Ask the Builder: Removing toilet stains requires extra care with a septic system

February 21

I’ve moved into an existing, but new to me, home. When we inspected the house a month ago, the toilets looked good. But now, they’re stained. They look horrible. This house is on a septic system, so I’m worried about what to use to clean them. I’ve scrubbed with a toilet brush, but a hardened white deposit that’s deep in the bowls won’t budge. Should I just buy new toilets for the house? Amanda B., Wallace, N.C.

Toilets can be stained from all sorts of things. I’m a master plumber, and over the years, I’ve developed a process to remove just about every stain known to man or woman.

Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do. Do not use a metal scraper, spoon, rod or tool to try to clean a toilet. The metal can damage the thin clear-glass coating on the china. Only in rare cases have I had to resort to using a piece of wood to help scrape stubborn deposits from a toilet bowl or from the holes under the bowl’s rim.

Stains can be caused by minerals, bacteria or organisms that are in the water or start to grow in the toilet bowl. The hardened white deposit you describe is probably lime or hard-water deposits. You’ll be able to get rid of that with some careful work.

In my home, we have problems with orange bacteria that love to live in our toilets. The drinking water supply that also fills the toilets has been tested for purity. I have no clue where these orange bacteria come from, but they appear to be harmless. If you don’t clean your toilets on a regular basis, this kind of bacteria can bloom within a few days.

Lime deposits tend to form much more slowly unless the water is extremely hard. The problem with lime deposits is that they can interfere with the toilet’s flushing action. Over the years, hundreds of readers have contacted me about toilets that used to flush great but now don’t.

The flushing difficulty can be traced to partial clogging of the toilet rim holes and the siphon jet hole in the base of the bowl. For a strong flush, the water in the toilet tank needs to flow rapidly into the bowl through those holes. Clogged holes slow the water flow, which means that the stored finite energy in the tank water is dissipated over a greater amount of time. That creates a weak flush.

Because you’re on a septic system, you don’t want to introduce cleaning products that contain chlorine bleach into your septic tank. Look on product labels for chlorine bleach or the chemical sodium hypochlorite; they are one and the same. That chemical will kill the beneficial bacteria that break down the solid waste in your septic tank.

I prefer to start my toilet-cleaning process with oxygen bleach. It’s a powder that you pour into the toilet bowl. Add only a tablespoon, then walk away from the toilet for about 30 minutes. That gives the product plenty of time to dissolve.

As the oxygen bleach dissolves, it releases oxygen ions into the water that work on their own to clean many stains. Those it can’t clean, it usually softens so you can defeat them with a standard toilet brush. Your septic system will love the oxygen bleach, because the oxygen helps the bacteria in the tank survive and thrive.

Lime and hard-water deposits can sometimes be removed with hot white vinegar. Vinegar is a weak form of acetic acid. You need an acid to dissolve the lime deposits that can, in time, become as hard as rock.

If the white vinegar doesn’t work, you’ll have to use a more powerful acid. I’ve always had success with muriatic acid. It will not harm the china toilet, but its fumes are toxic and the liquid acid can and will burn you. You must read and follow all of the safety warnings on the product label.

You don’t want to put muriatic acid into your septic system or into a municipal sewage system. That means you need to add it to your toilet bowl when the water level in the bowl is minimal. You can achieve that by pouring a bucket of water rapidly into the bowl. You’ll see the toilet flush, but it won’t refill, because you didn’t take water from the tank.

Mix one part muriatic acid to five parts water and slowly pour that solution into the toilet bowl. Add just enough to come up to the normal water level in the bowl. If you add any extra, it will go down the drain line toward your septic tank.

Let the acid solution sit in the bowl for two to three hours. Lower the toilet seat cover to keep animals away from the toxic solution. Open the bathroom window to vent the fumes. Close the bathroom door and put a sign up warning others about the toxic brew in the toilet. Do not use the toilet during this process.

After the soaking is complete, look to see whether the hardened lime deposit is gone. If not, use a wood dowel to see if you can’t break the lime apart or chip away at it. Wear rubber gloves, old clothes and full goggles over your eyes. Do not flush the toilet: The acid solution needs to be scooped from the toilet bowl, neutralized and then discarded outdoors. The acid manufacturer will have instructions on the label telling you how to neutralize the product.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his
Web site at www.askthebuilder.com.

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