How does a toilet work? — JJ, Stafford VA
A toilet is actually a very clever device that makes use of a siphon to extract the water from its bowl. A siphon is an inverted U-shaped pipe that can transfers water from a higher reservoir to a lower reservoir by lifting that water upward from the higher reservoir and then lowering it into the lower reservoir. In fact, the water is simply seeking its level, just as it would if you connected the two reservoirs with a pipe at their bottoms. In that case, the water in the higher reservoir would flow out of it and into the lower reservoir, propelled by the higher water pressure at the bottom of the higher reservoir. In the case of a siphon, it’s still the higher water pressure in the higher reservoir that causes the water to flow toward the lower reservoir, but in the siphon the water must temporarily flow above the water levels in either reservoir on its way to the lower reservoir. The water is able to rise upward a short distance with the help of air pressure, which provides the temporary push needed to lift the water up and over to the lower reservoir. At the top of the siphon, there is a partial vacuum—a region of space with a pressure that’s less than atmospheric pressure. The same kind of partial vacuum exists in a drinking straw when you suck on it and is what allows atmospheric pressure to push the beverage up toward your mouth.
In the toilet, the bowl is the higher reservoir and the sewer is the lower reservoir. The pipe that connects the bowl to the sewer rises once it leaves your view and then descends toward the sewer. Normally, that rising portion of the pipe isn’t filled water—water only fills enough of the pipe to prevent sewer gases from flowing out into the room. As a result of this incomplete filling, the siphon doesn’t transfer any water. But when you flush the toilet, a deluge of water from a storage tank rapidly fills the bowl and floods the siphon tube. The siphon then begins to function. It transfers water from the higher reservoir (the toilet bowl) to the lower reservoir (the sewer) and it doesn’t stop until the bowl is basically empty. At that point, the siphon stops working because air enters the U-shaped tube with a familiar sound and water again accumulates in the bowl. When the storage tank has refilled with water, the toilet is ready for action again.