Is the Answer Low-Flow Toilets?


SANTA Monica, Calif., will rip out 19,000 toilets and throw them into the Pacific Ocean in a three-way blow for the environment. That's right: for the environment. The old units will be fashioned into an artificial reef that will encourage kelp, fish, and lobsters. Sending the commodes to sea will save landfill space. Most important, a program to replace the toilets with low-flow models will reduce water usage and sewage volumes (see sidebar).

Big guns of conservation

When it comes to conserving water, low-flow toilets are the big guns that communities around the country reach for increasingly often. That's because toilets account for 38 percent of household water use. Older models need from 3.5 to 7 gallons per flush. Their low-flow cousins make do with a mere 1.6 gpf, saving up to 24,000 gallons annually - an eye-catching amount to locales whose water supplies are pressured by urban growth or periodic droughts.

Massachusetts went so far as to mandate installation of low-flow toilets in new construction and renovations for about 75 percent of sites starting last March, and for the other 25 percent next month. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and California are next.

And a bill before Congress would set nationwide standards not only for toilets but also showerheads, faucets, and appliances. The sponsors of the ``National Plumbing Products Efficiency Act'' say that it would reduce consumption in new homes by 25 percent. In the law's first year the United States would avoid using the water consumed by a city of 100,000 the first year, of 200,000 the second year, etc.

Such measures are all wet, say US plumbing manufacturers, all of whom are fairly new to making low-flow toilets. They charge that the models are difficult to design, need brushing more often, and may lead to more frequent backups of sewer systems.

They add that government should let consumers choose toilets and let the American National Standards Institute set toilet standards. (ANSI is now at work on one for low-flow toilets.) As for conservation, plumbing manufacturers say that fixing leaks in municipal water systems has far greater potential.

On this last point the naysayers are borne out by the experience of Massachusetts. A report to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority estimated that the water and sewer utility, which serves 44 percent of the state's 5.6 million residents, will save 3.5 million gallons per day in retrofitted residences after a decade of the low-flow plumbing code. But since 1987 MWRA has found and repaired leaks of 5 mgd in its own pipes, and has detected 25.1 mgd of leaks in community pipes.

As to the toilet's alleged drawbacks, Manuel Horvitz, chairman of the code-setting Massachusetts Plumbing Board, says he's had zero consumer complaints and issued only one code variance to a site that had problems of backed-up sewer lines.

Low-flow proponents assert that manufacturers want to delay demand for low-flow models until their production catches up.

``It's a market issue. I don't think it's about anything else,'' says Amy Vickers, an environmental engineer with Brown and Caldwell Consultants in Boston.

A spokeswoman for Kohler Co., one of two suppliers dominating the national market, says that the Wisconsin-based company's two low-flow models are adequately ``available in those areas where mandated by law.''

Getting around the code

The trouble is, low-flow toilets aren't mandated by a Massachusetts statute, but by the plumbing code. That means higher-flow models are still sold by retailers. Do-it-yourselfers are installing them, even though it's a code violation to change so much as a faucet washer without a licensed plumber looking on.

Maurice Demarais, executive vice president of the New England Wholesalers Association, estimates that the generally more expensive low-flow toilet is installed only 50 to 60 percent of the time in Boston, and 20 percent of the time elsewhere. Mr. Horvitz agrees.

A two-year old bill in the Massachusetts Senate would outlaw sales of higher-flow toilets, but lawmakers are preoccupied with the state's fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, the code that was to take effect next month was postponed until April and will probably be delayed one year to give manufacturers more time.

As for the national bill, even backers say that it would take a national drought to get it moving.

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