Low-flow toilets have improved

Low-flow toilets save water, but they haven't always worked as well as homeowners would like.

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    Tony Silverio, who is installing the plumbing at Sheep Dog Hollow (a 1902 farmhouse that's being renovated) is a fan of Toto toilets because of their ecologically sound low-flow flushing prowess.
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To be frank, I’ve never thought much about toilets. In the past, whenever I’ve found myself in the market for a new john, the only thing that concerned me was its exterior design. I like things that are elegant and old (or, at least, that have that authentic antique look.)

But now in my effort to become a better human being, as well as renovate Sheep Dog Hollow in as green and economical manner as possible, I’ve become immersed the history and recent technological advances of the toilet. (For instance, did you know the derivation of the word? It’s from the word toile: “French for ‘cloth’ draped over a lady or gentleman's shoulders whilst their hair was being dressed, and then … by extension … the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table.”

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That helped me understand something that has puzzled me since childhood: the difference between eau de toilette and perfume. The latter is stronger than the former, when logic would suggest that the former, if it really was of the “toilette” should be the more fragrant of the two. But I digress…)

In a previous post, I wrote about how much water the average toilet consumes (up to 40 percent of the water used in a household), how water shortages are looming in the vast majority of states, and the fact that ultra low flow toilets are now the law of the land as a result of a well-intentioned act of Congress designed to conserve what fresh water we have.

The site “Toiletology” (no joke) does a fine job in summing up the toilets’ profligate past as well as its Congressionally mandated reforms:

“Before the 1950s, toilets typically used 7 gallons or more for each flush. By the end of the 1960s, toilets were designed to flush with only 5.5 gallons, and in the 1980s the new toilets being installed were using only 3.5 gallons. Today, a new toilet uses no more than 1.6 gallons of water in the U.S.”

Finally, I come to the point of this post – the problems with those low-flow toilets and how they’ve been resolved – making it possible for all, eventually, to flush with clean consciences.

For the most succinct summation of the problems, I must now turn to Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry, who gained national reputation, of sorts, for his crusade against the low-flow-ers. It is richly deserved with such observations as this 1998 gem:

They work fine for one type of bodily function, which, in the interest of decency, I will refer to here only by the euphemistic term ‘No. 1.’ But many of the new toilets do a very poor job of handling "acts of Congress," if you get my drift. They often must be flushed two or three times, and even more if it is an unusually large act of Congress, such as might be produced by a congressperson who recently attended a fund-raising dinner sponsored by the Consolidated Bulk Food Manufacturers.

All right, I confess, I had to put that in because it made me LOL (which, like many people of my advanced age I used to think meant “lots of love” until I was informed by my nimble-thumbed nephew that it stands for “laugh out loud.” Somehow I think that says something about my comfort level with this topic.)

Anyway, turns out, Mr. Barry’s complaints have been heard and heeded by industry and many of the issues that had been the bane of his bathroom have now been resolved. The Toiletology site notes:

…A recently published report by the Water Resources Research Center at The University of Arizona is supported by research. This report concludes that, despite the skepticism that greeted their introduction and a history of early problems, most low-consumption toilets are doing their job. Unfortunately, the research also shows that, over time, a significant fraction of the anticipated water savings is lost due to poor toilet design and performance modifications. Some of the modifications are inadvertent on the part of homeowners.

The plumbing site Terry Love is dedicated to helping consumers find which toilets are, in the site’s words, "Doing the job!" The site prides itself on its “in home testing”:

Consideration was given to plug resistance, completeness of flush, perception of sound levels, and price. Some testers use baby wipes, sponges, plastic balls and tubes to simulate how "we" use them. You can forget about those limitations here. This takes into account "miso paste" testing and homeowner testing.

Personally, I have no interest in understanding the” miso-paste” test, but Mr. Love’s list of toilets and their attributes is quite helpful. Here’s an example:

Kohler K-3458 EL
Kohler K-3544 ADA
Does the job!
powerful flush, some bowl wash, noise may startle, but less than before.
Commercial Grade

Now this brings me back to my choice of a toilet for Sheep Dog Hollow. Of course, my first instinct led me to the elegant johns of St. Thomas Creations because of their design. But my plumber, Tony Silverio, who is also putting in our geothermal heating system, is a Toto fan precisely because of its ecologically sound low-flow flushing prowess.

Next: What wins, design or ecology, or both?

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. Click here to find all her blog posts and articles.

The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's a new URL for its Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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