33

I have always considered flush toilets to basically last forever. I have graced toilets constructed over a century ago with my behind, and they have worked just fine.

Recently, when explaining a problem I was having with a toilet to the manager of a big box home improvement store, he stated that modern toilets (those built this century) are only designed to last 10-12 years, at which time they often need to be replaced.

I have needed to replace internal parts such as flush valves and gaskets due to age, but never an entire toilet. The manager assured me that it's the entire toilet that needs to be replaced every 10-12 years, on average.

I have never heard of such a claim before, and the extensive experience gathered by my behind is contrary to his claim.

Are modern toilets crap? Do they only last for a relatively short amount of time before needing to be replaced? Or was this home improvement store manager the only thing full of crap?

6
  • 21
    The moving parts of all toilets get replaced. The rest, no need.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:05
  • 3
    I can understand the stuff inside the tank might need replacing but not the toilet. There have been a few that had manufacturing defects that did not last.
    – crip659
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:06
  • 4
    There's a cycle. Environmental legislation decreases water use. The new toilets are awful and clog. Manufacturers figure it out with some technology (taller tanks, pressure tanks). Now that it works, the government lowers the flush limit some more. Repeat.
    – user71659
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:25
  • 1
    @user71659 Governments change the regulations often, but very unlikely people need to replace when they do. Most houses older than 2020 would need major work if they did. I think even knob and tube wires are still grandfathered in, being in code, but good luck getting insurance.
    – crip659
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:51
  • In areas with hard water then potentially a toilet could get such a build up of limescale that de-scaling isn't worth it but I doubt it.
    – Sam Dean
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 14:15

8 Answers 8

38

There are reasons to replace a whole toilet, but generally, if it was a functional toilet, it can remain one for many years.

I replaced a functional 40 year old toilet with one that used about 1/3 the water and still flushed properly. Not because it didn't work, not because parts couldn't be found, but because it was wasteful, and water/sewer rates where it was installed had gotten fairly high, and we were tightening up the water wasters as a result.

I have some poorly designed early "water saving" toilets I was given when a friend was remodeling for appearance purposes, which ended up not being installed, because I identified them as poorly designed, (2/3 an old flush but you usually need to flush twice) and a better designed new one (1/4 an old flush and it usually only takes one) was not much money.

Anyway, I'd say "consider the source" - a guy who wants to sell more toilets, so not exactly unbiased.

7
  • 1
    It may flush properly, but you need the solid waste to be pushed by water all the way to the main line under the street. I would rather waste a little water than have to call a plumber. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 4:37
  • 19
    "Anyway, I'd say "consider the source" - a guy who wants to sell more toilets, so not exactly unbiased." Absolutely this. Also, "manager of a big box home improvement store" frankly is a store manager, not a DIY expert. They will have been trained (hopefully) to manage people, not be an expert on all their products.
    – ThaRobster
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 8:34
  • for that - I suspect designs have gotten better. The loo in my new place has a very different way of flushing (sort of a vortex) than my old one, which dumps some water around the rim, and a bunch down the back. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 9:04
  • 1
    @Ecnerwal - You wish to deny and defy physics? I have no problem with that. And you know very well anecdotal evidence is worthless. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 16:52
  • 11
    @SteveWellens Physics is quite happy with "excrement flows downhill." Which happens in properly installed plumbing pipes. Anecdotal baseless fears are even more worthless.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 16:55
10

I've never heard of the body of a newer toilet being the cause of replacement unless it cracked or had some other physical damage. I have, however, replaced entire toilets because the "jetpac" or "power assist" flush unit had failed and a new toilet was cheaper than the replacement parts if you could even get them.

2
  • 4
    There was one or two batches of toilets that did have a defect and cracked after a few years, but they are the exception.
    – crip659
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:54
  • Definitely. I maintained several rental units and replaced the float/filler mechanism once. The parts were expensive, it took a while to disassemble the old parts and install the new ones, and then more time to properly adjust them. The next time, I noticed a complete unit on sale for under a hundred dollars and simply replaced the old toilet. It took far less time, cost not much more money, and the tenant was happy with a brand new unit that would be problem-free for a few years. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 13:52
8

It is always hard to say whether new things expected to last 100 years will last as long as the ones made 100 years ago.

Sometimes in hard water areas very old toilets become so calcified internally, inside the water channels between the tank and the bowl, that they no longer flush well. It's nearly impossible to fix this. So very old toilets sometimes stop working.

"Modern" toilets have, by definition, not had the opportunity to become so calcified. Who knows, maybe they are more prone to it, maybe less. Ask again in 50 years.

Another failure of old toilets is when flush valves have to be replaced but the tank attachment (the small hole in the bottom of the tank) is not compatible with modern valves. I had a toilet like that, the bottom of the tank was almost 3 inches thick and needed a valve with a long threaded stem. I had to hunt to find one and pay a fortune. It was a dumb thing to do since the toilet was also calcified as noted above, and I threw it out a year later.

"Modern" toilets might also, in future, become incompatible with commonly available plumbing parts. Ask again in 80 years.

2
  • 2
    Ask again in 80 years. I'll leave you a note to dig me up. ;) Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 3:24
  • 1
    And yet another (primary?) factor is planned obsolescence. A hundred years ago intentionally making the product less durable, to last shorter, was unthinkable. Now it's ubiquitous.
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 13:13
6

Unless the tank or bowl has suffered physical damage that's causing the porcelain itself to leak, I think your last assumption (the one about the store manager) is the correct one.

