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Trouble-shooting your toilet problems at the cottage

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Cottages are typically designed to host large groups of friends and family—with one exception of course. When it comes to your cottage bathroom, all those extra guests can be, er, a heavy load to handle.

In the words of plumber Steve Harris, a clogged or broken toilet can quickly mean that the “party’s over.” Harris is no stranger to cottage plumbing problems. The owner of Harris Plumbing, he has been offering services to Muskoka cottagers since 1974. Below are the most common cottage toilet problems he’s encountered and how to solve them.

Traditional toilets 

Cracks in the toilet. If you only use your cottage seasonally, your toilet may crack without proper winterization. Water needs to be removed from all corners at the end of your cottage season; otherwise it may freeze in the winter.

“The possibility of it cracking is extremely high,” says Harris. If you aren’t comfortable conducting winterization yourself, he recommends hiring a plumber with seasonal plumbing experience. “It could save you a lot of money and headaches in the spring,” he says.

If it’s too late and the damage is already done, disconnect the water supply from your toilet, completely dry it out (it will need to be bone dry), and apply epoxy resin using a caulking gun to any hairline cracks. However, depending on the size of the crack (if it’s larger than 1/16 of an inch) and location, you may need to replace your tank or entire toilet.

Sewage leaks. Depending on the design, size, and efficiency of your cottage’s septic system, there may be limitations on the volume of your septic tank—and what goes down will eventually find its way into the ground and water around you. The key here is prevention. In addition to hiring a reputable septic tank pump-out contractor to regularly do the job, Harris suggests using eco-friendly cleaning products, shampoos, and soaps—and never putting caustic chemicals down your drain.

“They will cause joint damage, which will cost you money to repair—and leaking sewage under the cottage is rarely fun,” he says. “Be gentle with [your septic system] and be aware of what goes into it.” This includes letting guests know that while your toilet may be able to handle a large volume, your septic system may not.

Clogged pipes. With frequent use and a cottage full of guests, your toilet may have a heavier burden to handle than your average toilet. Make communicating to guests on how to properly disposes of feminine hygiene products, diapers, and wipes a priority. They should never go down any toilet—but they should especially never be flushed at the cottage.

“At a cottage, they will clog pipes, causing sewage backups or quickly get caught in sewage pumps,” explains Harris. “It will result in the pump burning out and need an expensive replacement.”

A weak or slow flush. If you have determined that the problem is located in your toilet itself rather than the pipes, check to make sure the tank is topped up with water and that the flapper isn’t closing too quickly. If plunging doesn’t work, scrub out the water inlet holes around the toilet’s rim—calcium and mineral deposits can also result in a sluggish flow.

Composting toilets  

A lingering odour. “Composting toilets have come a long way in design, however, they don’t really differ much from an outhouse—except that they have fewer spiders,” says Harris. Since little or no water is used in these toilets, the resulting smell can be less than pleasant.

Although some models come with rotating drums, fans, and finishing drawers, Harris recommends investing in a solid model and having it professionally installed. It’s also good to regularly check that your fan and fan filter aren’t clogged.

Low-flow toilets

Burst pipes. Investing in a low-flow toilet can mean avoiding many of the problems encountered with traditional toilets. By saving water and reducing the volume of wastewater, it reduces the strain on your septic system. But, as Harris notes, “this is based on the assumption that a single flush is successful in moving the waste sufficiently all the way to the septic each time the toilet is used. When more than single flush is required, that intended benefit goes down the toilet too.”

If a single flush isn’t powerful enough to move waste along, build-up can result in a smelly affair, back-ups, and potentially burst pipes. When installing a low-flow toilet, ensure that you’re choosing a high-quality brand to eliminate these issues. Harris also recommends consulting with a plumber prior to installation. “They can assess your overall system and advise on how to reduce your cottage water consumption and waste water without compromising performance and hygiene,” he says.