening the bolts that hold it to the flange. Make sure not to over-tighten them though, doing so could break the toilet. If that’s not the issue, the toilet may need to be leveled with shims.
How long ago was the toilet invented?
The flushing toilet, an ancestor of what we use today, was invented in 1596. Some semblance of toilets has been used for much longer. There is historical evidence that dates back over 5000 years.
What are the main parts of a toilet?
A toilet is made of up three main parts – the tank, the bowl, and the seat. The inside of the tank houses the parts that allow the toilet to flush – mainly the flapper, fill valve, and float ball. The bowl attaches to the sewer pipe in the ground with a flange and wax ring. The seat has a lid and attaches to the bowl with bolts.
What accessories are needed for the toilet?
Toilet paper, a toilet paper holder, a bidet, a plunger, a toilet brush, and lid covers are some of the accessories for the toilet.
What should be considered when buying a toilet?
Research about the different types of toilets so you can choose the best fit for the household needs. Take the time to look at online reviews to see if utility companies offer rebates for water-wise models. Carefully measure the space to make sure the model chosen will fit.
What are the main problems with toilets?
Toilets can have many issues that cause them to misfunction. Issues could be clogs, leaks, not filling correctly, or rocking back and forth. Some are easy fixes and some may require a plumber’s help.
I am John Kluge, co-founder of Toilethackers.org. With 10+ years of experience working with toilets, I have garnered a lot of understanding about resolving toilet-related issues. Knowledge is meant to be shared and I am passionate about teaching people the right way to keep toilets clean and also fix toilet-related issues. I co-founded this blog to share my experiences and keep readers updated about toilet-related issues. Knowledge sharing is my forte and I always do so with ease. With exceptional writing and analytic skill, I use my skill to simplify complex terms and ensure readers grasp more understanding about toilet issues.