The Frozen Toilet

The internet is full of some incredibly weird things. We thought we had seen it all, from exploding boilers to a bathtub rowboat. Today we came across this post on Reddit, of a toilet that sort of exploded. No one in our office has ever heard of anything like this happening. Let’s take a deeper look.

Typical Winter Plumbing

Winter is no friend to your plumbing. We’ve talked before about problems like pipe bursts before. These are typically your biggest winter plumbing problem. The water freezes in your pipes and causes them to burst open. When the ice thaws, you flood the house with running water.

This problem is caused by one simple fact: water expands when it freezes. On top of that, the pipe is full of water, so there’s only one real direction for the force of expansion to go: outwards. The pipe is essentially more rigid than it is flexible. It’s possible to bend copper, but the force needs to be applied in the right way, that’s why we have special tools to bend copper pipes. A force like this will find the weakest part of the pipe and once that’s failed, it loses all its strength and ruptures.

For this freezing to occur, typically the ambient temperature around the pipes must be below freezing. Most ground water is cold, but likely to be above freezing. The Earth it turns out, is an amazing insulator. For any freezing to occur, it must already be below freezing. Further, the more common issue is for cold water supply pipes to freeze. The supply piping will normally freeze long before it’s reached any fixtures. If you’re lucky, the pipes will freeze without bursting, but that’s not normally the case. It’s better to just design plumbing that isn’t likely to freeze.

The Frozen Toilet

With typical winter plumbing in mind, this begs the question: why did the tank rupture on that toilet? The ice would have, of course, caused it to explode, but that leaves one major question hanging in the air: why did the water freeze there in the first place?

As we’ve covered, the ambient temperature must be below freezing. This is easy enough to achieve. Turn off the heating system and possibly open some windows. You’ll have ice in no time. There’s some problems with this idea though. If the water froze in the fixtures, there should be far more damage at this point.

The toilet bowl itself would be holding water. That should now be ice. If the toilet bowl froze, then the bottom half of the toilet should’ve cracked like an egg. The bowl itself would probably be intact, but the drain pipe, typically S-shaped and full of water, should have burst. The water in the bowl would have room to expand, but the water in the drain would have been blocked by the narrow tube and the bowl ice.

What about the float mechanism? We can see the water supply pipe running straight up to it. The entire float there is an all plastic piece of equipment, weaker than the copper and the ceramic, and full of water. That thing should have exploded into shards of shredded plastic. Plastics can be flexible, but that particular piece was probably thicker, more sturdy ABS or something similar. It doesn’t bend so much as it shatters.

Lastly, we have to ask: what’s with the cavitation in the center of the tank? This should have been full of still water when it froze. Ice is generally transparent when it forms in still-conditions. This has to do with Laminar Flow to an extent, a phenomenon when water molecules are perfectly aligned, creating a crystal-like structure and a glassy appearance. The outside parts of the ice are just like that, nice and crystalized. The middle though, is full of air pockets, disturbances in the ice that prevent it from letting light pass straight through. We think that part of the ice might actually be hollow. If it were disrupted ice, we wouldn’t see the chain to flush the toilet. Instead, we can more or less see it nice and easily.

It’s a Fake

After some debate around the office about how likely it was for someone’s toilet tank to burst like this, we concluded the picture is more likely than not, a fake. There are inconsistencies with the picture that we can’t quite get our heads around. It was agreed that we’d all take pictures of our toilet tank bursting, just for the shock value in the office. We would also have taken pictures of every other burst fixture that would have shattered at the same time as the toilet.

We’re not saying this is an impossible picture, it’s plenty possible to make the tank of a toilet burst. It just seems like there should be more things getting broken if the whole room is that cold. On the other hand, this would be easy enough to fake. That ice could be created any one of a dozen different ways. Here at Procure, we’d just use CGI the whole way.

Our Awesome CG Ice Cubes

We already have an awesome set up for making ice effects, so faking this would be pretty trivial. Especially if we’re not making the ice all melty. On the other hand, Lead Sales Guy Scott would just take a toilet tank off the shelf, put everything in it, fill it, and let it sit in the balmy -20 degree Philly breeze for 20 minutes, spin it so the other side faces the breeze for 20 minutes, by then it should’ve shattered itself open. We also came up with some ideas about foam modeling, photoshop, and just plain using a disposable plastic bin.

This picture just seems more likely to have been faked than to be real.

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