Water Conservation: The Great Toilet Debate
We've all heard the stories about how unreliable 1.6-gallons-per-flush toilets are, how they don't save any water because they have to be flushed more than once. We've heard how some people allegedly were "smuggling" 3.5-gpf toilets in from Canada. We've heard from a member of Congress who believes that repealing the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct) would save consumers from these inferior products.
We've heard these things, but are they still true?
No, they are not. It is true that the early efforts of some manufacturers to adapt the new low-flow requirements to their existing products resulted in low-quality products and dissatisfied consumers. It is true that these early toilets did have to be flushed more than once.
But in the 10 years since EPAct was enacted, toilet technology has come a long way. The country has seen significant savings in water and energy consumption, and customer satisfaction with low-flow products has continued to rise.
Saving Resources, Saving MoneyWater conservation isn’t just for environmentalists anymore. Most of the water consumed for domestic and commercial purposes is supplied by public drinking water systems, which account for about 12 percent of the total fresh water use in the United States, according to a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey. Today, many regions in the country are in a chronic or long-term water shortage, says Amy Vickers, president of Amy Vickers & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in water conservation, and author of the plumbing efficiency standards adopted by EPAct. These drought conditions result in consumers paying a lot of money for their water.
A June 2001 study conducted for WC Technology by an independent consulting firm illustrates this claim. Based on water and sewer rates from 25 of the largest U.S. cities and assuming the consumption of 10,000 gallons per month, water rates have increased a whopping 24.97 percent a year since 1972.
“Water is now economically important,” says Bruce Martin, president of WC Technology Corp. The study indicated that Seattle has the highest water and sewer bill, topping out at $95.69 per month and $1,148.28 per year, while Chicago boasted the lowest rates at $21.20 per month and $254.40 per year.
More water is used in the bathroom than in any other place in the home. Toilets account for 26.7 percent of all indoor water use, according to a 1999 study of 14 cities by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation. Replacing an old toilet with a new 1.6-gpf model can save the typical household 7,900 gallons to 21,7000 gallons of water per year, thus saving money on water and sewer bills.
AWWA estimates that about 8 million toilets are installed each year in this country. “A nationwide savings of 6.5 billion gallons of water per day will be realized by the year 2025 under the existing standards,” states the organization. “The introduction of the 1.6- gallon-per-flush toilet, including both reduced tank size and re-engineered bowl, has proven to be one of the most efficient water conservation technologies utilized to date.”
The third-highest use of indoor water is bathing, with showers using 16.8 percent of water and baths using 1.7 percent. It is also the second-highest use of energy in the home. Each 2.5-gallon low-flow showerhead saves an estimated 5.5 gallons of water per day, according to the Consumers Union, a nonprofit testing and information organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.
Switching to water-efficient toilets and showerheads could save the average household from $50 to $100 a year on water and sewer bills, says AWWA. Many hotels, motels and office buildings are finding that new fixtures are saving them 20 percent on water and wastewater costs.
“The bottom line is to use water efficiently to contain costs, monetary as well as environmental,” Vickers explains.
And just how much water (and money) have we saved since EPAct? An August 2000 U.S. General Accounting Office report states that “substantial evidence shows that the use of water-efficient plumbing fixtures conserves water.”
For more tangible evidence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2020, residential and commercial savings from low-flow plumbing fixtures would be 6 billion-9 billion gallons per day. In her book, “Handbook of Water Use and Conservation,” Vickers says that the installation of water-efficient fixtures and appliances would reduce demand for indoor water use by 35 percent. And last summer, AWWA released results from a survey of 3,700 utilities nationwide stating that consumers could save $35 billion by installing water-efficient plumbing products.
“Today’s technology enables us to reconsider our water-use practices at a time when demand is exploding, but supply remains finite,” says Jack Hoffbuhr, AWWA executive director.
Industry Impact: While there was some resistance in the plumbing industry for the EPAct standards, plumbing manufacturers can’t say enough good things about the legislation today.
“The 1.6 laws are the best thing that happened to pressure-flush toilets,” says Martin. “Some of the gravity toilets brought to market didn’t work well. The pressure flush market is well over 600,000 units, and the law is very much a factor.”
When the national standards went into effect in 1994, existing toilet models were modified so that they used less water, but they weren’t designed for the lower water flow. Until the designs were changed, some models did not perform well. This resulted in a backlash against the 1.6-gpf toilets from consumers, the media and the U.S. Congress.
“The law opened up new markets for pressure-assist,” says Paul DeBoo, Sloan Flushmate sales manager. “With the performance problems of gravity-flush toilets, pressure-flush toilets began to gain acceptance with their proven ability to remove waste with one flush, saving 17 percent to 20 percent of water.”
Current technology seems to have eliminated the performance problems of the past.
“During the conversion time after the law was enacted, there were consumers that weren’t entirely satisfied with the performance of their toilets,” admits Mike Chandler, Kohler’s marketing manager of sanitary products. “But these were not the majority of consumers. Eventually the industry developed new technologies to enhance performance.”
The real benefit to the law, he says, is that it provided a level playing field. About 17 states had enacted 1.6 laws prior to 1992. “The majority of our customers were covered by 1.6 laws,” he explains. Manufacturers had to begin producing 1.6 toilets to accommodate their customers in these regions, as well as providing 3.5 toilets for their other customers.
With the enactment of the law, manufacturers were required to make only one type of toilet — 1.6 gpf. Some manufacturers, such as Toto, were already in the 1.6 game when EPAct came along.
“We had a real advantage because we already had the engineering savvy on low-flow toilets,” says a Toto spokesperson. “This technology was already being used in Japan, and Toto became the product of preference in California, where we established our U.S. operations.”
