Federal Flush Debate: To Standardize or Not to Standardize

JUST when you thought the government had regulated almost everything, it comes up with a new target: toilet bowls. Yes, Congress will be debating a federal flush standard. No, Johnny Carson had nothing to do with this.

In two weeks, Rep. Chester Atkins (D) of Massachusetts, and Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. (D) of Georgia plan to introduce a bill that would establish ``national water-use performance standards for certain plumbing products,'' later defined as toilets and urinals. Their aim is to cut down on the estimated 40 percent of household water that is flushed down toilets. In addition, manufacturers of shower heads, faucets, clothes washers, and dishwashers would have to provide consumers with information about the water usage of these products.

If passed, Congress's invasion of the nation's bathrooms would apply to new plumbing fixtures installed after 1991. Yet it will be a slow flush, so to speak, since Representative Atkins's staff estimates that the average toilet bowl is replaced every 20 years.

While admitting it has resulted in a lot of double-entendres, Atkins says there is a serious point to the bill. ``We have a national water crisis,'' he says. ``It is obscene the amount of water we use unnecessarily.''

But some people say it is obscene for Congress to poke its nose into people's bathrooms. Take the two big plumbing fixture manufacturers - American Standard Inc. and Kohler Company. ``We think it is a local issue, not a federal issue,'' says James Wolf, vice-president for government affairs for American Standard. David Harrison, vice-president for sales at Kohler in Kohler, Wis., bridles at the idea of establishing of a ``plumbing czar.''

Mr. Wolf points out that toilets equipped with 1.6 gallons of water - the proposed federal standard - may not have enough liquid to keep the outflow pipes clear. It's a plumbing problem on a national scale which Atkins's legislation promises to investigate.

If the government, however, wants to see how toilets work with less water, they will soon have a laboratory - in Massachusetts. Despite the plumbing industry's objections, the Bay State enacted new regulations mandating the use of water-saving toilets starting on March 2. The state acted after drought lowered Quabbin Reservoir and it had to face up to a huge bill for new water-treatment facilities.

Using low-flow toilets ``has never been found to be a problem,'' says Amy Vickers, a project manager at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in Boston. Ms. Vickers says the waste water from dishwashers, sinks, and showers will keep the pipes clear. ``Europeans have always used low-flow toilets and never had any problems,'' she says.

In fact, Vickers believes the issue is really one of market share. US manufacturers have been slow to develop low-flow toilets. ``We now have foreign manufacturers making inroads,'' says Vickers, who admits she has the dubious distinction (but for a good cause) of being called the ``commode queen.''

Imports from Sweden seem to be particularly popular. In Massachusetts alone, the annual market is for 400,000 new toilets. Other states are looking at toilet standards as well, including California, Washington, and areas surrounding the Delaware water basin. In water-short areas, the savings can be substantial.

Using a 3.5 gallon per flush (GPF) toilet, a Bostonian uses 16,400 gallons of water per year at a cost of $69. However, with the new low-flush model, water consumption is only 7,000 gallons per year at a cost of $29.

Vickers envisions the time when the whole state has shifted, resulting in a savings of 70 million gallons of water a day. This is half of Boston's daily water usage.

Of course, there is a cost to conservation. Mr. Harrison says the low-flush toilets will cost 25 to 50 percent more. This is because of extensive retooling and redesign. For example, to get enough ``head pressure,'' water has to be siphoned from the top of the water closet as opposed to the bottom. Even then, Harrison says, ``the performance will not be spectacular.''

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