How to Install a Handicap Accessible Toilet that Will be Sturdy and Won't Leak

Universal/accessible design of the home from an occupational therapy and a construction perspective. This blog is part of a quest for cool, convenient, functional design that makes life safer, easier, and as maintenance-free as possible. It's about the lifestyle.
As with many things accessible there are tricks and tips that make the world of difference.  Broken flanges and consequently leaky toilets are a big issue for people who use their toilets for transfers, 'plop' onto the toilet, or even people who are overweight.

So what is the toilet flange?

FYI:  This is also called a closet flange or a floor flange.  The toilet flange is a pipe fitting (specifically, a type of flange) that both mounts a toilet to the floor and connects the toilet drain to a drain pipe. The name comes from the term "water closet", the traditional name for a toilet. A typical closet flange is composed of an ABS or PVC hub with a round steel mounting flange attached to the top. Other styles are made from copper, brass, stainless steel, or pure plastic.

PVC toilet flange with steel flange, before installation

So how do you know if the toilet flange is broken?

1 – Leakage From the Base of the Toilet
If a toilet begins to leak around its base, there is most likely a problem with the flange. The tricky part is figuring out what the problem is. Usually it is one of two things: a crack in the flange or a flange that is the wrong size for the toilet. If the toilet has just been installed, it could be either problem. However, if the toilet has worked for many years and has started leaking only recently, it is probably a cracked flange. The reasoning behind this is that if the flange is the wrong size, it probably would have been leaking ever since the first time the toilet was flushed. A cracked flange is generally easy to fix, but may require the homeowner to replace the wax ring as well.

2 – Toilet Moves
If the toilet rocks back and forth, there is almost certainly something wrong with the flange. Since the flange connects the toilet to the floor, the bolts that hold it down may have been broken or may have not been installed correctly in the first place. It is also possible for a flange to crack or break away from its bolts and cause the toilet to move.

When the toilet flanges (aka closet flanges) break due to stress on the toilet we typically have two courses of action:

  • If we can access the floor from underneath we brace the toilet from below increasing the stability and taking the load off the flange.  We have been successful with this approach but don’t always have access from below.

  • Install flanges with stainless steel reinforcements.  Flanges with stainless steel reinforcements like the one below that we often use not only don't break easily due to heavy loads but also don't crack when the closet bolts are tightened.    We also will use stainless steel spacers and always caulk the bottom of the toilet to ‘glue’ it to the floor which helps to prevent the toilet from excessive movement. That said many people don't like to caulk the bottom of the toilet because then if the toilet does leak the leak is difficult to detect.  To deal with this issue we caulk around the toilet but leave a space open in the back so if water is leaking we'll know.
Stainless Steel Closet Flange, 4" x 3"

Just to find out what the rest of the world does in this situation I posed the question of breaking flanges to a few Linkedin groups and got some great solutions.  We had a few recommendations for wall hung toilets which will be a blog post for another day.  For floor mounted toilets here are a few suggestions.

  • Use two wax rings.
  • This suggestion was based on work done in a prison.  Pour concrete around the toilet in a rectangular form. The result was no destroyed toilets in what was a hostile, abusive, punishing environment. I would think that if one wanted to soften the the effect that the concrete could be clad with a decorative, impervious surface such as ceramic tile. 

For slab on grade toilets this is a great solution:

  • Chip around an existing toilet flange and remove the flange (if it is NOT a cast-iron flange). We then install a cast-iron flange.
  • Insert a 5/16" all-tread bolts through the holes and tie them to either existing rebars or insert and epoxy at the least two 5/8" rebar (as horizontal as possible) into the existing concrete slab on either side for each 5/16" bolt.

o   The rebar needs to be imbedded into the existing slab a minimum of 6". The length of the 5/16" all-tread will depend on how deep the hole next to the flange is, but we try to make it as long as possible.

  •   Once everything is a secured and the 5/16" bolt is plumb, encase everything with 5000 psi (Quickcrete) concrete into the hole.  Let it cure for 48 hours before installing toilet.

  •  When setting the toilet it is important to use a good rubber washer first, so it has contact with the porcelain toilet base; then a metal washer and finally a locking nut.

With this design, all of the pressure is on the 5/16" bolts and 5/8" rebars and not the flange itself.

The other issue that goes hand in hand with the broken toilet flanges are broken toilet seats.  I had one client that was breaking his toilet seat almost every 30 days.  We got him a 'Big John' toilet seat and now a little over a year later it's still going strong.

Big John 6W Standard Toliet Seat, White


Maddie Miller said...

such an interesting article, loved reading about platform lifts they really are the best thing to have!

Sharon Reams said...

Toilet Flange is the major part of installing toilet. Most of the people haven't any detail ideas for it and completely have to depend on plumbers. But this post really goes to help for those. I appreciated the post and thanks for sharing the detail methods.