How toilets work
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: November 10, 2014.
Toilet, lavatory, loo, water closet, WC, John,
crapper, can—it's amazing we have so many names for something we
care to talk about so little. Toilets are hardly the most glamorous
of inventions, but imagine trying to live without them.
About 40 percent of the world's people (some 2.6 billion of us) are in that unhappy position,
lacking even basic sanitation. At the opposite end of the scale, in Japan, people have amazing
electronic toilets that do everything from opening and closing the
lid automatically to playing music while you use them. Most of the
world's toilets are more modest than this, but they're still pretty
ingenious "machines." Let's take a closer look!
Photo: Like most new toilets, this low-flush model is designed to save water; the two buttons on top let you choose whether to flush with a large or a small amount. Exactly how much difference that will make to your water consumption varies from one household to another. An old-style flush toilet typically uses 13 liters (3.4 US gallons), where a low-flush model will use only 6 liters (1.6 US gallons) and some models use only 4.8 liters (1.3 US gallons). If you save 7 liters (1.8 US gallons) per flush and people in your home flush 10 times a day, you'll save at least 25,500 liters (6700 US gallons) per year. You'll save more or less depending on how many people there are in your household.
At first sight, toilets seem quite
simple: you have a waste pipe going through the floor and a tank of water
up above (called a cistern) waiting to flush into it when someone
pushes a button or pulls a lever or a chain. Most flush toilets are
purely mechanical: pull the chain and the cistern empties through the
force of gravity, washing the bowl clean for use again.
They are literally mechanical because they flush and refill using levers inside—and
levers are examples of what scientists call simple machines.
There's a little bit more to toilets than this. When you flush, the cistern
has to refill automatically from a kind of faucet on the
side and the refilling operation has to last just long enough to fill
the tank without making it overflow. The "hole in the ground"
is more sophisticated than it looks as well. You may have noticed
that toilets always have a little water in the bottom of them; even
when you flush them, they never empty completely. Some water is
always trapped in a big curved pipe at the base of the toilet known
as the S-bend (or S-trap). This little bit of water effectively seals off the
sewage pipe beneath it, stopping germs and bad smells from coming up
into your bathroom.
Photo: Lift the cistern on a toilet and this is what you'll find inside.
The cistern (upper tank of water) drains through a valve in the center through the force of gravity.
The blue, balloon-like object on the left is
a plastic float that drops when the water level falls.
This tilts the plastic lever (known as the ballcock) and allows the cistern to refill.
Who invented the flush toilet?
Although it's popularly believed that flush toilets were invented by an English plumber called
Thomas Crapper (c.1836–1910), it's an unhelpful myth, for two reasons: flushing toilets are an ancient technology and no single person can really claim to have invented them: dozens (if not hundreds) of different inventors have been involved in their development over the years,
especially since Crapper's lifetime. Archaeological evidence shows that primitive toilets using river water to flush wash away waste are over 5000 years old and date back to something like 3000BCE. The two inventors who have the best claim to our modern toilet-flushing system were born hundreds of years before Crapper. Among his many other achievements, prolific Arabic inventor and engineer Al-Jazari developed a flushing hand-washing device in 1206, while
English writer and courtier Sir John Harington (1561–1612) described a method for flushing a toilet in 1596 in his article A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.
Search through the invention records at the US Patent and Trademark Office and you'll find literally hundreds that relate to toilets and their flushing mechanisms. I've chosen two examples from 1874 to give you a flavor of what you can find. On the left (and drawn in plan view, from above), we have the self-disinfecting water-closet basin developed by Jabez Burns, Charles Higgins, and William Higgins ("Improvement in Water-Closet Basins", US Patent#149,195).
Their simple innovation was to make the pipe that fills the toilet basin squirt sideways over a bar of soap, thus
disinfecting the basin and stopping any smell. On the right, you can see Archibald McGilchrist's trap-less water closet ("Improvement in Water-Closet Apparatus", US Patent#157,211).
