The House Energy and Power Subcommittee defeated H.R. 623, better known as the Knollenberg Bill, by a vote of 13-12 on April 12. The bill would have eliminated the federal low-flow plumbing standards for water closets and shower heads enacted under the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

The close vote could have been a victory for the legislation's sponsor, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI). The day before, the vote looked more in favor of Knollenberg, according to Ce Ce Kremer, vice president/government affairs for the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute.

"It could have very much gone the other way, if it hadn't been for calls our members made to members from their district," Kremer said. "This was Civics 101."

Generally speaking, Republicans such as Knollenberg would be philosophically opposed to government regulating business. In this case, however, it's the conservative and supposedly Republican business community that's been pressing to keep water conservation regulations in place. Better the same standards for the entire country, they say, than to leave flow rates up to a confusing patchwork of state and local regulations.

Meanwhile, Knollenberg and other opponents of low-flow plumbing contend that low-flow water closets don't save water since they require multiple flushes.

In the end, it was Democrats who lined up to vote against the bill. Just two Republicans joined 11 Democrats to keep current low-flow laws in place. All 12 votes, except for one, in favor of the Knollenberg Bill were from Republicans.

PMI Executive Director Barbara C. Higgens said while the plumbing industry could claim victory in the defeat, the focus should remain on the continuing need to conserve water and the successful role EPAct '92 has had to date in those efforts.

The legislation has been "immensely successful in conserving water while establishing national standards for plumbing fixtures, all of which have resulted in significant savings for consumers and municipalities," Higgens added.

Knollenberg plans to try to introduce the legislation later this year.

Recently, an alliance led by PMI and made up of 126 plumbing companies, water utilities and public agencies ran a series of advertisements promoting national water conservation standards in Roll Call, a newspaper covering events on Capitol Hill. The advertisements actually began running last November, but the campaign was capped off with a two-page, centerfold ad appearing in Roll Call's April 3 issue.

The ad explains the benefits of water conservation and the regulatory stability provided by federal mandates: "It allows business to bring improved products to a national market, rather than spend time and money designing products for differing flush volumes, flow rates, test procedures, certification requirements and labeling rules, all of which could vary by state and local jurisdiction, if federal standards were repealed."

PMI On The Potential Impact Of The Knollenberg Bill

Editor's Note: Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Michael Bilirakis (R-FL) asked the Government Account Office to determine the costs if H.R. 623, also known as the Knollenberg Bill, became law. The following is a report the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute supplied to the GAO on April 4, outlining the manufacturing costs:

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1992 (EPAct '92) is a unique partnership between federal, state and local governments, and between environmentalists, conservationists and fixture manufacturers, to affect conservation of our single most precious resource - water - by using the finest quality and affordable plumbing products made to a single, clear nationwide standard. Consumer costs are down, water-use savings is both real and documented, and both the government and the plumbing industry are in synch ... rarely does a federal law accomplish so much at such a small cost.

What if the law was to be repealed? Should H.R. 623 - the so-called Plumbing Standards Improvement Act of 1999 - be signed into law, how would it affect not only fixture manufacturers, but water conservation efforts and consumer costs as well? Any short- and long-term predictions would be speculative at best. But what is known is that the economies of scale contained within the present, working framework would be lost. Every segment of the industry would also be forced to comply with a maze of conflicting state and local regulations, resulting in confusion - not to mention much higher costs - in the marketplace. Water efficiency measures would then be gone, and our nation would be back to consuming water at a rate that far outpaces our existing supply. And that's just the beginning.

Here's a snapshot of some of the ramifications of the passage of H.R. 623, hypothetically speaking from the perspective of a single fixture manufacturer and based solely on known dynamics in the marketplace. Many costs are still unknown, but even including the known costs itemized below and extrapolating these costs to the entire plumbing fixture industry, the net result - per manufacturer - is an extremely costly process to the plumbing industry and, ultimately, to consumers.

Per manufacturer:

  • 3.5 gallons per flush (gpf) models will need to be developed for all models and installation configurations. This development process includes modeling with plaster; block mold (development tooling); caseing (production tooling); trial production/troubleshooting/compensations; and production mold making.

  • Depending on the complexity of the fixture, this development process consumes 12,000 to 30,000 man-hours of labor - per model - and material costs ranging from $40,000 to $100,000, again for each model.

  • Full-line manufacturers have anywhere from 30 to 80 models in their line. Each manufacturer will need to prioritize which configurations to bring to market first and determine the breath of offerings they will be able to supply.

  • If new regional requirements other than 3.5 gpf (2.5 gpf, for example) are required, the above costs are multiplied. It is not inconceivable that there could be as many as four regional requirements (1.6 gpf, 2.0 gpf, 2.5 gpf and 3.5 gpf). Multiply the above costs by the number of new models needed, and the cost quickly mounts.

  • All research and product development on 1.6 gpf technology will be placed on hold while manufacturers develop and tool up according to their prioritized requirements. This could take two to four years depending on the number of regional requirements.

  • Administrative costs to deal with the new jurisdictional requirements are unknown and will be dependent on the complexity of the individual requirements, but will be significant.

  • Likewise, costs arising from new marking requirements and interstate commerce accommodations are currently unknowns, but will most likely be significant.

  • Costs associated with lower inventory turns due to market fragmentation and the potential for higher percentage forecasting errors will be very significant.

Again, while it is impossible to forecast the severity of H.R. 623's potential impact, even our most conservative estimates put forth above point to a marketplace and industry in turmoil. And who ultimately loses in this battle? The consumer and the taxpayer.