Toilets that “frankly…don’t work”

by Walter Olson on March 18, 2011

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is voicing citizen discontent about federal low-flow plumbing mandates, a mandate intended to force conservation of a resource that in many parts of the country is not even particularly scarce [Atlantic Wire, Nick Gillespie]

Related: Where is the market failure with incandescent light bulbs? [Thomas Firey, Cato at Liberty]

{ 28 comments }

1 Liz 03.18.11 at 8:35 am

The toilets aren’t meant to correct a shortage of water, as you pointed out, most places don’t have this problem. The toilets are meant to correct a shortage of CLEAN, USABLE water. They’re also a way to reduce the strain on sewage cleaning systems – which in most communities were last overhauled during the Great Depression.

I always wonder, “Why are Americans so dumb about the one thing we need to support a decent civilization – water uncontaminated by our own feces?” And then I find jokes about low-flow toilets all over the news and I remember, “Oh yeah. We’re morons.”

It’s like how in India they can’t persuade people to stop taking a crap in the fields and burying it because they’ve always done that, so despite the gross factor and the health risks, people insist. But it’s the US, and it’s based on some perceived right to use a lot of water for ones “business,” while everyone else can just eat literally eat poo.

So gross and dumb.

2 Xmas 03.18.11 at 9:24 am

Liz,

Low flow toilets can cause health problems too. Such as in San Francisco

Or, as Hank Hill says, “If I have to flush 3 times, how am I saving any water?”

3 LibertyAtStake 03.18.11 at 9:37 am

@Liz,

What is your supporting evidence for any Americans “literally eating poo”? I’m sure if you can come up with anything scientific, or even anecdotal, your fellow travelers now running the EPA would be more than happy to make it a federal case. And your fellow travelers in the criminally biased MSM would be more than happy to give it 24×7 bloviating. [cue crickets]

d(^_^)b
http://libertyatstake.blogspot.com
“Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

4 VMS 03.18.11 at 11:49 am

I took out all the flow restrictors in my shower head so I get a descent shower, and a shower takes me 3 minutes instead of 10. I took out all the flow restrictors on my kitchen sink so I can fill a six quart pot in 20 seconds instead of a minute and a half. My toilets are the old American Standard toilet installed in 1951 when my house was built (and they work). My washer and dishwasher are low water use appliances (but they seem to get the clothes clean), and I water my lawn only when it is in danger of dying. I pay about $25 per quarter on water, half of which is the service connection charge. So why should I switch to an inferior toilet or put back the flow restrictors on my shower head and kitchen sink? It will cost me more in time and possibly water, and money savings, if any, will be insignificant.

By the way, I like old fashioned light bulbs too. I just turn them off when I leave the room. These newfangled compact fluorscents take a minute or more to warm up, especially in a cooler room thereby wasting my time until the light gets to a comfortable reading level. In fixtures that have multiple bulbs, one is an incadescent (for instant light) and the rest CFs for energy savings.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the water company imposes a surcharge because the general conservation effort has led to reduced water use, and they are entitled by law to a fixed profit.

5 Liz 03.18.11 at 11:54 am

1) If you have to flush three times every once in a while, it WILL NOT make up for the many other times your toilet used less water when it was flushed at half strength (most people flush after number 1, to be blunt).

2) I have lived in small towns where fecal matter regularly overflowed the sewers, and ran in the streets. It has also happened in DC. The fecal waste is thereby released into the air, where it coats everything in range, including your hands and your food.

3) No one wants to pay higher taxes to fix the sewer systems, so that leaves a choice: you can either literally wallow in your own shit at a low tax rate, or you can accept low-flow toilets imposed by the feds as a way to extend the life of our aging infrastructure.

Unfortunately,there really just aren’t many appetizing alternatives to deal with a 300 million population when, as the book reminds us, “Everybody poos.”

6 Ed 03.18.11 at 11:56 am

I have a well and a septic system, can I get a waiver? Do I have to drive to Canada to buy a Ferguson?

