How drop-in cleaning chemicals affect flappers.

If you are like me, you've probably wondered if the blue cleaning chemicals they add to the toilet tank do anything to the plumbing. Assuming it is more than just a dye, what impact do these chemicals have on the inside guts of the tank?

While discussing the cleaning agents with a chemist for a large cleaning chemical company, he stated that the blue is merely a dye. He contends that you could make the cleaning agent any color you want. But can you imagine the response when a person went to urinate into red water and watched it turn orange. Blue is more of the acceptable color associated with clean water, hence, the selection of the dye.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was also concerned about the blue water in the toilet bowl. So much so that they decided to run some tests on the different cleaners. The products they tested were Clorox Automatic, 2000 Flushes and Vanish Drop-Ins Clear.

You may be wondering why a water district is so concerned with different bowl cleaning agents. Well, if you think about it, if these cleaning agents do affect the plumbing components, it may result in a leak in the toilet tank. Leaking water closets account for the unnecessary loss of thousands of gallons of water. In Southern California, with the booming population, they don't have thousands of gallons of water to waste.

The thrust of the study was the performance of the flapper. Once the flapper fails, the water begins to leak.

The Test

When you are attempting to determine long-term effects on a flapper, you don't have the luxury of testing the flapper and cleaning agent at normal concentrations. Under controlled conditions, you beef up the concentration of the cleaning agent to see the impact on the flapper.

This is similar to loading up a white rat with high dosages of nasty products to see if they get cancer. The claim by the general public is, "If they gave the rat anything in those concentrations, of course it would get cancer."

Well, that's not really true. To avoid problems, control studies are done at lower dosages. This is what was done on the flapper test. The three selected cleaning agents were tested at different concentrations. Over a period of several years, the flappers were tested in the tank with tap water, 50 parts per million (ppm) concentration, 300 ppm and 2,000 ppm.

Another fact that must be recognized is that these cleaning chemicals increase in concentration when a water closet is not flushed. Hence, it is possible to reach high levels of chlorine in the toilet tank water. Once flushed, the concentration drops until exposed for a period of time to the cleaning chemicals. Thus, there is additional justification for testing at high concentration levels.

The Results

The study reports on the flapper performance of major water closet manufacturers. I see no need to identify manufacturers by name. To me, the real importance was the impact by the different cleaning agents: Clorox Automatic, 2000 Flushes and Vanish Drop-Ins Clear.

I look at life somewhat differently. We had very good flappers in existence long before these products hit the market. So, as far as this column is concerned, the importance of the study is the impact these chemicals have on our good plumbing.

The results of the study indicated that Vanish Drop-Ins Clear do the most damage to the flappers. At the 2,000 ppm concentration of Vanish, every flapper leaked after 28 days. At the lower concentration of 300 ppm of Vanish, more than 80 percent of the flappers leaked.

The flappers performed better with the Clorox Automatic and 2000 Flushes. The study attributed the improved performance of the flappers to the change in the flapper material by the manufacturers. However, flappers still leaked at high concentration of the chemicals.

The Recommendations

The study indicated that most of the manufacturers of water closets have indicated that these bowl cleaners may cause problems. Additionally, the bowl cleaner chemical companies have advised consumers to flush the water closet at least once a day.

Let's think about this. When do the people inserting these bowl cleaners ever see comments or warnings from water closet manufacturers? I would guess, close to never. Additionally, who reads all those warnings in fine print on the bowl cleaner packages? Furthermore, doesn't it waste water to just flush every water closet once a day when you haven't used it?

One other recommendation, that I did not take kindly to, was for manufacturers to switch to flapperless toilets. Yet, nowhere in the study was there a recommendation for chemical companies to market cleaning agents that don't destroy the plumbing. Wouldn't you think that the thrust should be on the chemical companies, not the water closet manufacturers?

There was no mention in the study of the person this problem impacts the most -- you, the plumbing contractor. You have to hear complaints about the lousy flappers, you have to hear about the high cost of plumbing repairs, and you have to hear how the owner's water bill was outrageous because of the leak in his or her toilet.

You can avoid these problems by issuing warnings of your own to your customers. I would suggest that you tell them the following:

Studies have shown that high concentrations of Clorox Automatic, 2000 Flushes, and Vanish Drop-Ins Clear used in your toilet tank can damage the flapper. If the flapper is damaged, water will leak continuously. This will result in a significant increase in your water bill, as well as, the need for a costly plumbing repair. If you use these products, follow the manufacturer's instructions and do not allow a high concentration of the chemicals to form in the toilet tank.

You may also want to have your service techs advise homeowners about the potential problems with adding cleaning agents to the toilet tank. This can serve as a public service message to your customers.

Even if the fixture manufacturers changed the design of the flapper or water closet, there are millions of water closets already installed. Hence, as long as the cleaning agents can create high concentrations of chemicals in the toilet tank, this problem of flapper failure will exist.