Toilet Talk

Flushing out the truth behind water-saving commodes

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 most effectively.

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 and products.

“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 water bill.

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 die instead.
• 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 Web site.
• 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.

About the Author

Debbie Bolles is managing editor of Water & Wastewater News.

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