Unlike with an S-bend closet, there is no water trap to stop odors. Instead, the flush mechanism raises and lowers a ball-shaped
valve that seals the waste pipe. A rising and falling float (I've colored it green in the artwork) operates a valve mechanism (colored yellow) to refill the basin in the usual way. You can explore lots more similar inventions with a
search for "water closet" on Google Patents (it just gave me 13,000 results!).
Artwork: Two examples of 19th-century improvements in water closets (toilets) by American inventors.
Images courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office with added coloring and annotations by Explainthatstuff.com.
Flush—and it's gone. Toilets are one of
those inventions we really take for
granted. Until you stop to think about the two billion or so people
in developing countries who don't enjoy the same luxury, you might
not realize just how lucky you are to be able to solve such a
horrible little problem with a quick press of a switch.
There's just one slight difficulty: your toilet doesn't actually
dispose of sewage: it just washes the problem down a long smelly pipe so it ends
up somewhere else—and it uses lots of water in the
process. Even in the world's richest and most sophisticated
countries, sewage disposal is a major issue. We still have dirty
beaches, algal blooms on rivers, and major health issues like
shellfish poisoning caused by sewage pollution. Wouldn't it be better
if toilets could actually convert sewage into a form we could dispose
of safely and simply? That's the basic idea behind composting
toilets, which turn the stuff we don't like to talk about into
compost we can use to fertilize our land. How do they work?
Photo: Despite what you might think, composting toilets are just as convenient as
flush toilets. They're also more civilized, since you're not dumping your waste elsewhere
and expecting someone else to deal with it. This is a composting toilet at Kibbutz Lotan, Arava Valley, Israel
(note the bag of sawdust and straw at the back to help the aeration process).
Hanan Cohen published on Flickr in 2007 under a Creative Commons Licence.
What's the problem with ordinary toilets?
It's wintertime where I live and Tom, the farmer I went to school with, is
driving back and forth endlessly with a gigantic muck-spreader hooked
to the back of his tractor. Now I always fancied driving a tractor
when I was young, but I don't envy him this job: he's depositing
mountains of steaming hot cow manure on his fields. Farmers, you see,
know a thing or two about recycling. Nature does too. In nature,
there's really no such thing as waste. Leaves fall to the ground, rot
down, and fertilize the trees that dropped them. Long ago in history,
humans would have been just as clever without even thinking: all our
"soil" would have disappeared harmlessly into the soil and
made things grow again in future. Unfortunately, when the Industrial
Revolution kicked off, and masses of
people started living very close together in towns and cities,
sanitation became a major issue and a massive public health problem.
That's how we came to have toilets, sewers, and sewage treatment
plants. Now, sewage is still a problem but for different reasons.
Water is much scarcer than it used to be and
climate change will make
it even more precious in future. Do we really want to use something
so valuable for something as crude and basic as flushing away our
waste? Probably not. One solution to the problem is for homes to have
a separate greywater system, where
relatively clean wastewater from things like
baths and showers is stored temporarily and used to flush toilets.
Composting toilets are a different solution.
Photo: Despite millions of years of civilization, humans are still far worse at disposing of their sewage than animals like these cows, who recycle their waste effortlessly and with no fuss whatsoever. Cows are natural masters of composting toilets.
What is a composting toilet?
The idea is simple. Instead of flushing your waste down a pipe,
from where it could travel maybe several miles to a treatment plant,
a composting toilet turns sewage simply and safely to compost in your
own home. Although there are many different types of composting
toilet, the principle is the same in all cases: the waste falls into
a well-ventilated container where, over a period of time, aerobic
bacteria (supplied with lots of oxygen) greatly reduce its
volume (much like kitchen waste on a compost heap) and destroy
harmful pathogens (the bacteria, viruses, and so on that cause
diseases). The end-product looks a bit like rich soil. Some
composting toilets separate out the liquid and solid wastes, both of
which may be suitable for use as "humanure" garden compost (though not
for growing food). Generally, composting toilets can also be
used to dispose of food waste and other materials you might put on
your compost heap.
