WHY the subject of toilets seems so funny, nobody really knows. But in Tom Konen's basement lab at the Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., there are no giggles or silly bathroom puns. Let the computer engineers have their fame and millions. Mr. Konen is on a mission. The United States is using too much water, and a lot of it is literally going down the john. Southern California is so short of water that people are turning in neighbors for watering their lawns. Sewage treatment, meanwhile, is going to cost a fortune. The United States Environmental Protection Agency projects the cost of needed plants nationwide at some $84 billion.
``Probably never before in our nation's history has there been more of a need for new and improved plumbing products,'' writes David Hanks, editor of Plumbing Engineer magazine, in the Nov./Dec. 1989 issue.
Toilets account for some 40 percent of the water flowing through the typical household - 27 gallons per person, per day. Most toilets in the US today are water guzzlers, requiring 3.5 to 7 gallons per flush, while standard models in Europe and Japan need only 1.6 gallons. Much as the nation pushed automakers to build more efficient cars back in the '70s, so today states and localities are telling plumbing-fixture makers to shape up their commodes. Massachusetts passed a law in 1988 that requires a phase-in of the 1.6-gallon standard, and New York, California, Connecticut, and other states have followed suit. A bill to require a 1.6-gallon standard nationwide is pending in Congress.
Yet even as a spiffy Japanese model - the Toto - enters the US market, the industry has resisted new efficiency standards. Meanwhile, the public wonders whether a low-volume flush can really do the job.
That's where Tom Konen comes in. His lab is one of the leading plumbing-testing shops in the country, and the American Society of Plumbing Engineers has enlisted him to resolve the doubts on low-flows.
Initial results are due soon; if favorable, they could give the green light for a new generation of plumbing technology, and help save the public billions of dollars in water bills and taxes. ``It will help dispel the myth that a 1.6 gallon flush doesn't do the job,'' says John Borrelli, product manager for Universal Rundle, a maker of low-flow toilets.
Each year of delay, on the other hand, sinks the nation deeper into the hole. About 8 million new toilets are installed each year, and they won't be changed again for another 20 to 30 years.
Konen is an unassuming man. His office at the Stevens Institute is a plumbing lair of technical manuals and fittings, and the laboratory just below is as homely as its subject - an unadorned basement cluttered with commodes.
``He's flushed a jillion of these things,'' says Ed Osann of the National Wildlife Federation in Washington and a leading proponent of water-efficient plumbing.
Several units sit on a small platform connected to a transparent drainage pipe, which traverses the building. Plastic pellets demonstrate how far a flush will push material through the drain. A circle drawn on the inside of the bowl tests the unit's ability to cleanse what are called ``skid marks'' in the trade. They are a key to the current debate that Konen is trying to resolve. The other is industry control.
Konen was an engineer with the American Standard Corporation, a major fixture maker, when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to fund a plumbing research lab at Stevens in 1972. His early work concerned drainage systems - he helped cut construction costs 25 percent - and plumbing standards for prefabricated housing. After the droughts of the mid-'70s he shifted to water conservation.
Much as the American auto industry took gasoline for granted, American toiletmakers were not greatly concerned with saving water. Styling and aesthetics came first. Some of the old ball-and-chain models, for example, with the tank high above the seat, actually used less water than later versions. (Falling farther, the water also cleansed more efficiently.) But these were noisy and not exactly House Beautiful material.
Thus came the water-guzzling 5-to-7-gallon models that prevailed until the '70s. ``Toilets were the same way [like gas guzzling cars] - big and smooth and using a lot of water,'' says Ross Beck, marketing manager for Microphor, a California company that distributes the Japanese Toto.
Nor was outside influence something the plumbing industry was used to. The industry is governed by a Byzantine structure of standard-setting bodies, most of which it controls itself. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) establishes basic performance standards that are adopted, more or less, by four regional committees. Then local officials adopt these.
``The status quo is quite comfortable for major US manufacturers,'' says Mr. Osann of the Wildlife Federation. ``It allows them to control the pace and direction of technological innovation.''
With more federal funding, Konen helped reduce the standard flush to 3.5 gallons. Much more funding was needed, he thought. But the Reagan administration shut off his research money, and there the matter stood.
THE Massachusetts law took the industry by surprise. Only three companies were ready with a low-flow model, and major firms such as Kohler and American Standard risked losing their market share. ``You've got to remember, a big company has to retool,'' says Mr. Hanks, editor of Plumbing Engineer. ``They can't just do this overnight.''
Critics suspect the major companies oppose new legal standards largely to buy time to catch up. Their main arguments haven't won many adherents. The industry has argued, for example, that toilets are merely one part of a plumbing system; therefore it is dangerous to fiddle with the toilet flow without first making sure the drainage pipes will work on less water.
``It's baloney,'' counters Amy Vickers, a consultant who drafted the first low-flow law as an official at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. ``Pipes have been oversized since the 1940s. It's an old issue.''
Konen doesn't seem impressed either. The question isn't so much whether the old drainage pipes will work, he says. Rather, it's whether the new toilets can help cut construction costs by making possible the use of smaller pipes.
The skid-mark question is the toughest because it comes so close to the nation's skittish sensibilities. When the 3.5-gallon standard first came out in the '70s, some companies just switched tanks on existing models, which was like putting a Volkswagon engine into an Oldsmobile. The result was complaints to plumbers and a bad name for water conservation.
``I couldn't see any reason to be concerned,'' Konen recalls. ``Now I think, maybe what's out there isn't that perfect and can't be that perfect.''
This time around, the low-flush toilets have been totally redesigned. Advocates maintain that many work better than the present 3.5 gallon models. ``The bowl brush was invented long before the 1.6 gallon unit,'' observes Osann of the Wildlife Federation.
Konen wonders whether people are expecting toilets to do too much. Regarding federal legislation he seems torn between his loyalty to the industry and his instincts as a reformer. ``The industry has the mechanism to respond and should be given the opportunity to respond,'' he says.
But he acknowledges that low-flows didn't start coming until the law required them. ``We all need deadlines,'' he says.
One thing he'd like is more research money. In Europe, he observes, national labs helped put those countries far ahead of the US in adopting water-saving toilets. ``We would like the federal government to come back in here,'' Konen says.