Physics of Toilets

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Throughout the ages we have seen timeless inventions to numerous to name. We have seen everythingfrom the inventio of the radio to the engine to the atomic bomb. But there is one invention that goes onunappreciated, even looked down upon. The toilet. The toilet is an amazingly simple invention which,without it, the world would be a very different place. Without toilets there would be waste in our housesas well as in the streets that would have to be manually taken care of. Without the flush toilet there is nopossible way that the world could survive as populated as it is. It is an invention that has become, in ourtime, a necessity.

The Birth of the Flush Toilet

The first successful attempt at a true water flush toilet as see them today came as early as 1862. Known as a "washout", it consisted of a bowl with a hole in the bottom on the front or back. Below this was a p-trap filled with water in order to prevent gas escape.

Such wonderful devices became very popular over to the outhouses and earth closets (portable outhouses). They were much liked, though known to often flush incompletely.

An improvewment was made on the "washout" when the bowl was combined as one with the p-trap. This was known as a "washdown". Though it was an improvement, neither the washout nor the washdown were known for aconsistent complete flush.

Nearing the end of the centruy, sanitaryware manufacturers discovered that by diverting some of the water from tank pipe into the bowl acting almost like a jet flush. It was also learned that if the shape of the p-trap exit were changed it would act almost as a siphon sucking everything from the bowl.

Thus the modern flush toilet was born. Though people often credit Thomas Crapper for the invention of the flush toilet, he was in actuality only the owner of one of the first largest toilet manufacturers. It was in fact a collection of ideas of many people from Leonardo DaVinci to John Harrington to Alexander Cumming and on through history.

The Basic Concept Behind the Flushing Toilet

Flushing a toilet is the perfect example of basic physics. A toilet is little more than a storage tank of potential energy. The tank on the back of every toilet, as most people know, is filled with water.

When the flushing lever is pressed all of the stored water in the tank is suddenly released through a hole in the bottom of the tank.

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MLA Citation:
"Physics of Toilets." 21 Sep 2017
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The water is guided through same angled holes in the top of the bowl in order to create a whirlpool effect. The bowl of the toilet is filled very quickly. The energy at this time is all converted into kinetic energy.

From here the process is basically repeated, though this time it is of more importance. The bowl of the toilet has built into its bottom a pipe know in the plumbing world as a p-trap. This pipe goes straight down from the bowl curves back up behind itself, and bends down again. When the bowl is quickly filled with enough water, there is enough potentail energy and momentum in the bowl to push some of the water through the p-trap. This p-trap then causes a siphon on the other side which then sucks the rest of the water and anything else from the bowl.

The flushing toilet system is quite a simple system when it comes to physics. As was talked of before, the tank on the back of most toilets is filled with water. This stored water has a potential energy of

PE = mgh

where m=mass of the water, g=the accelleeration due to gravity, and h=the water's height above ground.

Once this water is released it is converted from potential energy to kinetic energy.

As well, when the water is rushing into the bowl it has a total momentum of all of the combined momentums that separately rush into the bowl. The basic equation for this is


where P = momentum, m = mass, and v = velocity

This momentum of the rushing water creates enough momentum in the still water of the bowl to begin its movement through the p-trap.

Once the water has enough energy to move over the last curve of the p-trap it is pulled down (or drains down) the rest of the drain by the pull of gravity (once again PE converted to KE). Once it is flowing fast enough trough the last pipe it begins a pulling motion on the rest of the water still in the bowl, due to its larger potential energy past the p-trap.

This is known as a siphon which, due to the tensile strength of water, creates its own vacuum by pulling itself through the p-trap, sucking everything left in the bowl out through the p-trap and away.

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