Selecting Bathroom Fixtures:
Choosing The Perfect Toilet

The Japanese Toilet

If you are wondering who has the most advanced toilets in the world, well, it's certainly not us. The Japanese beat us by a country mile and a half. By comparison, American toilet technology is still troglodytic.

Japan has had Western-style flush toilets only since the end of World War II. But what they have done with the technology is a wonder to behold.

The current state of the art is the Washlet®, a creation of Toto, Ltd., Japan's largest toilet manufacturer. These toilets are designed to open automatically when they sense the approach of a user, play soothing sounds to disguise the fact that the toilet is in use, wash the user with warm water when he or she is finished, dry the user with warmed air, flush automatically, and close the lid after each use. No male/female lid wars in Japanese households. These toilets clean themselves and have coatings that resist germs. Many have heated seats. As of 2004 fully half of the toilets in Japan were Washlet-type toilets.

The idea behind these innovations is to remove the user as far away as possible from any potential contact with human excrement. Japan has always had a strong cultural aversion to "night soil". The caste historically responsible for removal and treatment of human waste, the Barakumin, are still widely shuned in Japan even though the caste system was legally abolished in 1871.

In Japan toilets are culturally considered "unclean" places. The American practice of locating the toilet with the bath mystifies and often repulses Japanese who cannot understand how we can combine clean and unclean activities in the same room.

In the Japanese house, the bath and toilet are often in separate rooms — preferably on opposite sides of the house — with the toilet located as far from other household activity as possible. If space permits, a separate wing or even a separate building is preferred.

The Washlet toilet is merely the latest embodiment of the desire to eliminate waste without having to touch, see or smell it, even indirectly, by, for example, using toilet paper which may expose the user's hands to potential contamination.

Japan is constantly edging closer to the completely touchless and odorless toilet. Toto already sells a deodorizing toilet that "chemically neutralizes odor." A competing Japanese company, Lixil, sells bathroom tiles billed as "odor absorbing."

"Smart toilets" are now being marketed that are home health monitoring centers. Devices in the toilet measure weight, body fat, blood pressure, heat rate, sugar and albumin in urine, and send a report by the Internet to a home computer. Want to find out if junior is smoking cigarettes, or if grandpa has been at the candy again, buy one of these tattle-tale toilets.
The can, the throne, the head, the john, the privy, the WC, the crapper, the lav, the loo, the potty, the commode, the oval office — whatever your favorite euphemism, what you mean is, plain and simply, the toilet.

Modern toilets consist of a bowl fitted with a hinged seat and are connected to a drain pipe where waste is flushed using water pressure into a sanitary sewer. The design has been around for a long time, and has worked well for well over a century and a half.

The first (English) patent for the modern flushing siphon toilet was issued to Alexander Cummings, a London watch maker, in 1775. Cummings used a drain pipe with an "S" curve that trapped water, creating a seal that prevented the escape of foul gases rising out of the sewer. It made the indoor toilet practical.

An enterprising London plumber, Thomas Crapper, however, made it affordable. Crapper started his decorative fixture company in England in 1861. Thos. Crapper & Co., Ltd., is still in business. Its showroom, the first of its kind, sold toilets, baths and sinks on King Road, London until 1968. Crapper is wrongly credited by many as the inventor of the flushing toilet. Not true. He sold toilets featuring an advanced siphon design invented in 1898 by one of his employees, Albert Giblin. After the invention of porcelain enamel toilets, he teamed up with London pottery maker Thomas Twyford who converted his factory from making fine tableware to making porcelain enamel toilets.

Sanitary toilets were enormously popular. By the 1850's most new homes in London included a "water closet" that drained into the city's new sanitary sewer. By 1917 the Crapper name was emblazoned on so many of them that American Doughboys passing through Britain on their way to the Western Front during the first world war wrongly concluded that "crapper" was the official name of the device.

The porcelain enamel toilet was such a huge improvement over earlier wood and copper models, that other toilets were driven from the marketplace by the last decade of the 19th century. The plain but functional toilets sold to England's emerging middle class were given are artistic twist by fine porcelain makers like Wedgewood and Royal Doulton for sale to the well-to-do. The Wedgewood and Doulton names were imprinted conspicuously on the artistic toilets they manufactured, and a great many of these are still in use in the U.K.