7 Liz 03.18.11 at 11:58 am

And VMS, as a younger person who will now have to pay to repair the water treatment system you’re so merrily wasting, thanks. You didn’t pay into the system when maintenance could have helped avoid the problems we now have, and you won’t restrain yourself now.

So enjoy your clean water at a low cost. The federal programs of the Great Depression gave it to you, and you are giving the next generation crap. I will now vote to raise the HELL out of your taxes, because you haven’t given me any options.

8 Mark Phaedrus 03.18.11 at 12:36 pm

When I moved into my house, I had to have one of the existing mid-80s toilets replaced, and I must say that the low-flow one I got to replace it really does the job. If you shop carefully, you can have a clean bathroom and still conserve water.

(I also have a low-water washing machine. But my dishwasher is undoubtedly dreadful, and I plead guilty to removing the flow restrictor from my shower; so my green credentials are undoubtedly tarnished.)

9 Black Death 03.18.11 at 12:44 pm

I live within walking distance of one of the Great lakes, giving me prime access to about five quadrillion gallons of clean, fresh water. And I have a septic tank, clean, safe, annually inspected by the county. Exactly why do I need low-flow toilets?

We don’t need more do-gooders telling us how to live our lives. The quality of washing machines, as rated annually by Consumer Reports, has been declining steadily over the years because of government “energy conservation” requirements. This means that only “the rich” can still afford the expensive high-end machines that really get your clothes clean the first time. And dishwashers don’t clean so well any more because the detergents lack phosphates. So dishes get washed by hand or two or three times by machine. How’s that for saving energy?

Sewage overruns are almost always caused by overflow from storm drains into sewage systems. This results from heavy rainfalls, not toilet flushing. Low-flow toilets do nothing to prevent this.

10 Liz 03.18.11 at 12:52 pm

“Heavy rainfalls” are planned into sewer design. Sewers overflow when they are operating at too high capacity.

Low-flow toilets lower the amount of water going into the system, and that lowers the amount of poop that overflows when the sewer is overwhelmed.

11 Black Death 03.18.11 at 1:30 pm

Liz -

Here are some facts for you – from Wiki – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitary_sewer_overflow:

{T}he volume of untreated sewage discharged to the environment is less than .01 percent of all treated sewage in the US.

By far the most prevalent cause of Sanitary Sewer Overflow stems from heavy rainfall events which can cause massive infiltration of stormwater into sewerage lines.

The main causes of SSO are:
Infiltration of excessive stormwater into sewer lines during heavy rainfall
Rupture or blockage of sewerage lines
Malfunction of pumping station lifts or electrical power failure
Human operator error at treatment plant facilities.

….

Please explain how low-flow toilets prevent excessive stormwater, rupture or blockage of sewage lines, pumping station or electrical malfunctions or human error. Inquiring minds want to know….

12 No Name Guy 03.18.11 at 1:44 pm

Liz

Are you a Civil Engineer? Work at a Sewage Treatment plant? Your very first post indicates your actual knowledge of sewage treatment is quite limited, to wit:
“They’re also a way to reduce the strain on sewage cleaning systems – which in most communities were last overhauled during the Great Depression. ”

Ahem….but bull spit.

Here in the Great Socialist Republic of Seattle, the sewage system was built in the 50′s. It has been subsequently upgraded numerous times. Originally it was only primary treatment (taking out the solids, insuring the discharge water was free of bacteria). Now it’s been upgraded to secondary, and in places tertiary treatment. Currently this area is spending multi-billions on a new plant, Brightwater.

I can also tell you aren’t an engineer. If you were, you’d understand the concept of “in the noise”. Folks flushing produce an amount of sewage that’s “in the noise” as far as the total sewage flow in combined storm and sewage systems, especially during high storm water events.

Let’s see if you can do the math – how about you tell all of us folks how much water would flow into a storm system assuming a net run off rate of 0.25″ of rain per hour (a good downpour over impermeable urban areas) over a 1 square mile area. Compare and contrast to how many flushes that would be and compare to a typical high density urban environment (say….8,000 people / square mile). Let’s say these 8,000 people are pounding the beer heavy, so all have to go twice an hour, and it’s 3 gallons a flush.

