Q: I recently hired a handyman to update the master bathroom in my 1963 California rancher. There were many problems with him, so I fired him before the job was completed. The bathroom floor was retiled, but the toilet was never installed. My uncle was trying to be helpful by finishing up my the job, but when he went to install the toilet, he said that the tile backer board was not built up enough before laying the tile, resulting in the toilet flange being about a half inch too high above the tile.

His solution was to cut out a piece of half-inch plywood the shape of the bottom of the toilet base with a hole for the flange that he placed between the tile floor and the toilet. So basically, the toilet now sits on a platform.

It flushes without leaking, and I now have a "comfort height" toilet. But is this safe? Will it last? Will there be problems with the wood rotting over time? And most important, what are some solutions for fixing a toilet flange that is too high?

A: Hiring cheap labor rather than seasoned pros can cost more in the long run. Your well-meaning uncle compounded the problem. We’re glad the toilet works. We even appreciate your reference to your new comfort-height commode.

To answer your questions: the toilet’s safe — for now; it won’t last; the wood will eventually delaminate or rot; and there is a solution for the problem without ripping out the entire floor.

A shorter flange is not an option. Closet flanges measure only about 4 inches. You’re on the right track in thinking about shortening the pipe below. The correct way to right the ship is to lower the flange. This shouldn’t be too big a job. And with any luck it might be simple.

The first step is to remove the toilet and undo your uncle’s handiwork. Next, if necessary, chip away a little tile and cement board from the flange with a cold chisel so you can see what you’ve got. Loosen any mortar that might be in the joint where the closet flange penetrates the subfloor.

Take your uncle and go under the house. Locate the waste pipe from the toilet. The pipe should connect into a 90-degree or 45-degree fitting and then to a main line sloped at the rate of 1/4 inch per foot. The slope ensures that water (and other material) flows downhill through the pipe. The pipe should be suspended from the floor framing with perforated metal strapping called plumber’s tape. …CONTINUED

With luck, you’ve got several feet between where the toilet pipe connects to the main line, which should give you enough play to simply lower the pipe 1/2 inch. Either you or your uncle should support the toilet pipe while the other loosens the plumber’s tape. Once the plumber’s tape is loose, the pipe and toilet flange should drop the 1/2 inch and rest on the subfloor, solving the height problem. Reaffix the plumber’s tape to support the pipe and reinstall the toilet. The drop should not be enough to affect flow of water.

If this doesn’t work, time for plan B: Cut the pipe. Since your house was built in 1963, there is a good chance that the waste pipe is no-hub cast iron. Old cast iron was joined together by inserting the end of the pipe into a bell-shaped flange at the end of the next pipe and sealing the joint with an oiled hemp, called oakum, and melted lead. It is called a bell joint.

The next generation of cast iron did away with the bell joint. Pipes and fittings are now joined using couplings made of a rubber sleeve held in place by a metal band. The closet flange should be connected to a straight piece of pipe that is attached to either a 90-degree or 45-degree fitting.

Disconnect the straight pipe from the fitting. From the bathroom, lift the flange and the straight pipe up through the subfloor. Remove the straight piece of pipe from the flange and replace it with a shorter length of pipe. Cast iron is cut with a snap cutter, a tool that compresses a set of teeth into the pipe. The tool doesn’t lend itself to cutting short pieces.

To take off the 1/2 inch of pipe, use an angle grinder equipped with a cutting wheel. If you don’t have an angle grinder, a well-equipped hardware store should be able to sell you a new piece of cast iron that is cut to order. Reconnect the pieces under the house. The closet flange should now rest on the subfloor.

That should do it. There are two lessons to be learned here: Be careful who you hire to do a job. Licensed is always better; ask for references and check them out. Second, we applaud your uncle for helping you out — but wood and water don’t mix.


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