Living in the country is not only rustic — it’s downright educational, as I recently learned once more all over again. And I am, absolutely gratis, giving you the benefit of my wisdom before you come to experience it yourself. Unless you’re already living in a modern-day house out in the wilds, in which case you may already know every last thing I plan to impart.
Today’s lesson is about: toilets. Specifically, the intersection of Gunnison well water and low-flush toilets. (It may not be breakfast fare, but I will make every attempt to keep this PG.)
Gunnison has hard water. I’ve known that since I was a little kid, because that’s what everyone says. I’ve always taken that to mean: lots of minerals. Which is mostly correct, according to my five minutes (or less) on the U.S. Geological Survey site dedicated to water. They specifically finger calcium and magnesium, and rate water by the milligrams per liter. We’re in dark red on their map, which means at least 180 mg/L.
But what does this mean for practical purposes? Well, the USGS is very helpful there, too, describing the way your hands might feel slimy after washing with soap and water (can’t say as though I’ve noticed), or the way your glasses cloud up in the dishwasher (that I’ve noticed). Lynn doesn’t like the way her hair feels after washing, and that’s part of it too.
[Hey, here’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time: Na Ki’o is here to help me type this! At long last: someone to blame my typos on.]
For most of my hard-water life, I lived in the City of Gunnison. I always liked the water that came from my tap, so I was a bit taken aback when Dottie, whose company drilled our well out here at Riverwalk, was adamant that well water was heaps and spoonfuls better than city water. But, she conceded, it is hard. “Very hard,” she said.
As we found out the hard way, when we had an after-the-fact flow meter installed in the water line in the basement. Avery, the plumber putting the meter in, came up with a length of PEX tubing that was bright orange, wanting to know how old our pipes were. About six months, I calculated. He signed us up for a return visit to install a sediment filter to cut down on the iron gushing through our new pipes that looked 100 years old.
So we went on about our way, thinking everything was fine, except for the part where the replacement filters we were buying stayed at the same 25 microns but moved from “extra fine” filtration to “medium.” While we thought we were doing an extra fine job of keeping minerals out, it really was only a basic job.
But the pet water dishes were no longer turning orange, so it seemed like we were on the right track. Until one problem with the low-flush toilet turned up a second, more hidden, issue.
At work, sometime before Lynn and I got around to house-building, we had Avery replace ancient toilets with a pair of Kohler dual-flushers. They came with one lever, but the end was green, and you only needed to press this end piece if you weren’t making a deposit of the second kind.
I did lift the tank lid off shortly after installation to see how this worked, only to confront the most convoluted contraption you have ever seen. Gone was the flap; no ball to be found. Everything I knew about solving toilet tank issues was disappeared into a welter of plastic.
I pressed the green end of the lever. Unexpectedly, the top third of the tank water washed through some mechanism I couldn’t really make out. I assumed it would drain from the bottom, like when you lift the flap in a toilet of yore. When I pressed the full length of the lever, the top two-thirds of the tank drained out — but not the bottom third. This was a lesson I should have kept in mind.
When it came to installing toilets in the new house, I didn’t think lesson; I thought, “These toilets seem good,” so I asked for the same toilet. Lynn also got a dual-flush toilet, but hers is something called a Swiss Madison. Her tank, which still features a welter of plastic, is much, much smaller than mine.
Both toilets have seemed functional, although as we’ve gone along we’ve started to notice a filmy build-up in my bowl. No effluent, but something gauzy that we finally determined might be paper remnants. I turned to the ubiquitous resource of the internet, where some man thoughtfully provided a Youtube video suggesting the issue was a lack of water flow.
He had some very involved solution for adjusting this scary assortment of plastic parts. Or: he then recommended holding the handle down for longer to fully empty the tank. That seemed far easier than messing with plastic parts I don’t understand. I headed to the bathroom.
And lifted the tank lid to confront the most disgusting sight I’ve come across in awhile: brown, filmy froth, under which were an endless number of brown tendrils, with more brown goo in the depths of the tank, hard to see due to all the plastic parts.
Flushing did nothing to rid us of the dreck, and no matter how long I held down the handle, the bottom third of the water wasn’t about to move. Lynn’s toilet tank, which turned out to have a fair amount of what looked like flakes of rust, neatly washed out with one delayed press of the handle, although the flakes still settled on the bottom of the tank.
The internet knew immediately what the problem was: iron bacteria, which likes to form in little-used sections of plumbing. Well, it turns out there is nothing less used than the bottom third of a low-flush toilet tank, which makes this seem like a bad design indeed in areas where one’s water is hard. (I did check the tanks at work, but cityfolk seem to be safe from this issue.)
Following an industrial-size purchase of bleach, white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, some of the iron bacteria has been banished from my toilet tank, but giving it a thorough scrubbing out is going to be a trick, trying to work around all the plastic in these new-fangled toilets. And whatever portion of the planet I thought I was saving these last two years has been completely flushed in the past week as I have battled bacteria with gallon upon gallon of water.
Here, then, is your free lesson, for which you’ll tank, if not thank, me for later: low-flush toilets may not be the boon they originally seemed to be for mankind, and it’s imperative that you flush your low-flush tank periodically, out here in the country, to keep your iron bacteria moving along rather than letting them settle into a comfortable tank life that might make them happy, but probably no one else.