Here – I’ll help you out with the results, but YOU go do the math.
Storm Water: 4.34 million gallons per hour.
Sewage from flushing: 48,000 gallons / hour (1.1% of the combined total).
Sister – it’s in the noise. Go take a math class and learn how to use a spreadsheet.

13 Alan Gunn 03.18.11 at 2:01 pm

Like all sensible people, I detest the new toilets, and yes, I have to flush them several times. But not every time. They do save some water, overall, because most uses involve only liquids, and so don’t demand multiple flushes. But still, what kind of a “free country” are we if we let politicians whom no sensible person could respect micromanage our lives by telling us what kinds of toilets, light bulbs, kids’ stuff, etc. we can buy?

14 Black Death 03.18.11 at 2:16 pm

Alan -

I think you nailed it. People should be free to buy whatever kind of toilet or light bulb they want – I personally like the new light bulbs, but that’s my choice – others may choose differently. Do we really need congresscritters and unelected bureaucrats micromanaging our lives? The low-flow toilets may save some water, but they certainly do nothing for sewage systems. And water isn’t scarce in most parts of the country anyway. Because of this mentality, we have washing machines that don’t wash, dishwashers that don’t clean, toilets that don’t work well, etc. Most of us just want to be left alone.

15 Kevin 03.18.11 at 2:20 pm

I have two low flow toilets that work much better than the 1980s models they replaced. Trust me, I am the type of person who can clog a toilet, and I have had no problems.

16 Liz 03.18.11 at 2:27 pm

I am someone who reads the metro section of the newspaper every day. Which is how I know that both Camden, MI, and Washington DC are using sewer systems last substantially overhauled during the 1930s. In fact, in October, Camden Michigan just requested state help(again) to reduce its sewer overflows, where water and sewage run down the main street of town, pooling in front of homes and business, from “about 35 a year.” (Check the Hillsdale Daily News back issues for coverage of this issue). The same thing has happened in the DC Metro area, with sewers expelling untreated sewage onto city streets.

So if the question is, ‘What kind of country would we be if we let someone tell us what kind of toilet we can have,” I suspect the answer would be, “A country that can handle its own shit.”

And that’s why I don’t find it charming to hear stories about people wasting clean, feces-free, treated water – because as a young person, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO PAY TO REPLACE THE WATER YOU WASTED.

17 Liz 03.18.11 at 2:36 pm

Here’s a story about how an aging sewer system caused some poor retiree’s toilet to explode and sewage to rain in his yard, but the city can’t afford to replace its mainline pumps to handle the problem:

http://tdn.com/news/local/article_c04e6448-46df-11e0-8248-001cc4c03286.html

In fact, if you google “sewage in the streets” you get results from all over the US, as well as the former soviet union, and the gaza strip. That’s not good.

But please, keep making your “low-flow toilets are gross and impinge my FREEDOM” jokes. Someone else will just have to pay for your clean water, so what do you care?

18 jkoerner 03.18.11 at 3:11 pm

I am not sure how past government failures, i.e. not properly maintaining a sewer system, justify more government intervention. If the worry is truely about preserving fresh water (which it often is not, we have plenty of water in many parts of this country) then why not go directly to the source and allow water to be priced according to its actual scarcity? I grew up in an area where we had a well and a septic tank, so I am not sure how forcing my family to use low flow toilets benefited the community.

In my opinion, the conservation movement is a giant power grab trying to force me to live to some green-friendly standard. This is why I still burn leaves in the back yard and throw away batteries and refuse to recycle, even when it is convenient.

19 No Name Guy 03.18.11 at 3:16 pm

Liz
First off, nice trolling. Your studied ignorance is truly amazing. But I’ll play along just for fun. You’re easy to verbally slap around…

I note how you conveniently over look the fact that flushing the can is a TRIVIAL amount of the load in a sewage system. Just because you can read the Old Grey Lady, doesn’t mean you can think through engineering problems. You still seem to not get “in the noise”.

What part of 48,000 gallons per hours from the can versus 4.34 MILLION gallons per hour from a modest rain storm don’t you get?

