(Photo credit: Copyright iStockphotos.com/Miles Sherrill)

WaterSense, a water conservation program launched last June by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is aimed at educating consumers about making product choices that limit water consumption. A key feature of the program will be the labeling of water-efficient products and fixtures to assist consumers in making informed decisions.

EPA officials fashioned WaterSense along the same lines as the popular Energy Star® initiative, which certifies select products with an energy-efficiency mark. The Energy Star logo has notable cachet among consumers and is credited with helping sell 1.5 billion qualified products since the label was introduced in 1992.

In other words, the EPA hopes that WaterSense will become a national brand for water efficiency. This mark could be used as a label on product packaging, featured on in-store displays, and found in manufacturer literature and Web sites. The EPA also intends to include a list of certified products on its WaterSense Web site.

Under the WaterSense program, manufacturers will be able to certify that they meet EPA criteria for water efficiency by following testing protocols for specific products. Toilets are the first product from our industry to be considered for the program, with faucets likely coming next.

What's been less publicized are the types of toilets that will be considered and the testing used. To even be considered for the program, the toilets must be high-efficiency toilets. HETs go beyond the 1.6-gallons per flush low-flow standard and use less than 1.3 gpf. According to the EPA WaterSense Web site, only about 9 percent of all toilets currently on the market are HETs.

Most manufacturers agree that a voluntary program like WaterSense will help spur the further development of these types of toilets. And the EPA has also enlisted the help of prominent plumbing manufacturers along the way to develop WaterSense.

“This program not only incorporates reduced water consumption,” said Lenora Campos, public relations manager at TOTO USA, “but also implements a flush performance metric. Previously, there was no easy-to-understand, national consumer reference tool for water efficiency. The EPA's new program will go a long way toward filling this information gap.”

The proposed draft specification is based on the Uniform North American Requirements for toilets. The EPA draft sets the water use level at the UNAR level, 1.28 gallons per flush, which includes design requirements and will have higher requirements for flush performance to ensure optimal performance.

The UNAR, however, includes a test that many manufacturers debate. The UNAR performance test uses miso paste - fermented soybeans used often in Asian cooking - as a standard medium to measure flushing capability.

The plastic balls used for ANSI-related testing, for example, are reusable. On the other hand, miso paste is unusable after one flushing. The paste is also expensive. According to a Wall Street Journal article last December on UNAR, a tub of miso costs $200 - or about $5 per flush. To address costs, the researchers who helped bring miso to the forefront have recently developed what we'd call a “miso sausage,” a standard amount of miso packaged in latex tubing. However, some manufacturers think the encased miso produces widely different testing results.

Manufacturers don't disagree that miso works well for testing flushing performance. By and large, it's one of the methods most used in research and development. But that's just it: it's just one way. Many manufacturers prefer a number of different types of medium to flush in order to determine how well a toilet flushes.

“It's hard to find just one test,” said Kathryn Streeby, marketing manager of sanitary products at Kohler Co. “We test with a complete array of media to come up with a matrix of performance matters.”

Miso, for example, is a great test for bulk, Streeby explained, but it's harder to tell how effectively a toilet would carry the waste along. That “plugging” factor, she adds, is a huge issue for consumers.

The miso paste test, not surprisingly, was started by Japanese plumbing manufacturer TOTO. Campos said TOTO certainly uses miso, but has to use other means so that performance testing closely matches real life.

“If our research determines other flush-efficiency testing media that are more effective than soy-based, we will adopt it,” she explained. “Until then, we will continue to use a variety of testing media.”