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

Low Flow Woes

Air Date: Week of

Most people talk more readily about their personal finances than they do about what goes on in the bathroom. But nowadays toilets are the talk of many towns and the countryside as well, as some chafe at the federal mandate requiring all new commodes to flush with no more than one point six gallons of water. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has this report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
It's one of the most private parts of our lives. In fact, most people talk more readily about their personal finances than they do about what goes on in the bathroom. But nowadays toilets are the talk of many towns as some complain about the Federal mandate requiring all new commodes to flush with no more than 1.6 gallons of water. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has this report.

(A door creaks open)

SAVARD: Hi. Come on in.

NELSON: Barbara Savard has lived in this ranch-style house surrounded by woods for the past 11 years. In that time she's redecorated many of the rooms, but she's not quite sure what to do with one of the bathrooms. Mrs. Savard desperately wants to replace her avocado-green toilet, a relic of the 70s.

SAVARD: Well, I never did like the color, but I never (laughs) thought I would like it as much as I do now, compared to what's out there on the market.

NELSON: That's because if she replaces this toilet, Federal law says she has to install a low-flush toilet. Mrs. Sevard says she had her first experience with these toilets when she visited her mother at a senior citizen complex.

SAVARD: Everybody in the building has complained about them there: so noisy you can hear them from one apartment to the next. You can hear them with the bathroom door shut, you know. When you flush it, paper comes back up, so that says to me if paper's coming back, then other germs and et cetera must be coming back.

NELSON: In 1994, a law went into effect mandating a Federal flush standard. New toilets can't use more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That's a fraction of what's consumed by older toilets like Mrs. Savard's that use from 3-and-a-half to 7 gallons of water. Barbara Savard says she was so upset to learn about this law, she wrote a letter to the editor of her local paper. Then she wrote to her Congressman. And now she's found an ally in Republican Congressman Joe Knollenberg. Mr. Knollenberg represents a suburban Detroit district and is serving his third term in Washington. He says his disgruntled constituents urged him to take leadership on te toilet issue.

KNOLLENBERG: I'm not making this up when I say that thousands of people have complained about this. And I'm talking about Florida, I'm talking about California, I'm talking about -- even the Northeast, where you would think there would be more of a concern about this whole thing. And these folks are mad as hell about this.

NELSON: So last summer, Joe Knollenberg introduced a Federal bill to repeal the toilet regulation. Since then he's been traveling all over the country proposing that the mandate should be scrapped.

(A toilet flushes)

NELSON: Mr. Knollenberg says he's all for conserving water. But, he says, the low-flush toilets simply aren't powerful enough to whisk away waste.

KNOLLENBERG: I flushed one Saturday morning. I had to do it twice.

(A toilet flushes. Twice.)

KNOLLENBERG: If the math on this doesn't change, it's 1.6 times 2, that's 3.2 gallon, that's very, very close to 3.5. So where are you saving the water?

NELSON: Low-flush supporters admit design problems did plague some early models. And now, the biggest obstacle they have to overcome is this bad reputation.

HARVEY: Be comforted by the fact that typical models that are on the shelf today perform a lot better than they did just a couple of years ago.

NELSON: Leroy Harvey is executive director of Urban Options, a nonprofit group specializing in household energy efficiency. Mr. Harvey says almost 40% of the water used inside an average household is flushed down the toilet. The toilet regulation will conserve about half of that water and save energy by reducing the amount of waste that needs treatment. Mr. Harvey compares the low-flush law with mandatory fuel efficiency standards for cars, which were unpopular but necessary for change in the auto industry.

HARVEY: Would it have happened if the marketplace pushed for that added efficiency? Or did the Federal standards make an impact?

NELSON: But shopping for a toilet isn't like buying a car. You can't just take it for a test drive. And that makes a lot of people nervous. Leroy Harvey says the key is to choose the right type of low-flush fixture for your plumbing.

HARVEY: This is a pressure-flush toilet that was installed several years ago. As you can see, we don't have a plunger in here. There's no need for one.

(The toilet flushes)

NELSON: These units work by increasing pressure in the water tank, with some using compressors to create the strong flush. Many plumbers say these toilets are a good choice for older homes, while newer homes with updated plumbing can often accommodate the less expensive gravity flush toilets, which work like the old-style commodes we're all familiar with. Prices on low-flush toilets range from around $100 up into the thousands. But Mr. Harvey says often the higher price has more to do with color and styling than the toilet's flushing ability.

HARVEY: It's like when you're making any other major household purchase, shop around and do a little bit of research before you purchase.

NELSON: Consumer Reports, the independent product testing service, came out with their low-flush toilet ratings in 1995. More current information is available in home-building magazines and on the Internet. But Congressman Joe Knowlenberg says he's hearing from people with brand new toilets that say they just don't get the job done. And he vows to continue his fight to repeal the low-flush law. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Cascade Township, Michigan.



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