You also show your ignorance about basic economics, to wit: “because as a young person, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO PAY TO REPLACE THE WATER YOU WASTED.”

Quit it…you’re killing me (wiping back tears of laughter).

Actually, I and every other user of water pays for all the water I or they “waste”. Let’s start off with kindergarten bill paying. See, it’s called a water meter. You may be unfamiliar with the concept. The more you use, the more you pay. In sanely run municipal sewage systems, they also increase the sewer bill based on the water you consume, knowing that a direct proportion goes down the drain, be it from the sink, shower or sh***er. Now in my case, I’m on a septic system, so I don’t pay a sewer bill (I take care of it myself – see, I don’t need a big socialist program to not pollute). I pay for my “sewage treatment” when I have to have the tank pumped and drain field inspected & maintained every few years or so. But the point is, people DO pay. And the last I checked, I think it was rain and snow being deposited in the watershed that “replaced” the water I’m “wasting”. See, that happens during the time of year called “winter”.

Just quit Liz – you’ve lost.

20 Jack Olson 03.18.11 at 4:41 pm

My house is equipped with the miserable 1.6 gallons/flush toilets instead of the 4-5 gallon/flush types at my previous house. I often have to flush twice. So, I suppose the low flow toilets do save water though not as much as the manufacturer promised. The former owner of my house equipped the toilets with plastic air pressure bladders which add pressure to each flush. Kind of noisy, but they do flush more reliably with the pressure system. Unfortunately, those things cost $150 to replace if you do it yourself instead of the $20 worth of plastic parts I used to fix the old toilets with. And, you have to get them by mail order; Home Depot doesn’t stock them. It’s possible to save water with low flow toilets if you use the jet-assisted takeoff and this will give you acceptable, imperfect performance but they double the price of each toilet.

21 CM 03.18.11 at 5:28 pm

Here’s a happy solution for everyone: dual-flush toilets

One button for when you only need a little flush, and one button for when you need a strong flush. Low flush toilet lovers will be happy, high flush toilet lovers will be happy.

Can’t we all just get along?!

22 Kurt 03.18.11 at 5:29 pm

No Name Guy

You really shouldn’t call Liz ignorant.
From Wikipedia:
Storm drains are separate and distinct from sanitary sewer systems. The separation of storm sewers from sanitary sewers helps to prevent sewage treatment plants becoming overwhelmed by Infiltration/Inflow during a rainstorm, which can result in untreated sewage being discharged into the environment.

Many storm drainage systems are designed to drain the storm water, untreated, into rivers or streams. Special care must be taken to ensure the citizenry is aware of this, lest waste be dumped into the storm drain system. In the city of Cleveland, Ohio, for example, all new catch basins installed have inscriptions on them not to dump any waste, and usually include a fish imprint as well. Trout Unlimited Canada recommends[5] that a yellow fish symbol be painted next to existing storm drains.

23 Bill Alexander 03.18.11 at 6:01 pm

Yes, storm drains (in most areas) are separate from sanitary sewers. But I don’t believe that is true everywhere, although it should be. Also, any time there is a big rain event, most systems do have leakage into the sanitary system, and the load on the sewage plant goes up, sometimes a lot.

Also, and I think this will be a big problem if gray water usage becomes common, it takes a certain flow of water to get various solids to go down the pipe in the street. Especially if it doesn’t maintain an even slope, maybe has a low spot due to earth movements.

24 No Name Guy 03.18.11 at 6:15 pm

Kurt
Ah, but in many (most urban) places, they ARE the same. Seattle is one of them – I speak locally as that is what I know first hand. A good friend of mine works at the West Point treatment plant. The plant is sized for storm water flow conditions.

“The average capacity for wet weather flow is 133 million gallons per day. The maximum capacity is 440 million gallons per day during peak storms.”
http://www.kingcounty.gov/environment/wtd/About/System/West/Process.aspx

This is but one plant serving the Seattle region. Another is the South plant. They combine to serve 1.5 million people and 420 square miles.

http://www.kingcounty.gov/environment/wtd/About/System/South/Process.aspx
“The average capacity for wet weather flow is 115 million gallons per day. The maximum capacity is 325 million gallons per day during peak storms.”

