Americans Want, and Expect, Repeal | The Weekly Standard
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November 1999U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON --Plunger wielding frequent flushers across America have found an ally in Congressman Joe Knollenberg. The Michigan Republican has sponsored a bill (HR 623) to repeal a 1994 federal law requiring "low-flow" toilets.
Although the timing could be better -- the U.S. has been experiencing the second-worst drought in its history -- Paul Welday, Knollenberg's chief of staff, said his boss is responding to a genuine, nationwide movement.
Welday said Knollenberg is riding a groundswell of discontent created by citizens beleaguered by toilet bowels clogged with tissue. He says these are constituents who feel deeply that the federal government should stay out of America's bathrooms.
"It's a grassroots movement," Welday explained. "People writing us, and other members of the House, are saying, 'Get the government out of my bathroom.' "
"We're also getting good support from other members of Congress. At the moment, it's in the high 80s as far as the number of sponsorship signatures. The bill is continuing to gain momentum."
The bill also has been endorsed by the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and National Consumer Coalition. The Cato Institute maintains a position that water is underpriced, while the other two groups contend the water crisis is overstated and federal intrusion guarantees a market for poor-performing commodes.
Radio personality Glenn Haege, known as "America's Master Handyman," recently summed up the clogged commode catastrophe on his show.
"Without a doubt, there is a major problem in bathrooms all across America," he said.
The puzzle that toilet manufacturers have faced since 1994 is how to flush away excrement, toilet tissue, and whatever else goes into a toilet bowl, with only 1.6 gallons of water.
Compare that to commodes manufactured in the 1980s that used 3.5 gallons, or toilets from the 1970s that sent 5 to 7 gallons rushing through the bowl.
"The problem is the flush from a 1.6-gallon toilet does not have the capacity to move solid waste -- it doesn't have the gravitational push," Welday confirmed.
What the 1.6-gallon gallon toilet does do is conserve water. That's why the environmentally friendly law was put into place five years ago. Basically, the law says that builders must install 1.6-gallon toilets in all dwellings constructed after 1994.
Water conservationists and plumbers say that savings reflected on the water bill make low-flow toilets worthwhile. They also say technology has solved the problem, if the commode is installed correctly.
Ed Osann, a consultant for plumbing manufacturers, conservation groups, and water and wastewater utilities said low-flow toilets save water and billions of dollars in avoided-water-supply and wastewater-treatment systems.
In his 1998 report, "Saving Water, Saving Dollars," Osann cited a 15 percent savings in residential water use since 1994 because of low-flow toilets.
"And that translates into savings of $50 to $100 a year in homeowners' water bills," he said.
Welday said that damage from sediment left in metal pipes is a cost that shoul d be factored into the savings equation.
"Because the 1.6-gallon toilet doesn't have enough push, sediment collects in metal pipes and sewers," he said. "That hastens the corrosion problem and affects cost, especially in older homes."
Welday added that sediment-caused corrosion is "not as great a problem with plastic pipes."
Low-flow toilet supporters claim the correct application of a plunger is all that is required to hasten waste on its way, and warn that unregulated "rising toilet populations" would threaten water supply and treatment planning.
Bruce Case of Case Design/Remodeling Inc. of Bethesda, Md., said an occasional "extra" flush can do the trick.
"Our rule of thumb is that two out of 10 times, you're going to have to flush twice," Flara said. "From my perspective, the complaints are easing, but the toilets still are not as good (as 3.5-gpf units) so there still are complaints."
David Lee Flara, vice president of Metropolitan Bath & Tile, Hyattsville, Md., said education is the key.
"The conversation (with clients) can be uncomfortable," Flara said, "but we have to have this kind of discussion every time. The buyers don't understand that you just need to plunge them every now and then and that you can't put as much waste in."
Case pointed an accusatory plunger at thick toilet paper.
"The clogging problem is definitely going to be exacerbated by thick tissue," he said.
Commode manufacturers claim their porcelain product works much better now than 15 years ago. They cite changes in gravity-flush designs to increase the size of trapways and the surface area of water covering the bowl between flushes. They have adjusted the placement and size of jets of water in the bowl rims.
Recent designs boost the flush with pressurized water and vacuum pressure, creating a sound similar to airplane toilets.
Alan Shapiro, vice president of marketing for Winchester Homes, said the new toilets are much better. He said the National Association of Home Builders recently changed its stance on the issue from supporting the repeal bill to neutrality.
"The earlier low-flush toilets were terrible -- they almost had to come with a plunger," he said. "But the newer ones are much better."
"If, indeed, we felt that these products were not adequate ... we would bite the bullet to get back to the products that we thought were," added Peter DeMarco of American Standard Cos., the largest manufacturer of fixtures in the world. "But to turn back now (during a drought) would be just a sin.
According to DeMarco, 50 to 60 million toilets have been manufactured since 1994.
"We're making products today that people like and that do work," he said. "There are some products that don't siphon as well as others, but it's a very small fraction of 1 percent of the toilets made."
Welday said the decision of what kind of commode should go in America's new bathrooms should be made by the consumer, without government intervention. He did reserve the right of individual states to regulate toilet capacity.
"The federal government has usurped the right of the family to make a choice," Welday said. "This (1994 law) is a bad regulation."
Welday also said Knollenberg is not saying a 3.5-gallon toilet is better than its 1.6-gallon predecessor. The congressman merely wants Americans to have freedom of choice.
"Historically, the standard is 3.5 gallons because it works," he said, "but we're not endorsing anything. Let the marketplace decide, not the government."