San Francisco made national news recently for a lingering stench. Haight-Ashbury hippie jokes aside, city officials traced the smell to low-flow toilets.
The city said the push for efficient toilets has helped save 20 million gallons of water per year, but also left what the city euphemistically calls sludge backing up in the sewer system without enough water to flush it down.
The problem of clogged pipes also can happen in homes with low-flow toilets, and it is one of the two main complaints with water-wise commodes. The other complaint is that the toilets don't flush everything. Both complaints are somewhat outdated, and can largely be avoided with proper toilet use and maintenance. The environmental and financial benefits of low-flow toilets should outweigh these concerns.
Toilets are improving
The standard solution to the failure to clear the bowl is to flush again, but this negates a new toilet's water savings. A lack of flushing power was a widespread complaint in the early 1990s, after Congress first passed a new mandate requiring that all toilets use 1.6 gallons of water or less per flush.
However, successive generations of toilets have been better at getting everything out of the bowl. Newer toilets are becoming ever more efficient and water-wise. Through innovative designs and pressure-assistance devices, the new toilets are able to clear the bowl, but send even less water down the pipes. But high-efficiency toilets can be tough on older plumbing systems.
The city of San Francisco is dealing with its lack of flow with $100 million in system upgrades, and a controversial $14 million plan to pour bleach into the sewer system to neutralize the odor and disinfect the water.
Upgrades also would help with some home plumbing. PVC pipes are better for handling the minimal flow of newer toilets. If you still have older cast-iron pipes, traditional gravity toilets may not be equipped to handle the low flow. Instead, consider a pressure-assisted toilet, which enhances the flush with pressurized air in the toilet tank. Be warned that pressure-assisted toilets are more expensive and more noisy, which may be an issue for a bathroom next to a bedroom, but they typically require less maintenance.
Also avoid using chemical in-tank cleaners. The harsh chemicals can deteriorate some of the toilet hardware. They also change the composition of the water, interfering with flushing velocity and power.
When replacing parts, try to find the original manufacturer's equipment rather than after-market parts. The extra cost and effort is worthwhile in the long run, as some after-market parts do not work properly.
Selecting a low-flow toilet
When selecting a new toilet, look for models with the WaterSense label. They are more water-efficient and very effective. They have all passed the rigorous Maximum Performance test, which sends latex-wrapped soybean paste down the drain to test real-world conditions.
Good high-efficiency toilets can be expensive, but the EPA estimates that they provide $50 per year in water bill savings for the average family. Also, your water company may offer substantial rebates.