Toilet rebate programs have also accelerated sales for plumbing manufacturers as cities and towns around the nation seek to curb the rising cost of water while conserving what they have.
It seems hard to imagine, with all the benefits of the law, that someone would spend the time and energy to repeal it. But that’s just what Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., is trying to do. He’s tried several times, in fact, citing performance problems of low-flow products and state vs. federal rights.
“Knollenberg is part of a disconnect on this issue,” explains Vickers. “And it’s generational; he and his followers haven’t updated themselves on what’s going on in the industry, what new technologies are out there. He has exploited consumers’ beefs yet hasn’t reconnected with these same consumers to determine their satisfaction level with the new generation of low-flow toilets.”
And the new generation is doing just fine. A Washington plumber, Terry Love, devotes a section of his Web site, www.terrylove.com, to low-flow toilets “that work in today’s world.” He lists the different 1.6 toilets that he has used and installed, and includes comments from other plumbers on 1.6 installations.
There have been many customer-satisfaction studies conducted on this subject in recent years, and all have come to one conclusion: Performance is a nonissue. With the improvements in technology, most low-flow toilets perform just well as their 3.5-gpf predecessors. AWWA’s study of residential use of water found that those living in households with 1.6 gpf toilets flushed an average of 5.04 times per day; those with older 3.5 gpf toilets flushed an average of 4.92 times per day.
And if Knollenberg does happen to get the EPAct law repealed? Local 1.6 laws will still apply, Chandler speculates. Manufacturers are not likely going to re-tool for 3.5 toilets. The costs are just too great for manufacturers, consumers and the environment.
What The Future HoldsWhile great strides have been made in the evolution of low-flow products, the mission is not finished. “Low-flow products perform well but they could perform better,” says Vickers. She believes there should be higher standards for the internal workings of toilets because of one problem: they leak.
AWWA studies show that dripping faucets and leaking toilets account for 13.7 percent of all indoor water use. That is equivalent to 10 gallons per person of water lost per day.
Most of this leakage comes from the flappers on gravity toilets. The problem can be attributed to an increasing level of chemicals added to municipal water systems to purify the water. "These chemicals, as well as in-tank cleaners, can damage or destroy flappers, Chandler says. "Like an air filter in a car, these flappers need to be periodically replaced."
EPAct includes a provision for review of the regulations, and they could be changed to make them stronger. One scenario: a standard for ultra low-flow, 1.1-gpf toilets. Sloan Flushmate has developed such a toilet, Flushmate IV, which is now on the market. The model uses 45 percent less water than its 1.6 products.
Other plumbing manufacturers are looking down the road to see what more they can do to improve their products:
- Toto has developed SanaGloss, a glazing process applied to the interior of the bowl during manufacturing which seals the ceramic with an ionized barrier. This barrier prevents particles from sticking to the nonporous surface, assisting in moving the waste and keeping the toilet clean.
- Kohler’s Ingenium™ flushing system can now be used in any gravity toilet the company sells, giving consumers the design and comfort options they want without sacrificing performance.
- WC Technologies recently partnered with Gerberit Manufacturing on a new pressure-assist toilet that combines the PF2 pressure vessel and Gerberit’s in-wall system. The wall-hung toilet creates 6-9 inches of legroom.
Going even further into the future, the U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org) is thinking out-of-the-box on water conservation, says DeBoo, such as harvesting rainwater for irrigation and possibly toilet flushing. The council has also established a rating system for commercial buildings and certification program for “green” building professionals.
“Dwindling resources are driving water conservation to the next level,” DeBoo says. “People are still buying toilets using old buying habits such as style and color. They need to look at the technologies out there and buy one that fills their needs.”
Sidebar: A Breeding Ground For Water Conservationby Brian A. Klems
Conserving residential water was the topic of a 13-year study performed by the Desert Research Unit in the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona. The subject of the study was a modified and retrofitted single-family residence in suburban Tucson, Ariz., called Casa Del Agua. The house incorporated rainfall harvesting, low-water-use fixtures and water reuse systems so that researchers from the university could gather data and study water conservation methods.
The study focused on quantifying municipal water use and efficiency. Researchers paid close attention to the effects of water originating from bathroom sinks, tubs, showers, laundry facilities and kitchen sinks, commonly referred to as “greywater.” They also studied rooftop-harvested rainwater runoff volume and use. The home also served as a testing ground for new water-saving plumbing devices.
From 1986 to 1998, the results of the research showed significant reductions in water use when using harvested water from the rooftop and reusing rainwater. According to a summary of the experiment from the American Water Resources Association, Casa Del Agua achieved more than a 24 percent reduction in total water use and a 47 percent reduction in municipal water used in a typical Tucson residence. While 69.7 percent of the water used was still municipal, 10.4 percent was rainwater harvested from the rooftop and the other 19.9 percent used was recycled greywater.
The three-member family averaged using 260 gallons of water per day. While harvested water held toilet-flushing and evaporative cooler duties, recycled greywater was generally used to irrigate the landscape.
The primary goal of the project was to educate the public about water and energy issues and to show how alternative water and energy methods work. Approximately 13,000 people visited Casa Del Agua’s information center from 1985-1999.
Martin Karpiscak, associate research scientist at the University of Arizona and leader of the project, says the garage of the Casa was used for showings. “At times, we had demonstrations of the materials that were open to the public,” he explains. “We pulled in over 200,000 guests over the course of the study.”
While Casa Del Agua is no longer in operation (it’s on track to be torn down within a year), another project home called the Desert House has been under observation since 1994. A review article of this study is due out later this year.