Bring back the old 3.5 gpf toilets? Forget about it. Judging from the largely pessimistic opinions expressed in a recent PM survey, you’d think that the ideal toilet must be a 20 gpf model. Call it The Niagara. No stoppages. No multiple flushes. No “skid marks.” No callbacks. No problems.

Three years after federal mandates regarding 1.6 gpf toilets first went into effect, 59 percent of our respondents think current installation regulations should be relaxed. Not content to wait, many contractors are simply taking the matter into their own hands. A third admit they still have access to 3.5 gpf toilets; and three-quarters of these contractors still install them. Furthermore, 26 percent said they were aware of other contractors in their area installing 3.5 gpf toilets.

By and large, our survey indicates that gravity models fail in terms of performance, while pressure-assisted toilets are too much money and too loud.

“The water saved is not worth the troubles created,” wrote one respondent. Or as one mathematician put it: “3.5 = 3.5. 1.6 x 3 = 4.8.”

On Edge: “I think contractors are a little on edge,” one fixture manufacturer told us after flipping through our findings. “They’re on the spot about a product that they never had to think too much about before.”

Well, they’re definitely thinking about it now. PM mailed a survey last April to 1,686 plumbing contractors and inspectors. Of these 1,000 were plumbing contractors, and the other 686 were plumbing inspectors from the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials. Our results are based on a 22 percent response rate, or 371 people.

Our respondents have a pretty good reason for feeling a little edgy these days: More than half, for example, said they had “frequently” experienced problems with residential 1.6 gpf toilets. That’s up from just 10 percent prior to the federal mandate two years ago. In fact, in the “good old days,” a little more than half said they had barely experienced a problem; a third pegged the frequency rate as “sometimes.”

Generally speaking, here are the most frequent complaints experienced with ultra-low flush (ULF) toilets. (See accompanying graphics for specific complaints regarding gravity, pressure-assisted and flush valve models.):

  • Stoppages (47%)
  • Multiple flushing (37%)
  • “Skid marks” (12%)
  • Drain line clogs (3%)
  • Noise (2%)
  • Price (1%)

We also asked for a ranking for the most “severe” complaints:

  • Stoppages (56%)
  • Multiple flushing (33%)
  • Drain line clogs (8%)
  • “Skid marks” (7%)
  • Noise (2%)
  • Price (1%)

It should also be noted that the line for “Other” problems received double-digit responses in both cases. Specific mentions include various problems with the flushing mechanism, while many just didn’t like the “looks” of the new toilets.

In addition, contractors are feeling the heat when these problems occur. Sixty-one percent said property owners either “frequently” or “sometimes” considered the problems with ULF toilets the fault of the contractor.

Not surprisingly, with so many fingers pointed at them, contractors point their fingers at the manufacturers. A resounding 68 percent said they didn’t believe fixture manufacturers are doing enough to educate them on ULF technologies.

Contractors prefer to install gravity 1.6 gpf toilets over pressure-assist toilets. Pressure-assisted toilets still garnered a 36 percent “market share,” not bad for a product that barely existed three years ago. But since gravity toilets have the lion’s share of the market, they also have a lion’s share of the problems. Contractors received complaints 71 percent of the time with gravity toilets. On the other hand, contractors indicated a 19 percent share of their complaints come from pressure-assisted toilets.

“I’m not surprised at what the survey uncovered,” said another fixture manufacturer. “Contractors were thrust in the middle of this situation between the government demanding this change and a public not informed about the switch.”

The manufacturer did see hope for the future. “At the last K/BIS Show, every fixture manufacturer was talking about the improvements they’d made to their 1.6 models. This fixture can be tweaked to give the public what they want — a toilet that works and that works with less water.”