Photo: A sophisticated composting toilet and the system it feeds. The toilet part is
the white bit at the top. You can also see the large black waste tank and a silver ventilator on top.
Most of this would normally be hidden inside a building, but it's on show here in an exhibition.
Photo by Sustainable Sanitation Alliance published on Flickr in 2005 under a Creative Commons Licence.
Composting toilets vary greatly in sophistication. At the simplest end, it's
perfectly possible (subject to all the usual planning rules and
regulations) to build your own composting toilet using a few bits of
wood and a shop-bought seat (the excellent
Humanure Handbook is a good starting point). Next up come ready-made, self-contained composting toilets that
look a bit like traditional toilets. Instead of a flush handle,
you'll typically find a little bowl positioned near the toilet filled
with sawdust or similar material. You sprinkle some of this down the
bowl to help separate the waste and build up air pockets inside it to
encourage rapid digestion. More sophisticated models are electrically
powered, with cutter blades to chop up the waste, fans to aerate it,
and heating elements to maintain reasonably high temperatures and
promote aerobic digestion. (Roof-mounted solar cells are sometimes
used to power fans, so minimizing environmental impact.) Other models
have rotating drums you turn to tumble the waste and help it compost.
Bigger buildings and public toilets use "fall-through" toilets
where the waste drops down, out of sight, into a much larger
receptacle that can be emptied after weeks, months, or even years.
Advantages and disadvantages of composting toilets
Although there are savings to be made on your water bill
(a composting toilet could save as much as 50,000 gallons of water a year), having a composting
toilet fitted isn't about selfishness, but exactly the opposite.
It's a great example of environmentalism: by disposing
of your own waste, you're taking a more responsible attitude and
living in a more sustainable way for the long-term benefit of
humankind and the planet. You won't be worsening problems like sewage washing up on
beaches or nutrients overloading rivers, and you'll be recycling a
handy amount of nutritious compost for your garden! Another great
advantage of composting toilets is that they can be used in remote
places where mains sewers are not fitted.
The main drawback of composting toilets is that they need more thoughtful use
in everyday operation. Just like a traditional garden compost heap,
you have to be careful you don't let the composting mixture get too
wet or too dry; if the waste doesn't mix up and compost properly, it
will start to smell and could even become a health hazard (a problem
that doesn't affect properly installed composting toilets operating
normally). Also, you have to empty the container, periodically,
though in a properly operating toilet the waste you'll be removing
will be dry and odorless, like garden compost, and shouldn't be a
bother. Smaller toilets without a fall-through system and hidden
container may leave waste on display, which can be troublesome to
some people. If that's a worry, opt for a different, more
If you are planning your own composting toilet, be sure to check with your state or local
authority exactly what the regulations are on sewage waste disposal before you start.
You may be required to bury the compost in a certain way or have it removed by a licensed septic hauler.
Find out more
On this website
- Water: What makes Earth's most definitive, most important chemical so special?
- Water pollution: How human waste can spoil the environment if we don't dispose of it carefully.
On other sites
- How Things Work/Flush Toilet: Here's an alternative explanation of flush toilets with some nice cutaway diagrams showing the mechanism inside very clearly.
- Toilet Flushing (at home): The Waterwise campaign explains how toilets waste vast amounts of water—and what you can do to make a difference.
- WaterAid: What if you had no toilet and no clean water? WaterAid is one of the groups working with people in developing countries to help them achieve the standard of living the rest of us take for granted.
Books about toilet history
Sanitation and public health
- Sanitation: BBC News, 5 January 2007. Why sanitation is one of the most important medical breakthroughs since the mid-19th century.
- In pictures: The sewers of London: BBC News, 13 September 2010. A slideshow history of Joseph Bazalgette's engineering miracle beneath the streets of London. Without an extensive network of sewers, flush toilets would be useless.