Not everyone wants to talk about toilets, but the low-flow variety that are now the nation’s standard tend to launch a lot of conversations.
It’s not the idea of low-flow that bothers most people, considering that needing only 1.6 gallons per flush is an improvement on the 3.5 gallons required by older toilets.
The problem is that consumers generally don’t believe that low-flow toilets work well. The complaint is that they have to flush more than twice, and that wastes more water than the old-style toilets.
But some studies dispute that the toilets need double flushing.
The American Water Works Research Association found that "Low-flow, 1.6-gallons-per-flush toilets do not require additional flushes to equal the performance of older, less-water-efficient models."
“Individuals living in households with the 1.6-gallons-per-flush toilets flushed an average of 5.04 times per day. Those living in houses with older 3.5-gallons-per-flush toilets flushed an average of 4.92 times per day."
Other consumer surveys reached mixed conclusions.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California asked 1,300 of its customers in 1999 if they were happy with the performance of their low-flow toilets. These customers received their 13 models of low-flow toilets from 11 manufacturers through rebate programs in 1998 and 1999.
Conclusions: People who liked their toilets really liked them, with a satisfaction rating of 8.37 out of 10. Those who didn't like them still gave them a rating of 5.91 out of 10. Most consumers said they had never had a problem with the toilet jamming or blocking. But 67 percent said they had to double-flush at least once a month.
Low-flow plumbing products officially crossed the threshold of the U.S. home in 1992, with the enactment of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.
The act established water-use restrictions for new toilets, showerheads and faucets. The so-called EPAct set a national manufacturing standard of 1.6 gallons per flush for most toilets beginning Jan. 1, 1994. (By 1992, 17 states already had such low-flow-toilet requirements.)
While acknowledging "anecdotal reports of poor performance of 1.6-gallons-per-flush toilets," the Environmental Protection Agency says customer surveys show that satisfaction is high.
“The plumbing industry has steadily made improvements in toilet technology, and market forces should continue to improve overall performance with time," the EPA said.
In 1999, the National Association of Home Builders Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., tested low-flow toilets that builders had removed from their houses in response to buyer complaints about clogging.
Various technologies are used to make a low-flow toilet more functional. Some have large drain passages, and redesigned bowls and tanks for easier wash-down. Others supplement the gravity system with water-supply-line pressure, compressed air, or a vacuum pump.
Manufacturers are concerned about performance of their products. There is a lot of research into finding a way to get more oomph into the flush.
If they work properly, low-flow toilets should use a maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush, compared with five to seven gallons of water used by a standard toilet.
The research center estimates that low-flow toilets alone could save up to 22,000 gallons of water per year for a family of four.
When they started out, the low-end brands performed much better than the big-name brands, plumbers say. That's because the big names didn't make the bowl and flush valve properly to accommodate the lower water use.
To get any toilet to flush properly, the water has to reach the water line in the tank, and even though the brand-name models had enough water, the poorly designed bowl and flush valve got in the way.
While not acknowledging problems, manufacturers are doing considerable testing and retooling to make the toilets work better. Kohler, for example, has come up with what it calls the Ingenium flushing system, which is a gravity-fed, siphon jet system that depends on the downward force of the water from the tank channeled through strategically placed rim holes.
Then there is the Flushmate, a 1.6-gallons-per-flush toilet that uses pressure rather than gravity. This model has a bellows in the tank, and instead of having the handle on the side, there is a tennis-ball-size device on the lid that you depress to flush it.
The toilet is typically used in commercial venues, such as in stores and airports. The only problem is that, when curious consumers take the lid off, they disconnect the flushing device.
Prices vary, but some of the newer models that perform well retail for $100 and higher at home centers, depending on the color.