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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Too Much of a Good Thing

Air Date: Week of

Commentator and proud water-conserver Julia King laments the invention of the automatic-flush toilet, which she says doesn’t know when to stop.


KNOY: Many technological advances have entered our lives with the promise of being more environmentally friendly than what came before. Solar power, for example, and catalytic converters, or energy-saving motion sensors that turn lights off when no one's around. But as commentator Julia King found out, even in service of our most natural activities technology can sometimes get in the way of the best of intentions.

KING: Pardon this intimate disclosure, but in my home we share flushes. Not all flushes, mind you, just the civilized ones. In the name of water conservation, my husband and I have become the butt, so to speak, of family jokes. "Oh, Jim," my mother-in-law yells to her husband from the bathroom, offering to share the flush, "do you need to go?" They erupt in laughter as though nothing in all the world could be more foolish.
Let them laugh. We are proud, lowbrow conservationists. Yet, even when one's resolve is strong, there are times when opportunities to conserve are scant. Advanced technology in some public restrooms is thwarting my favorite conservation effort. For anyone who doesn't get out much, let me explain. Many toilets now flush themselves.
It used to be that my little girl and I followed a one-stall, one-flush policy. Sharing a flush meant sending only half of our allotted seven gallons to the nearest wastewater treatment facility. But now some commodes have sensors that alert the toilet when you're done. Presto, it flushes. Or at least that's what's supposed to happen. Unfortunately, the sensors can't tell the difference between being done and simply moving out of the sensor's range. Unless you're as motionless as a forest creature who's just been spotted by a hunter, your toilet is going to flush. Forget sharing. If I can get out of a stall with fewer than three flushes, I reward myself with a hand-washing.

These toilets also can't tell if you've just stepped in to fix your pantyhose -- flush -- or to blow your nose -- flush -- and never mind that my daughter would rather wrestle tarantulas than sit on a toilet that turns into a bidet and then threatens to suck her down into the sewer.

Apparently, automated toilets appeared in response to those people who take water conservation one step too far and refuse to flush at all. So in typical entrepreneurial spirit, somebody fixed the problem. And as these things often go, they created a new problem. And while regulators and industry specialists fight over how much -- or how little -- water can go into one flush, they're overlooking an equally important issue: How many times should a toilet flush? And should the toilet itself get to make such a crucial decision? If automation or smart technology is the wave of the future, so be it. But if this toilet's so clever, let's teach the thing how to count. To one.

KNOY: Commentator Julia King lives, writes, and flushes every now and again in Goshen, Indiana. She comes to us by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.



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