Friday, June 09, 2006

Interchangeable Parts

The other day, the worst possible scenario happened: toilet repair duty reared its ugly head (so to speak) on the home-front. One of the joys of home ownership is that you get a first-hand lesson in entropy, the fact that all things decay over time. And because you own them, you're responsible for repairing them. In my case, the rubber gasket that separates the tank from the bowl had disintegrated, causing all the water in the tank to continually drain out.

So, off to the hardware store. Like any guy, I tried to look cool. I adopted my "I do this all day, every day, for a living" pose. After about 5 minutes of browsing all the various pieces of toilet-repair gear, a store employee came by and asked me if I needed any help (this was a local store, not a home-improvement super-store where I would have been on my own).

"Are you finding everything you need?" he asked.

"Yea, I think so," I replied. "I have a case of the tank just leaking into the bowl. What do you recommend I try first?"

"Well," he said thoughtfully, pausing briefly before delivering a juicy tidbit of hardware-store wisdom. "Toilets are an art, not a science. Try a new flapper and if that doesn't work, replace the seal between the tank and the bowl. Assuming you have a standard toilet model, this or this should do the trick," he suggested, pointing to a couple flappers and gaskets.

I grabbed the suggested flapper and gasket. My wife had also suggested that I replace an aging seat that she really didn't like with a new one. I asked about that. "What are my options for new seats?"

"Well, fortunately, seats are pretty standard. You basically have a choice between round and oval," he said, pointing to a wall of decorator options. There were wood ones, plastic ones, white ones, green ones, and pink ones. Just about every option you can imagine, all in two standard shapes, round and oval. I chose one and headed home.

After all was said and done, it ended up being the gasket, not the flapper, but I replaced that, too. My wife was pleased with my choice in seats (basic white is always safe). I learned quite a few things about toilets, life, and open source during the whole experience.

First, toilets really are an art, not a science. Between all the mechanics of a toilet, fill levels, etc., a toilet is about as complex as a Boeing 747. It's a wonder modern society isn't overflowing with raw sewage.

Second, go for the flappers that have a rigid plastic piece to them, not the cheapie ones that are just completely rubber. The rigid plastic arms make the flush mechanics work far better and they are worth the extra $4.

Finally, open interfaces and interchangeable parts are wonderful inventions. Fortunately, my problem toilet was a mainline brand and didn't involve any oddball mechanics. I had plenty of spare parts to choose from and I could get what I needed right off the shelf at the local store without having to either hunt all around town or special order anything. Had I been unlucky enough to have the problem with a more specialized model, it would have been a lot more expensive and time consuming to fix.

That last point has a lot to do with the world of open-source. Open-source fosters the creation of standard interfaces, interchangeable parts, and multiple suppliers. And so if you have your open-source router crap out on you (sorry, I couldn't resist) in a few years, you'll have multiple standard options for how to fix it.

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