So, those two plants have a combined capacity of 440+325 = 765 million gallons per day while serving 1.5 million people.

In any event, the primary point I’ve made is the same: knocking a couple of gallons off a flush is chump change / in the noise compared to other (storm) flows. 10 flushes a day (WAY more than folks would really use, don’t you think?) @ 2 gallons each saved by these crappy toilets x 1.5 million people in the Seattle region = 30 million gallons a day savings, MAX, on a capacity of 765 million gallons a day on the two existing main plants (Brightwater isn’t on line, yet). That’s well under 10% of the capacity, even given generous assumptions and before the new plant comes on line later this year or early next. ITS NOISE.

This toilets are just another example of how environmental nannies want to micromanage other peoples lives under the guise of saving the planet, when in reality, they’re doing diddly squat.

25 Doug 03.18.11 at 10:59 pm

Its not true in Milwaukee. They spent lots of money on a “Deep Tunnel” to catch all the storm and sewer overflow. Yes, the storm and sewer are mixed together, and the once in 100 years overflow of the Deep Tunnel into Lake Michigan has happened a number of times, all traced to very heavy rainfall. Regular toilets would’ve been nothing in adding to the sewage.

26 Amy Alkon 03.19.11 at 2:31 am

And thanks, the government can go blow on telling me that I must light my house with bulbs that take a long time to come on and that make it look like a mental institution. I don’t need government to tell me to conserve — I bought a Honda Insight in 2004 and spent $198 on gas last year. All last year. But, I write at home and I’ll have it lit the way *I* choose, thanks. And that’s because I got wind of the bulb band and started hoarding them. Bought about 150 from WhatWatt.com, mostly for 33 cents each (for over 120 — the others were big globes for my kitchen and bathroom). http://www.whatwatt.com/product_list.php?SubSubCategoryID=2

27 Patriot Henry 03.19.11 at 9:05 am

And that’s why I don’t find it charming to hear stories about people wasting clean, feces-free, treated water – because as a young person, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO PAY TO REPLACE THE WATER YOU WASTED.

Um, no. Water here is free. There is no city water. There is no city sewage either. There is no shortage of water.

Why should I have to pay more for an inferior toilet when it has zero impact on other people’s water and sewage?

28 Mannie 03.21.11 at 8:46 am

I AM a sanitary Engineer, licensed in several states including WA, and have designed and built sewer systems across the USA, including Washington State.

Toilet flows are not the cause of sanitary sewer overflows, nor are they the cause of overcapacity flows in general. They are a small part of the daily sewage flow. The biggest element is laundry water and bath water. Average design flow for a residence in the US is 100 gallons per capita day. An old style (good) toilet delivers maybe 2-1/2 gallons per flush. You can do the arithmetic based on how often you flush the dang thing. A low flow toilet delivers 1.6 gallons of water per flush. You can make a pretty good guestimate on how much your household or neighborhood is saving.

Seattle’s wastewater treatment system treats an Average Dry Weather Flow (ADWF) of about 200 million gallons per day (MGD), and has a peak wet weather capacity of about 800 MGD.

That having been said, I have not experienced any particular problem with low-flow toilets. Others have, particularly with the early toilets. The dual flush design, which I don’t believe is legal, is better though, having a low flush for pee and a conventional sized flush for feces.

I believe it is San Francisco that has started to have problems with solids deposition in sewers that has been attributed to low flow toilets. Maybe that’s because all the Hippies don’t wash. They have proposed a bunch of solutions including flushing with water, and chemical treatment of the sewer lines. All are expensive and problemmatic. I expect that low flow toilets have also done a bit to raise the cost of sewage treatment, as they raise the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of the sewage. I don’t know how significant that is, but I would expect aeration costs to increase. It would be a hard number to estimate accutately.

There are a few areas in the US where there is sufficient shortage of water to make such conservation measures , but not many. In those areas, there are usually more remunerative ways to save water. Banning the watering of lawns would be one.

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