About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

How to fix a leaking toilet with a handful of pennies and a tablespoon of sunflower oil: confessions of a tinkerer

Last year my landlord very nicely paid for my bathroom to be completely renovated while I was away on holiday. The plan was for me to come home to a bright new bathroom, but it took several weeks of plumbing visitations after my return for everything to work properly, more or less. One minor issue that was never quite resolved was the tendency for the toilet flush mechanism to get stuck open. It was one of those problems that didn't occur if you knew how to flush 'just right', but invariably appeared when uninitiated visitors flushed any-old-how. My guests should not require a special induction to flush the loo, but it was relatively simple for me to 'unstick' each time and didn't seem worth the effort to call a plumber. Plumbers can be as unreliable as modern flush mechanisms. Eventually even a 'just right' flush stuck open and the valve became more difficult to 'unstick'. By yesterday morning the toilet was leaking constantly. Something had to be done.

This is the point at which I should have called the plumber, but that would require looking up the phone number, rearranging my diary to work from home for a day, and a few more days of a leaking toilet. The toilet was right there in front of me, leaking, tempting me to tinker. Why spend five minutes making a phone call and booking a day at home when I had a whole bank holiday ahead of me to spend pulling my toilet apart?

The flushing mechanism is very modern. It consists of a cylinder with a valve on the bottom that is pulled up by a cable, similar to a brake cable on a bike, when the flush handle is pressed. It should be released when the flush handle returns to the normal position, but the valve was sticking in the up position. The flush mechanism consists of two 'black-boxes' - the cylinder with the sticking valve and the housing for the cable attached to the back of the flush handle. Normal people avoid opening their toilet cisterns. Smart people avoid opening 'black-box' mechanisms inside their toilets. Sensible people spend bank holidays sunning themselves in the park. 

The toilet was still leaking. I had removed the cylinder, I had a little 'black-box' in my wet hands. A voice inside my head said 'put the toilet back together, call the plumber', but my eye had spied the means to lifting the lid off the cylinder and my hand was reaching for the nail scissors and tweezers on the shelf above the sink. The voice inside was discussing options for plumbers, while my fingers discovered how the cable mechanism slotted into the valve mechanism. My fingers unslotted the mechanism, and then played with the molded bits of plastic, trying to figure out how it worked and why it wasn't. The voice inside let out a little squeak, but my fingers calmly reminded it that this was just another puzzle, like the wooden cubes or metal rings on the kitchen shelf at Grandma's house. Nothing had snapped or been lost, it would all come back together.         

If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher or otherwise concerned about the future of one or more children please make sure that they are never exposed to those darstedly little puzzles. They should come with a warning label 'keep out of reach of children, may cause brain damage'. They lead to irreversible neural re-structuring that causes vast overestimation of spatial and physical problem solving abilities. If one of those puzzles ever defeated me as a child there was always the option of putting the pieces in a plastic bag and waiting for Grandma to come over and show me how it was done. The stakes were somewhat higher with the tiny plastic pieces of my toilet. Grandma lives in Geraldton, my toilet is in London, and at 93 she is possibly past her puzzle-solving prime. 

I tinkered with the parts, and managed to put them back together, hoping that this reboot would be enough to solve the problem. The valve still stuck. The second black-box tempted me. My inner voice of reason was now whimpering with fear. Cable mechanisms have gone horribly wrong in my hands, leaving me stranded on the pavement with an upturned, brake-less bike halfway to work. My hands marched confidently on, now reaching into the cupboard for the spanners and screw drivers. If nothing broke and nothing was lost and if I moved slowly, everything would be OK. I opened the box, and the inner mechanism proved remarkably simple. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that lubricating the cable would probably help, but I didn't have any mineral oil or lubricating spray. The voice of reason could barely say 'walk down the street and buy a can of WD40', before my hands had reached for the sunflower oil from the kitchen. The cable was drizzled with edible oil and reinstated, and both black boxes returned to their rightful places in the cistern. The cable moved more freely, but the valve still stuck.

I picked up my purse and took out four pennies. I put the pennies on the top of the valve shaft to provide extra weight to help it drop down once the cable was released. The valve still stuck. I then found my jar of foreign coins and picked out the US pennies, Mexican pesos, Euro cents and Danish half-Kroner. I piled a few of them on top of the shaft, and placed some of them under the cylinder on top of the valve itself. 

It worked. 

I turned the water back on, filled the cistern and flushed, and flushed again, any-old-how. Every time the valve opened and closed on demand. There was a sunflower oil slick in the toilet and a rattle like a pocket full of change, but the cistern no longer leaked. I put the lid back on, packed the tools away and my sensible legs took me out jogging before my tinkering fingers could deny me any more sunshine.

Tinkering feels like a mental disorder. It is state of mental and physical obsession, a compulsion. Engineers are often characterised as tinkerers. The classic boy-geek engineer tinkers with TVs, cars or computers. I have never taken a TV apart nor deliberately looked inside a computer. I thought I was a different kind of engineer, interested more in the big picture than the nerdy mechanical detail. I thought I was special. I am not. It pains me deeply to come out as a tinkerer. Worse yet, I am a tinkerer of toilets.

Of course this is not the first time I have tinkered with a toilet. I have a secret history of opening cisterns and fiddling with valves. I usually take care not to tinker too long, lest people start to wonder what I am up to, but alone in the privacy of my bathroom my tinkering takes its own course. 

I know that tinkering is no longer something to be ashamed of. The 'maker' movement, including UCL's Institute of Making, positively celebrates this kind of behaviour, creating spaces for people to tinker together. Apparently there is honour in engaging directly and purposely with the material world around us. Matthew Crawford in his book 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' claims that working with our hands in this way is fundamental to our humanity. I should embrace my tinkering, be proud of it. 

So here I am. I am an engineer, and I tinker. I can no longer hide.      


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