The flushing siphon toilet was the invention that moved the bathroom indoors, and to many architectural historians, is the single most important household innovation of all time. By preventing diseases like dysentery, cholera, and typhoid — about 50 diseases in total transmitted through contact with human waste — the toilet and modern sewer systems have saved countless millions of lives and made modern cities possible.

For more information on the evolution of the bathroom in Victorian times, see The Victorian Bath.

Toilet Configurations

There are two basic types of toilets in use in North American and Europe: one-piece and two-piece. Other countries have largely adopted western-style toilets, but many Asian cultures have kept their traditional toilets, Japan in particular (see sidebar).

Two-piece toilets

Two-piece have a separate tank and bowl bolted together. The original siphon flush toilet had a separate tank and bowl. The tank hung high on the wall to provide enough flushing force. With better mechanisms, the tank was able to sit right on the bowl, and this is still the most widely used toilet type and a good choice for most applications.

One-piece toilets

One-piece toilets were introduced during the 1930s. These low-profile models can be installed beneath wall cabinets or a storage shelf, places where the taller two-piece models will not fit. Since it is an integrated unit, there is no space between the tank and bowl of a one-piece unit where a leak can occur (very rarely) or unsanitary liquids can collect, so this type of toilet is easier to keep clean.

Toilet Mounting

Most residential toilets sit on the floor. Most commercial toilets hang on the wall. Why wall mount? It makes cleaning "behind" the toilet easier because there actually is no "behind" to clean.

Wall-mount toilets for home use are available, and recommended where possible because they do in fact make cleaning easier and are, therefore, much more sanitary. They are more expensive to buy and more expensive to install. Expect to pay at least double for a wall-mount toilet, and at least double for the installation. This may sound like a lot, but in the context of a bathroom remodel is about an additional 6%. In exchange you get years of convenience. Once you've installed a wall-mount toilet you will wonder how you ever got along without one.

MaP® Testing

MaP is a voluntary test of toilet efficiency and performance sponsored by the municipal water utility industry. The testing was developed in 2002-03 in response to the many complaints in the 1990s about the new “low-flow” toilets required by the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act. MaP offers consumers test results that duplicate the actual performance of a toilet in the real world. MaP testing was initiated specifically to identify how well popular models performed using realistic test methods. Results, scored on a Maximum Performance or MaP scale, rates toilet efficiency and flush performance and are published in reports and a data base of test results.
MaP testing been a major driving force in the improvement of toilet flush performance in North America.

Since 2003 the toilet performance in North America has doubled. The competitive pressure to improve fixture performance from the unacceptable levels of the 1990s, together with MaP as a vehicle to measure performance, has resulted in many hundreds of high-performance 21st century models. Over 80 manufacturers representing over 100 different toilet fixture brands participate in the MaP testing Program.

Before buying a toilet, you should always check the latest MaP testing results. Toilets may be high efficiency or high performance, but few are both. Those that are both are listed in MaP's "premium" products. The MaP Premium Products list can be downloaded and printed to take with you to the plumbing store. These toilets use 1.1 gallons of water, or less, per flush, comply fully with all of the EPA Watersense® requirements and have a MaP score of 600 grams or higher, making them high performance products.
In the latest variation on the venerable toilet, the tank and flushing mechanism are hidden in the wall, accessible through a removable panel that also holds the flushing control — usually a button. Only the toilet bowl and seat are visible. Few manufacturers offer them, but the list is growing. They are even more expensive to buy and more expensive to install than wall-mount toilets. Nor are they suitable for every bath or every bathroom remodel. But, if you are going to open up the wall anyway, they are worth considering. In-wall toilets take up very little room, so for very small bathrooms, they are one additional solution to the space problem.

Toilet Offset

For floor mounted toilets, the offset is important. The offset or setback is the distance between the wall behind the toilet and the center of the toilet flange. The flange is the pipe segment the toilet sits on. The standard offset is 12". Unless you specify otherwise, this is the offset you will get. However, offsets from 8" to 16" are available — at a price. Why use a nonstandard offset? Well, if you use an 8" offset you can save 4 precious inches in front of the toilet, which may make it possible to fit a toilet in a small bath where it otherwise would not fit. Few 8" offset toilets are available in the U.S., and these few are usually by European manufacturers. An 8" (20 cm) offset is fairly common in Europe. But, some of these small-offset toilets, designed for generally smaller European baths, take up an amazingly small amount of floor-space. Another source for 8" offset toilets, are architectural salvagers.

