Frugal-flush toilets put the plug on domestic water waste

Phil Hammerslough, a former real-estate developer, wants to do something about America's worsening water-supply situation. In many areas ''we're mining it,'' he says, ''pumping it out of the ground faster than it can be replenished.''

Even in areas of high rainfall, incipient pollution and rising populations are straining the system, and waste-water disposal has become an almost universal problem.

So Mr. Hammerslough would like to cut water use in individual homes by something approaching 30,000 gallons a year through the use of frugal-flush, or water-wise, toilets. In the process, homeowners would save anywhere from $80 to several times that figure each year. As a side effect, the nation would save billions of dollars in energy costs associated with purifying and pumping all that excess water.

Several low-water toilets have recently come onto the market, designed to meet existing needs, and in anticipation of the much greater importance that will be placed on all water-saving devices in the next decade.

The brand with which Hammerslough is most involved is the Canadian-made Seich One, which averages one quart a flush compared with the five-gallon-a-flush conventional toilet. Others include the Flush-O-Matic, also a one-quart average; the two-quart Microflush, the one-gallon Ifo Cascade, and the 11/2-gallon Thetford Superinse. All these are capable of impressively lowering the 100 gallons a day used in most US homes.

The warnings have been out for some while now. The fact is, the United States faces perennial water shortages, and the situation will only worsen as competing demands from industry, agriculture, and a growing population increase. Already some communities are being forced to curtail, even ban, new construction because of limited water supplies or inadequate waste-water-treatment facilities. Perennial water shortages in high-rainfall regions now occur, particularly in resort areas where the arrival of vacationers and the onset of summer dry spells coincide.

Water-saving toilets are not the total answer, but they are a significant part of it for one reason: the standard flush toilet is the single biggest user of water in the home. By Hammerslough's calculations, the Seich One would save the average family some 29,000 gallons of water a year, or the equivalent of almost three tanker trucks full. That amounts, in purification and delivery costs, to around $80 a year in many regions. But there are situations where the benefits are much greater.

These mini-flush toilets can also mean that:

* The family well or spring will not run out as readily during dry spells.

* Septic systems can double their life expectancy, because the total amount of waste water (dish washing, laundry, bathing, and toilet) is reduced by some 40 percent in the average home.

* Homes with holding tanks will only have to be pumped out half as frequently. Reducing this service from four times to twice a year can cut costs by $140 to $160 a year.

* In some instances, regions with high water tables might no longer require mounded septic systems (above-ground leach fields involving trucked-in sand at costs upward of $6,000.

* The nation as a whole would save billions of dollars in energy and other hidden costs associated with water treatment and pumping.

Unique to the Seich One and Flush-O-Matic are their on-demand flushing action. By depressing the lever and holding it in place, you decide how much water is needed. This can range from one pint to a gallon, and averages out at one quart.

Composting and low-water toilets were originally designed to meet the needs of those living in rural areas of scarce ground water and limited leaching capacity. Now they are moving slowly out of the country and into urban settings where plumbing codes will allow.

For further details, write to:

Seich One, Patric Creek Corporation, PO Box 135, Hinesburg, Vt. 05461; Flush-O-Matic, Woodbury Organization, PO Box 82, Woodbury, Vt. 05681; Ifo Cascade, Ifo Sanitar, PO Box 231, Avery, Calif. 95224; Superinse, Thetford Corporation, PO Box 1285, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48106; Microflush, Microphor Inc., PO Box 490, Willits, Calif. 95490.

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