The delicate toilet question

For a home renovation, what are the best water-saving options among new toilets?

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    Tony Silverio of Silverio Mechanical installs the pipes for plumbing at Sheep Dog Hollow, an old farmhouse that's being renovated.
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Few people enjoy chatting casually about the bathroom, let alone about toilets. But since they’re responsible for as much as 40 percent of the water consumed inside most households, and water is becoming an increasingly precious resource, it's time to talk toilets here at Sheep Dog Hollow.

(For new readers, Sheep Dog is the 100-year-old farmhouse that we’re attempting to renovate in a green and economical manner. For our regular readers, please forgive the repetition.)

Now I confess that I stole the “talk toilets” line from a Sierra Club website, which has a delightful post that starts right up front: “Let’s talk toilets…” (Writing for the highly respected, very proper Monitor, I figured I had to get to the point in a more refined, less direct manner.)

Among other things, the post notes that “The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that water managers in 36 states expect water shortages in the next 10 years, even under normal, non-drought conditions.”

Being a reporter, I simply had to go to the original GAO document [PDF] for a bit more info. It turns out that it was published in July 2003, more than six years ago. I needed to check it because in an earlier post, my research had turned up that in 2009 a whopping 45 states expect water shortages under normal conditions. From 36 to 45 is a pretty big increase in just a few years, but it also reinforces what the GAO found back in 2003:

State water managers expect freshwater shortages in the near future, and the consequences may be severe….. Drought conditions will exacerbate shortage impacts. When water shortages occur, economic impacts to sectors such as agriculture can be in the billions of dollars. Water shortages also harm the environment. For example, diminished flows reduced the Florida Everglades to half its original size. Finally, water shortages cause social discord when users compete for limited supplies.

So now back to the toilet talk and what kind we’d like to put in at Sheep Dog. I’m afraid we’re not even going to consider a composting toilet. I’m just not that advanced yet in the world of green. We’re going for low-flow toilets instead. (Please, composting fans, tell me I’m wrong….)

But it turns out that the world of low-flow toilets is much more complicated than first appears.

Prior to 1994, most toilets in the United States used about 3.5 gallons of water for each flush. Then a new federal law kicked in that required all new toilets sold to use only 1.6 gallons a flush, according to the Sierra Club water-wise toilets website mentioned above:

“….in the toilet trade they’re actually called “ultra low flush toilets” or ULFTs. If you go toilet shopping and the salesperson tells you a ULFT is something special, don’t be fooled. It merely meets the minimum legal requirements for a john.”

Those ultra low-flow toilets are just the lowliest of the green flushing toilet possibilities out there. Greener ones include high-efficiency toilets (HET) to those that qualify for the EPA’s WaterSense label. I’ll delve more into those in my next post. (I’m already 300 words over my limit.)

In the meantime, it’s possible to check to see how much water your current toilet uses. Indeed, you could have one of the estimated “100 million toilets” in the US that still flushes using 3.5 gallons of water.

That’s according to “three time master plumber” Ed Del Grande. He’s got a video on the Sierra Club toilet page that gives a great, 1:48 lesson on how to determine whether you’ve got an old, water-guzzling tank or a newer one that uses (or wastes) almost half as much water.

If you do, it might be worth checking back for the next Sheep Dog post on Thursday.

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week – usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays – 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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