Flushing out the truth behind water-saving commodes
- By Debbie Bolles
- Jun 01, 2007
Conservation unquestionably is one
of the hottest topics in the water and
wastewater treatment industry. We’re
always trying to figure out better
ways to conserve, purify, or use water
Which leads to a topic usually not brought
up in polite company—toilets. But in order to
get to the bottom of this murky issue, a thorough
analysis of toilet dynamics, history, and
innovation is called for, ugly though it may be.
Making headlines in January was toilet talk from
an EPA flush with pride about final specifications
related to water-saving, high-efficiency toilets
(HETs). That’s right, toilets can now be engineered
to work and flush using less water.
As part of EPA’s voluntary WaterSense program,
companies that make toilets using 1.28
gallons or less of water per flush may qualify for
the WaterSense label and earn certification as
being water-efficient. About 40 percent of toilet
models may now meet this standard, by EPA
estimates. WaterSense launched in 2006 to
include a wide assortment of water-saving services
“The WaterSense label will help consumers
identify high-performing, water-efficient products,”
said Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA assistant
administrator for water, in a January statement
launching the HET certification program.
“By purchasing WaterSense labeled plumbing
fixtures, consumers can help protect the water
supply and their wallets.”
HETs may reduce water bills by 10 percent,
EPA estimates. On a grander scale, replacement
of all the inefficient toilets in America could save
900 billion gallons of water a year—enough
to supply almost 10 million households. Toilets
drink up about 30 percent of a typical residential
The Potty Test
As opposed to the industry standard of 1.6
gallons per flush, these water-saving toilets differ
in their interior design, with new mechanical
approaches to improve flow and reduce water
usage. Those designs may include gravity-fed
and siphon action, pressure-assisted power inside
the tank, or dual-flush options that allow the
user to select a full- or half-flush option.
Mindful that consumers might revolt at
poor-performing toilets, the program specifications
underwent rigorous testing to ensure the
reduced water standard would indeed work
under “typical” usage standards, if you get my
drift—abnormally large waste samples might
require more than one flush.
OK, for those still thirsting for information
about this process, here’s the poop on
toilet testing: HETs must not only use 1.28
gallons or less of water per flush but also clear
up to 350 grams of test waste material in four
out of five flushes. Test media consist of seven
soybean paste “sausages” of about 50 grams
each measuring about 1 by 4 inches. In addition,
the flush test includes four loosely crumbled
balls of toilet paper, each ball made up
of six sheets of single-ply toilet paper. (We’ll
leave it up to you to figure out if this resembles
actual human usage and lingering questions
about toilet balls.)
For those of you also wondering how to
make a soybean paste sausage, a link from EPA’s
WaterSense site and another link related to Maximum
Performance (MaP) toilet testing specifications
from Veritec Consulting of Mississauga,
Ontario, and Koeller and Company of Yorba
Linda, Calif., offer the formula: 35.5 percent
water, 33.8 percent soybean, 18.5 percent rice
and 12.2 percent salt. The sausages are encased
in non-lubricated latex condoms and tied with
polymer cord. We’re not making this up, folks.
Not to upstage EPA’s effort, but the political
climate surrounding environmental responsibility
has resulted in an overflow of toilet innovation
around the world.
• International retailer IKEA, for example,
now makes its newest stores to conform to
American “green building” standards, with features
such as waterless urinals among the common
environmental sustainability amenities. At
an IKEA in Stoughton, Mass., these urinals save
an estimated half-million gallons of water per
year through a gravity-based, no-flush system.
That equates to about 40 percent reduction in
water usage at the Stoughton store.
• Composting toilets, though less widely
accepted, could be the next hot category in
water-saving commodes. Just as the name indicates,
these devices treat human waste to produce
a usable end product that is a soil additive,
according to the Web site of Envirolet composting
toilets. Envirolet is a division of Sancor
Industries of Canada. These toilets use little
or no water and are regularly priced from
$1,550 to $2,095. Regulations in the United
States generally forbid their use in areas where
a sewer system is available.