Many older one-piece elongated toilets required a 14", 16" or even an 18" offset. Today that has been largely standardized to 12", but if you are replacing an old toilet that needed a 14" or 16" offset, you may have to move the flange, or use a two-piece toilet — many of which are still available in 10" and 14" offsets. Another option is to use an offset flange, which can, under certain circumstances, allow a 12" offset toilet to be used with 14" offset plumbing.

If you already have the plumbing in place, buy a toilet with the offset the plumbing is designed for. Moving the plumbing can get expensive. Otherwise, select the standard 12" offset if it will work. If you need a nonstandard offset, you will probably have to go to a plumbing supply warehouse to get it.


One of the most welcome innovations in toilets in recent years is the high-rise seat. Termed "comfort height" or "right-height" toilets, the extra height makes it easier for people with movement issues to use. When combined with well-placed grab bars and transfer benches, these raised toilets improve the quality of life for the elderly and movement impaired. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires accessible toilets to have a seat height of between 16 1/2" and 18", compared to the normal 14" to 16" for standard rise toilets.

Since you are not getting any younger, plan ahead and make your next toilet an accessible unit.

Also pay attention to other accessibility issues. Toilets need to be placed so there is enough room to use the toilet without interference from other fixtures or other people using the bathroom. The The Rules of Good Bathroom Design offer very clear guidelines on where and how to install a toilet, and the amount of front and side clearance required. Front clearance, in particular, may determine whether you have space for an elongated toilet bowl.

Side clearance is usually dictated by your local plumbing code, which usually requires 15" from the center line of the toilet to any wall or cabin to the side of the toilet. This is a step up from the 1950s which often required just 12". So if you are replacing a toilet in a small bath that has just this 12" of clearance, you can only hope you are grandfathered in, and can stick with the 12" clearance. Usually you will be, but, check with your local code authority to be sure. The minimum side clearance used by most bath designers is 18", which is the National Kitchen and Bath Association minimum.

Flushing Mechanics

Until January 1, 1994, residential toilets could use up to 5 gallons of water per flush. After that date, in response to water shortages and municipal sewer system problems, the government regulations limited new toilets to no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. This initially caused problems because earlier low-flow toilets did not work well. These have largely been solved by the introduction of better-engineered mechanisms. Newer low-flow toilets, called "High Efficiency Toilets" or HETs, are a vast improvement on earlier designs. The newest round of water-saving legislation, already mandated in many states, will allow no more than 1.2 to 1.4 gallons per flush.

To improve the performance of low-flow toilets, engineers have developed flushing mechanisms that do not rely just on gravity and siphon action to remove waste. Some use high pressure bladders, and others electrical flushing mechanisms. None of these have, however, made much of a dent in the residential toilet market, and the gravity fed siphon toilet is still very much the king of flushing.

Siphon Vacuum Flushing Most low-flow toilets use gravity-fed mechanisms. This is the traditional way toilets have worked since the siphon mechanism was invented. Press down the lever, and water is released from the tank into the bowl. The weight and force of the water moving over the trapway creates a vacuum that causes a siphon action that "flushes" the toilet. Early low-flow siphon toilets had flushing problems, often requiring two or more flushes to do the job. New designs have largely eliminated this problem. The newest wrinkle in low-flow siphon technology is the dual flush system, a very low flow flush for liquids, and a higher flow for solids.

Pressure Assisted Flushing

In pressure-assisted systems, water enters the tank under normal household pressure, compressing an air bladder inside the tank. When the flush lever is pushed, the pressurized water surges through a jet and expels waste with more than gravity force. The flushing action is noisier, but refilling is quieter, and there's no condensation or "sweating" on the outer tank.

Invented to overcome problems with early low-flow siphon toilets that have now been largely solved, pressure assisted models are now falling out of favor. They have their own problems. They do not work well with low water pressure and the life span of the bladder is typically only 5 years. If they fail you are out of luck until the problem is fixed. by contrast, a siphon vacuum toilet is very unlikely to stop functioning altogether, even if you have to feed it with a bucket of water to make it work.

