By Randy Baldwin, Licensed Master Plumber in Northern Virginia
The invention of the flushing toilet proved to be a sanitary, all-weather solution to the universal problem of personal waste disposal. Taking the place of such unhygienic practices as chamber pots, or inconvenient, outdoor solutions such as privies and out houses, the indoor, flushing toilet easily finds its place among the most important inventions of modern society. However, as human society has grown, its needs have grown with it, and the toilet, once a modern marvel, is now an antiquated waster of man’s most precious resource.
The Problem With The Water Closet
Ever since its invention, one feature common to all Western-style flushing toilets is the use of water to move the waste from the pot to the sewage system. In the earliest days of the flush, the perception was that, in order to get a good quality evacuation of the bowl’s contents, it was best to use copious amounts of fresh, clean water to ensure whatever had been deposited made it all the way out of the home’s plumbing and into the waste handling system. Due to the poor quality of early sewer systems, this perception was, originally, accurate. However, modern sewer systems are much more efficient at their task and require significantly less effort on the part of the toilet to effectively do their job. This fact has not, however, changed the perception that a good flush requires lots of water, especially in the United States.
Your great-grandmother’s indoor toilet may have used as many as six to eight gallons of water per flush. Back then, using this much water was not an issue as there were fewer people around back then, and there were large, stable ecosystems nearby that could absorb the effects of any overflow of sewage into them with little ill effect. Today, however, there are more people and less open area. This fact is creating a problem for both man and the environment in which he exists, especially when it comes to sewage. Despite the fact that modern toilets use a fraction of the amount of water used by their predecessors, aging infrastructures across the country are groaning under a volume of water borne sewage they were never intended to carry. Overflow and undetected pipe leaks are allowing untreated sewage to find its way into rivers, streams and water tables to the point where many of America’s waterways are no longer safe to swim in. And while newer, bigger sewage treatment plants are being built all the time, they cost vast amounts of money, and even the most state-of-the-art systems still require large quantities of fresh water, truly man’s most precious commodity, to operate efficiently. Break all that down, and you come to one simple, unavoidable conclusion: Americans need to use less water to flush their toilets.
Today, We Have Better Toilets
Today, there are still millions of water-guzzling toilets in use throughout America. The good news is that they’ll have to be replaced eventually, and when they are, it will be with advanced modern toilets that accomplish the same task as their predecessors with a fraction of the resource expenditure required. Walk into the bathroom section at any home improvement store, and you’ll find that low-flow and alternative toilet designs abound. While the current industry standard is an impressively low 1.6 Gallons per flush, you’ll find many manufacturers are doing even better than that. Here are explanations of two of the innovations at work in modern, water-saving toilets.
Low Flow Toilets
Both older and modern toilets depend on the siphon principle of physics to operate. By adding a lot of water to the bowl at one time, water is forced around a bend inside the toilet’s seat. Because a vacuum is present, gravity takes hold and rapidly pulls all of the water from the bowl, along with everything else. The difference between a modern, low flow toilet, and an older toilet is the rate and force with which the water from the tank enters the bowl. In an older toilet, water simply flowed out of the tank whenever the handle was lifted. Whether by gravity or with the assistance of pressurized air, the water in modern toilets is forced into the bowl. The added speed means the siphon effect takes hold of the bowl’s contents much sooner, and therefore requires less water. Using these simple techniques, some ultra low-flow toilets (ULFT) are able to use as little as 1.28 gallons per flush.
In Europe and Australia, where there are high population concentrations and where water is naturally scarce, methods for efficient flushing were developed decades ago that are only now finding their way into American homes. In place of the more familiar handle, dual-flush toilets have two activating mechanisms, usually in the form of levers or buttons. One is used for solid waste and delivers the toilet’s full capacity flush. The other is for liquid waste, which requires significantly less water to evacuate from the toilet’s bowl. The user determines which button to push, and thereby selects how much water is used. A typical dual flush toilet uses the usual 1.6 gallons for flushing solids, but only uses 0.8 gallons for flushing liquids.
Dual-Flush toilets are becoming more widely available in home improvement stores, but are still limited in their distribution. For home owners who are especially interested in this option, but are having trouble finding complete units, there are affordable retro-fit kits available from many on-line retailers.
The EPA’s Attempts To Get Americans to Conserve Water
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by the year 2013 at least 36 states will be hurting for water because of increasing demand and an inefficient, aging network of municipal water treatment facilities. In 1992, in an attempt to stave off the looming water crisis, the government passed the National Energy Policy Act. One measure of the act stipulated that as of 1994, toilets sold in America have been held to a maximum volume of 1.6 gallons per flush. According to the EPA’s estimates at the time, replacing every older model toilet in the US not operating within the standards of this policy with ones that were, would result in a water savings of approximately two million gallons per day.
If the benefits of low-flow toilets to the nation as a whole are not enough to compel you to upgrade, consider this: because of increasing scarcity and the rising costs of treatment, you are paying more for your home’s fresh water usage every year. That means that by upgrading to a modern toilet that meets or exceeds EPA’s standards, you will be saving money off your water bill each month. In fact, the need for more efficient sewage management has become so dire in some areas that many municipalities are offering vouchers and/or tax cuts as incentives to upgrade. With the help of such liberal incentive programs, many home owners could recoup the costs of a toilet retrofit in as little time as a year.
Don’t waste your money and your water on . . . waste. Changing out your water-guzzling today toilet will save you money in the long run and is a win-win for both you and the environment.
About the Author
Randy Baldwin is licensed master plumber in Manassas, Virginia, with over 20 years’ industry experience on more than four continents. Since 2004, he has been the owner and operator of Frugal Rooter Plumbing and Drain, an affordable provider of plumbing and sewer repair/maintenance services to Northern Virginia’s Washington DC metropolitan area. He is widely recognized for his expertise in the field of sewer line maintenance and repair. Randy is veteran of the United States Navy and served more than eight years on active duty.