• In Japan, a country seemingly obsessed
with upscale toilets, toilet maker Toto came out
with the Aquia model featuring a Dual-Max
Flushing System. This techno-loo offers users
two flush choices with each use: the industry
norm of 1.6 gallons per flush and the water-conserving
option of 0.9 gallons per flush. This toilet
retails for about $395, per Toto’s Web site,
more affordable than the company’s ultimate
high-tech but less eco-friendly model called Neorest
that retails for between $3,200 and $6,000.
The Neorest automatically opens, flushes, and then closes the lid through use of motion sensors. But wait, there’s
more—it also washes and dries the user’s bottom. Even this
luxury item features a water-saving mechanism, the “light flush”
mode that, when activated, uses only 1.2 gallons of water per
flush, not 1.6.
Toilets Through Time
No discussion of commode efficiency and innovation would
be complete without a look back at the history of the toilet.
The word “toilet” comes from the French word “toilette,” meaning
clothes bag or dressing table. The phrase evolved to include
the room associated with a lavatory, and in North America, eventually
given to the fixture used to dispose of human waste.
The first known flushing “water closet,” as it was once called,
reportedly was built by King Minos of Crete more than 2,800
years ago. Not until 1594 did the flush toilet reappear, invented
by Sir John Harrington for England’s Queen Elizabeth. In
1872, British plumber Thomas Crapper improved on Harrington’s
model with a flushing toilet that perfected the device’s
cistern. American soldiers stationed in England during World
War I transplanted Crapper’s invention into the well-known
slang toilet term we all know.
For wealthy Americans, in the 1860s the newest flush toilets
from England replaced chamber pots and outhouses. At that
time, the elevated water tank was mounted high on walls above
the bowls and activated by pull-chains. By the 1920s, the water
tank was lowered and placed closer to the bowl.
As a modern society, we should be grateful for not having
to deal with these less-pleasant methods of ancient toiletry and
not take the toilet for granted by using excess water, straining
the resources of wastewater treatment plants. Inattention to
conservation could make you-know-what hit the fan, given
population growth trends and limited waste disposal resources.
But if Americans jump on the water-conservation bandwagon,
the impact could be quite significant. At any rate, new
toilets with the WaterSense label should be available sometime
this year. To date, five companies have partnered with EPA to
begin the testing and certification process.
Now comes the hard part: getting consumers to think about
a subject they’d rather ignore. Maybe EPA could partner with a
toilet paper manufacturer to imprint messages about the benefits
of high-efficiency toilets? At least that way, it would get to the
bottom of this uncomfortable issue.
|All You Ever Wanted to Know...But Were Afraid to Ask
• A leaky toilet can waste about 200 gallons
of water a day. If a toilet was installed prior to
1992, it’s likely an inefficient model that uses
between 3.5 and 7 gallons per flush versus the
current standard of 1.6 gallons and the hyperefficient
toilets that flush at 1.28 gallons or
less per usage.
• After the 2003 film “Finding Nemo,”
reports of children flushing their fish down
the toilet to help them escape increased,
prompting sewage treatment plants to issue
announcements that the fish would likely
• The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets
in New Delhi, India, details toilet history along
with an extensive display of privies, chamber
pots, toilet furniture, bidets, and water closets
in use from 1145 A.D. to modern times.
• King Louis XIII would give audience while
using the toilet, which was installed under his
throne, according to the Sulabh toilet museum’s
• The average person uses a toilet 2,500 times
year, or six to eight times daily, according to
Singapore’s World Toilet Organization. Over
an average person’s lifetime, that equates to
three full years.
• Some of the more “polite” phrases given
to the toilet around the world include loo,
powder room, lavatory, outhouse, washroom,
bathroom, dunny, bog, khazi, potty, privy,
latrine, water closet, john, and throne room,
to name a few.
• Among items used before toilet paper’s invention
were newsprint, hay balls, wool, corn cobs,
Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog pages, leaves,
sand, the left hand, coconut shells, lace, sponges
soaked in salt water, hemp, grass, and snow.
• A 2001 survey by toilet paper maker Kimberly-
Clark showed 32 percent of men admit
to reading the newspaper while using the bathroom
compared with 15 percent for women.
However, 24 percent of women surveyed
reported they talk on the phone in the bathroom
vs. 11 percent of men.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.