Electrical Flushing Mechanisms

An electrical flushing mechanism uses a small electric pump to push water and waste through the toilet. These toilets were invented for boats, and are less frequently used in houses. But they are available. They require a connection to household current and will not work if a power loss occurs, which could be, to say the least, awkward. Some newer models have a siphon backup.

How to Select a Toilet

Know the Offset

Don't assume your toilet offset is the standard 12". Many are not. Get out your tape measure and make sure.

Bowl Length

An elongated bowl front makes a better urinal and is more sanitary. It will give you about 2 inches of extra length and support. The trade-off is that it takes more floor space in a small bathroom. Round bowls have a shorter front-to-back dimension, making it a better choice for small or narrow spaces. Seats are generally not included when you buy a new toilet, so be sure the seat you buy matches the shape you need.

Seat Height

Both round and elongated styles are now being made with seats up to 18" high — 2 to 3 inches higher than standard. This height is more comfortable for many people because they don't need to bend their knees as much to make use of the toilet, and should be a strong consideration if any user has or anticipates physical problem with knees, hips or back.


If you are replacing an existing toilet that has a large footprint (i.e., the base covers a large floor area), consider the patching and repair to the floor that might be required if a bowl with a smaller footprint is chosen. This is especially an issue where ceramic tile covers the floor around the toilet. Will additional matching tile be required and will the appearance be satisfactory? Footprint dimensions of most new toilets may be found on the manufacturers’ websites.

If you are replacing an existing toilet with one that has a larger footprint, consider whether there will be enough clearance to adjacent walls or fixtures. Most plumbing codes specify a minimum clearance of 21" in front of the toilet (30" is recommended) and at least 15" from the centerline of the toilet to any obstacle or either side (18" is recommended). See the Illustrated Rules of Good Bathroom Design for more information.


If you are replacing an older, low efficiency toilet with a new high efficiency toilet, the tank on the new toilet is likely to be smaller — much smaller in some cases. If the wall hidden behind the old tank is unpainted (or untiled, as the case may be), which is not at all uncommon, the smaller tank may leave the unfinished wall visible. There is not cure for this except to paint the exposed area before you install the new toilet. The old large tank toilets are no longer available, and if available, would be illegal to install.

Shut-Off Valve and Supply Hose

Water is supplied to the toilet through the supply hose connecting a shut-off valve (or "angle-stop") to your toilet tank. Check the condition of the valve by turning it off to see if the water is indeed shut off. If the hose is frayed or worn, you probably need a new one. Consider one encased in stainless steel mesh-type hose for long-term durability. If the shut-off valve needs replacing, all of the water in you house will have to be turned off temporarily, often a job better suited to your plumber.

Tank Condensation

If you live in a high-humidity area, you may experience problems with water condensation on the outside of your toilet tank. This was more often a problem with older, large tanks that emptied completely when flushed. Newer tanks empty just partway, so the colder water refilling the tank is less likely to cause condensation. But, if you have the problem, there are insulated toilet tanks designed to cure it, and pressure assisted flush mechanisms usually hold the water in a plastic container inside the tank, not in the tank itself, so these also get rid of condensation.

Flushing Efficiency

The performance of low-flow toilets is measured and rated. The rating is called a "Maximum Performance Score" or MaP. The MaP is determined by the number of grams of solid matter that can be removed with one flush. According to the EPA, a MaP score of 350 grams or higher is required to call a toilet "High Efficiency", but the MaP program demands higher performance for its "high efficiency" score: 600 grams or higher. Several manufacturers make toilets that score 1,000 grams or higher. Do not be awed by toilets that can flush a potato or 20 golf balls at a time. These are not real world test (unless you intend to get rid of potatoes or golf balls in this unusual manner). Look for the MaP Test results. The MaP score should be at least 600, higher is better. If there is no MaP score, pass it by. You don't want a toilet the performance of which is unknown. To find out more about MaP, see the sidebar above.

Showers and Bathtubs

There are three basic types of showers: showers built over separate tubs, integrated one-piece tub-shower units and stand-alone showers. All these types are prefabricated by a number of manufacturers, and all can be custom-built by a qualified local craftsman… more »

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