My Exploding Toilet

(*spoiler alert*: it does not actually explode…quite)

I had a pressure-assist toilet. This is the kind of toilet that has a pressure tank inside and instead of the normal “woosh-gurgle-glug” of the flush followed by a somewhat lengthy filling noise it would go “foom!” and then fill the tank back up very rapidly. It used very little water (which was nice for the environment) and took almost to time to reset for the next use. And it was low-profile: The bathroom is tiny, and a lot of the design choices made during the remodel were done to maximize the feeling of space.

But the toilet was all under high pressure.

One night my room mate woke me up because one of the cats had woken him up because there was water everywhere. A clip inside there had failed, allowing the inlet pipe to detach from the tank, spewing water everywhere.  The floor in the bathroom was fine: it’s tile. The floor in the hall outside the bathroom was an inch deep in water.

I got the water shut off to the thing, cleaned up the water as best I could and the next morning called Kohler. I got right through to someone who was very concerned. “Was anyone hurt?” “Was there much shrapnel damage to the rest of the room?”

Wait.  Shrapnel damage?!

It turns out that the little plastic clip that broke on mine is pretty much the most benign thing that could have broken. Most of the other failure modes involve an actual explosion. With loud noises. And shrapnel.

They don’t make that model any more.

They hadn’t made this model for a couple of years even before they started exploding, actually, because the pressure parts were (unlike most things Kohler sells) bought from a third party that had since gone out of business. So when the explosions started they were just stuck.  They couldn’t offer a redesigned replacement pressure tank, because it wasn’t their design to begin with.  They couldn’t even just replace the tanks with new ones when they broke, because the supplier had gone under. All they could do was replace the toilet with something else/different, and take a bath on the whole thing.

They offered me free of charge a new toilet. Either one that looked similar to the one that exploded but was not pressure-assisted, or a pressure one that looks more like a regular toilet (with all Kohler-made parts inside both). I went for the low-profile non-pressure. Not because of any new fear of the pressure mechanism; just because I wanted the low-profile: I knew for dead certain that it would fit in the same space as the exploded one came out of.

Replacing a toilet is a lot simpler than it seems; especially a one-piece model. From unboxing to first use was about half an hour. And while it doesn’t use quite as little water as the pressure model, it’s still very frugal with the water.

If I had been a little more flush at the time, I would have taken the normal-looking pressure one from Kohler and set it aside for possible use in the (currently derelict) basement water closet and then sought out another manufacturer’s low-profile pressure assist toilet for the actual bathroom. But I didn’t have the money right then, and one can only goget by without a toilet for so long.

(Between the time I’d drafted this and the time it went live, I came across this: Flushmate Expands Recall of Flushmate III Pressure-Assisted Flushing System Due to Impact and Laceration Hazards. So maybe this is a bigger problem than I was led to believe. I probably made the safer choice without knowing it. Or maybe stick to the more expensive pressure-assist toilets that have the steel pressure vessel….)

So it all came out all right in the end. The floor in the hall has never been the same, though. The wood swelled up and warped. Over time it has for the most part gone back down, and I’ve added quite a few small brads to help encourage it to go back flat, but in some spots it’s still not quite flush.


A guy in his early 50s, living more or less alone in a 90-year-old house, trying to keep it all together.

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Posted in Plumbing
4 comments on “My Exploding Toilet
  1. Tracy says:

    Kudos to Kohler for owning the problem and doing whatever they could to help. Certainly there are many manufacturers who would deny all culpability, claim that it was out of warranty, and generally weasel their way out of any sort of support for the customer.

    Seems to me that was a considerable part of the calculus in deciding on that particular unit in the first place.

    Gotta love old houses. Maybe sometime I’ll write you up a “guest blog” about one or another of the nightmares we’ve encountered here, or did encounter back in Palatine, despite both buildings being considerably newer than yours.

  2. Sam Paris says:

    I remember thinking “how clever!” when I first came across a pressure-assist toilet. I’m so glad I didn’t swap out my old toilet for one, chalk one up for sloth.

    Many years ago, in Ireland, I read a news story that still makes me clench when I think about it. It seems that when flush toilets were first introduced, many were installed outside of homes and businesses, because, well, there was no other good place to put them. Decades later, lots of them were still in use and still in unheated outhouses. Now Ireland generally has very mild winters (compared to Chicago at any rate), but they still get the occasional freeze.

    Think about the effects of decades, perhaps even a century of freeze-thaw cycles on porcelain–weight-bearing porcelain. Porcelain that’s bearing your weight while you sit on it with your privates exposed. Porcelain that suddenly sports all kinds of sharp and jagged edges when it suddenly fails to support your weight anymore.

    I found myself inspecting every toilet I used for the rest of the trip.

    • Erik says:

      Yeah, the pressure-assist thing certainly falls into “It seemed like a good idea at the time…” territory.

      And honestly, I’m not sold on the idea that they are inherently bad. Just that (like anything else) you can’t scrimp on the safety margins and expect it to go well long-term. But if I was going to buy a new one, I’d want to examine the mechanism quite closely to make sure it was robust enough. A steel tank, for instance. And mostly metal fittings.

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