Sounds like the manager was looking to boost sales. Unfortunately, it's probably a tactic that works on many occasions.

2

In general when you have a toilet more than 15 years old replacement parts may not be readily available due to unconventional designs that have become extremely common. It would be different if this was the year 2000, but in 2023 you will indeed see many proprietary parts that sometimes can be replaced with universal ones but generally will never work as well as new. In this respect they are correct.

Additionally, it is more common to see larger households of larger people. Everything other than the porcelain breaks down over time, sometimes even the floor beneath the toilet. In general at 30years or more of age a toilet is not going to be in good condition. Even if you replaced all the serviceable parts you end up with bowl stains and filth in areas that are not possible to clean. Literally the entire inside of the water pathways inside the bowl of the toilet will be FULL of mold and mildew. This is why old toilets smell regardless of how much you clean them or replace the oring/gaskets. They are NOT made for a lifetime, they really are designed for about an 8-10 year lifespan max, the waterways inside the toilet should really be made cleanable..

6
  • Let us also bear in mind several things. Water quality is WORSE than it has been historically in many places, this causes quicker decay. Components are made of more corrosion resistant designs which does NOT mean longer service life, sadly it means less due to cheap plastic getting fouled up. People are getting lazier and less likely to be willing to actually push the handle down all the way... people are eating and drinking more wastefully and some households are spending more time indoors in the home. A toilet that lasted from 1970-2000 might last 2023-2026... it's a different world now! Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 13:17
  • 3
    This comment should simply be edited into your answer.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 13:18
  • 2
    Surely we are seeing smaller households of larger people. In my country, the average household size was 4.3 people 100 years ago but is only 2.5 today.
    – shoover
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 19:45
  • @shoover Plus as countries become more developed, the number of bathrooms per person increases/people per bathroom decreases. So that means less usage per toilet (on the long term average) Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 23:25
  • @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact This is true. During at least part of my mother's childhood, the number of bathrooms/indoor toilets per person in her house was zero.
    – shoover
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 23:36
1

One thing to consider is always "survivor bias". Yes, you and I have graced 40 year old toilets with our behinds — those that survived. We have also seen 40 year old cars, bikes and pens.

Regarding the actual question: Modern toilet mechanics are made of plastic, and plastic ages. Here is an interesting New York Times piece about the challenges the degradation of plastic artifacts poses for museums. My personal experience is that the mean time between unreparable failure is 30 years rather than 10 though.


Even though it is only tangential, let me tell a true story.

My 80-year old great-aunt's 30 year old water faucet in the bathroom started to leak. She went to the plumber she trusted. He visited, took a long look (first at the faucet, and then at her) and said: "Hm-hm, they do not sell seals any more for these old faucets, we have to replace it. The modern ones won't fit the old sink, so we'll have to replace that as well. The pipes also need to be replaced, and we cannot do that with the bathtub in place ..." She ended up with a new bathroom. Her son went ballistic but since she was fully contractually capable and had given the order, there was nothing he could do.

1
  • 1
    I am still laughing from your "those that survived" phrase regarding toilet use. :) Maybe it's time to write a short story or poem from the perspective of a toilet... Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 0:22
1

Not an answer, but it was too long for a comment.

Even if the toilet was good for 100 years, I don't think the salesman would necessarily say so. A lot can happen in 100 years that breaks the toilet, without it being the toilet's fault, but people blame the manufacturer anyway. Whenever you provide extreme warranties, you have to be prepared to deal with extreme claims, which may not be worth it even if your product is good.

For sales purposes, I doubt many people will think much of 10 years vs. 20 or even 100 years implied warranty. You obviously care, but then would you be willing to pay even double for a toilet that claims it will last 100 years vs. 10? A decade is "long enough" for the purpose of making a sale, after that you get diminishing returns.

Also, a lot of people don't live in the same house that long. This group is probably correlated with the most avid redecorators (like flippers). Someone who is expecting to move in 5 doesn't care that much about a 100 year toilet or 10 year - when selling the house, how will you convince the buyer to care about the expensive toilet you bought? And even if they did care, is the company even around that far in the future?

Generally, I would be surprised if modern toilets lasted longer than older toilets. Engineering has advanced a lot. I define engineering as "doing more with less" or "smaller error margins", meaning the modern toilets might be less overbuilt than the older ones. Finding new ways to cut corners on materials of old goods is one of the main ways in which the economic growth happens after all. That said, a porcelain bowl is not that fragile and if not abused it should last many decades. That's actually where I'd expect a difference: older toilets can probably survive the same time despite abuse. When I say this I'm referring purely to things like the bowl cracking.

You could also have substances stick to the inside of the channel and impede water flow. To be fair, these can be cleaned to some extent by a plumber. The design of the toilet could affect how quickly the accumulation happens. This is where a modern toilet can outperform older ones with better design, or underperform because they overestimated the effectiveness of their particular design. You're stuck rolling the dice.

There are moving parts, seals and gaskets in a toilet as well. These will need to be replaced after a few years as they degrade over time. But that's not really part of the toilet.

-1

Old toilets were properly thought out and modern toilets use bits of bent wire and minimal amount of plastic which breaks, unscrews, comes loose, disintegrates.

A well designed toilet should last 200 years and be easy to maintain because it's just sea worthy metal and a PP float tank.

You would be better off making a flush system with 3D printed components which would probably last a lot longer than one bought in a shop.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.