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High Marks For Low-Flow Toilets

- Chris King - P & M Magazine May 2000

The reputation of 1.6-gallon toilets rises as complaints go down the drain. The results of PM's Water Conservation Survey.

Today's 1.6-gallon toilets might not be perfect, but they sure have come a long way in the last few years, according to our recent survey. The last time PM conducted a survey on water conservation, in 1997, low-flow toilets were the center of controversy and angry debate. Foisted on contractors and an unwary public by federal mandate, 1.6-gallon toilets were designed to save water, but created turmoil.

Cited for problems with clogging, the low-flow toilets were hung with a reputation for multiple flushing that defeated their purpose. The new toilets prompted so many consumer complaints that Michigan Congressman Joe Knollenberg drafted a resolution to repeal the mandate and bring back the old 3.5-gallon water closets. In 1997, 59 percent of our respondents thought that installation regulations should be relaxed.

Well, times have changed, and so have toilets. And although today Knollenberg is still trying to pass his bill, data from our recent survey should give him pause. Our survey indicates that the performance of 1.6-gallon toilets has significantly improved, and this data, coupled with the results of other recent surveys, creates a picture of low-flow fixtures that deliver not only high customer satisfaction, but significant water savings as well.

The Survey: PM's survey of 1,000 active subscribers was designed to evaluate plumbing contractors' opinions on issues regarding water conservation. For the record, we received a 19 percent response rate.

The responses regarding low-flow toilets were the first thing to jump out of the survey results. Looking back at our 1997 survey story (Low Opinions Of Low Flush <../surveyarchives/surveyresults.html>, May 1997), the unrelenting animosity for low-flow toilets is broken by only one optimistic note. An anonymous fixture manufacturer looks at the lowly state of 1.6-gallon water closets and points to future improvements, concluding: The fixture can be tweaked to give the public what they want -- a toilet that works, and works with less water.

Seen in the light of our recent survey, those words seem prophetic.

In our recent survey, 82 percent of respondents agreed that today's 1.6-gallon toilets perform better than their original counterparts.

In 1997, clogs and double flushing were a continual refrain in our survey. While stoppages and multiple flushing are still a problem, their incidence is markedly down. In 1997, the most frequent complaints about low-flow toilets concerned stoppages, noted by 47 percent of respondents, and multiple flushing, cited by 37 percent.

Today, however, multiple flushing ranks as the most frequent complaint, tallying 27 percent of the responses while stoppages dropped to the second most-reported problem with 26 percent.

Asked to rate problems in terms of severity in 1997, 57 percent of respondents cited stoppages as the most severe complaint, while 33 percent listed multiple flushing; in 2000 these figures dropped to 26 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

Furthermore, when asked whether consumers blamed them, the contractor, for problems with 1.6-gallon water closets, 61 percent of 1997 respondents answered frequently or sometimes, compared to 45 percent of 2000 respondents.

If low-flow water closets aren't perfect, it's a bit like the failing student who pulls his grade up to a B-plus you can't help but notice the improvement.

Two other recent industry surveys point to the same conclusion. A report on customer satisfaction with 1.6-gallon water closets, published by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in December of 1999, indicated that low-flow toilets might actually perform better than their 3.5-gallon counterparts. More than half of those participating said their new low-flow toilet clogged less than the 3.5-gallon model it replaced, and 80 percent said it clogged the same or less.

Furthermore, overall customer satisfaction with 1.6-gallon toilets was high, according to the survey, with more than 80 percent responding that they liked their low-flow toilet better or as well as the 3.5-gallon version it replaced. (See this month's Plumbing Primer with Julius Ballanco for further commentary on the Southern California survey.)

Down The Drain: Multiple flushing may not be the problem it once seemed to be. The Southern California study had more than 60 percent of its respondents indicate that they either never double flush, or only do so once a month. Another study, Residential End Uses Of Water, published in winter 1999 by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, points to the substantial water savings gained by the use of low-flush toilets, and debunks the myth of double flushing in the process.

According to the AWWARF report, in households without water-efficient fixtures, toilets used the most water, averaging 20.1 gallons per person per day. But in houses with water-conserving fixtures, toilets accounted for 9.6 gallons per person per day less than clothes washers, faucets and showers. That's right, 1.6-gallon toilets used less than half the amount of water the older models did. The study found no link between 1.6-gallon toilets and double flushing. Individuals with low-flow toilets flushed an average of 5.04 times per day, while those with older 3.5-gallon models flushed an average of 4.92 times per day a statistical dead heat.

A few things haven't changed since our last survey. A whopping 70 percent of contractors thought fixture manufacturers could do a better job educating them about the latest water conservation technologies (actually slightly up from 68 percent in 1997).

Gravity models are still the overwhelming preference of contractors installing toilets, with 64 percent preferring to install them over pressure-assist or flushometer models, a figure almost identical to our survey of three years ago.

With their higher numbers, gravity models also garnered the lion's share of complaints 74 percent of respondents noted gravity models had the greatest number of problems.

A look at the frequency and severity of complaints for specific types of pressure-assist models highlights the differences. While stoppages and multiple flushing topped the list of complaints for gravity models, price and noise jump to the top of the list with pressure-assisted, pump-assisted and vacuum-assisted models.

Taking Names: The vast majority of contractors in our survey choose water closets by specific manufacturer and model based on known flushing performance: 75 percent always choose a toilet by make and model, and 96 percent always or sometimes do. Contractors in our survey also hold grudges: 84 percent cited water closets they would not install due to poor flushing performance. Yet when asked to name the best and worst performers by name, no clear winners or losers emerged. Perhaps the technology is changing so fast that yesterday's poor performer is vastly improved today.

The rest of the survey underscores the complex and contradictory forces the issue of water conservation places on the plumbing industry. A full two-thirds of the contractors in our survey responded that they have tampered with a low-flow device during installation to provide more water: 67 percent admitted removing the restrictor in a showerhead or adjusting the water level in a low-flush toilet to increase flow. When asked how many installed public lavatories with a maximum flow rate of 0.5 gpm, in accordance with federal law, only 58 percent answered yes.

On the other hand, access to the old 3.5-gallon toilets appears to be drying up. Only 11 percent of those responding still had access to 3.5-gallon toilets down from 35 percent in 1997 and only 6 percent knew of area contractors installing them, compared with 26 percent in 1997. The guy next door might just be getting used to the idea of a 1.6-gallon toilet after all.

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