Plumbers Challenge Rule On Short-flush Toilet

Posted: June 14, 1990

Ever since Sir Thomas Crapper perfected the flush toilet in the 19th century, people have thought little about the water they waste washing their wastes away.

The Delaware River Basin Commission thinks it's time they did. Effective Jan. 1, the commission is mandating 1.6-gallon flush toilets in all new construction as part of a national drive to conserve water. Most toilets now use 3.5 gallons per flush.

"We will save 40 to 70 million gallons a day by the year 2020," said Jeffrey Featherstone, a policy analyst with the DRBC. The commission manages water resources for about 900 Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania municipalities that draw water from the Delaware River.

But the commission's toilet regulations are being challenged by the New Jersey Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors. The group says the new toilets might be inefficient, unsanitary and aesthetically displeasing. It is ready to raise a stink.

"We believe there are going to be problems with these toilets and, when there are, people are going to raise hell with the contractors, not with (the DRBC)," said John V. Spinale, executive secretary of the plumbers' association. "We're all for water conservation, but there is too much emphasis on the toilet. Industry and leaks in water company lines are responsible for most of the waste."

When it is flushed, a conventional toilet releases the water in the holding tank into the bowl, using the water pressure created by gravity to

wash the waste away.

One of the two types of the new 1.6-gallon toilet employs the same mechanics - gravity flushing - but reduces the amount of water in the bowl, so that less is needed in the tank up top to flush out what rests in the bottom.

The alternative 1.6-gallon flush - the industry's Ferrari - releases both water and air pressure stored in the tank to create a tremendous surge in the bowl. These combined water-and-air-pressure bowls can cost $300, twice as much as gravity-flush toilets, according to Chuck Lee, a product manager at American Standard Inc., which manufactures toilets. Tests run by Consumer Reports found that pressurized-flush toilets did not work as well as the best- designed gravity-flush models.

According to Featherstone, toilets account for 40 percent of the average household's water use, and the new 1.6-gallon toilet could cut that to 15 percent. Featherstone estimated that water bills for a family of four could be reduced by $50 annually, offsetting the cost of a more-expensive toilet.

The plumbers demur.


"There are still very serious questions as to whether 1.6-gallon toilets can remove all waste matter in the bowl with a single flush," said Leonard A. Kuznet, president of the plumbers' association. "This could mean unsightly and unsanitary conditions and require multiple flushes . . . which would mean a waste of water."

The plumbers' association has persuaded the Code Advisory Board of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs not to adopt the DRBC's regulations until a study of 1.6-gallon toilets is completed by the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. The plumbers' association is sponsoring the study.

The DRBC can enforce its rules only in the 900 municipalities it covers, but it urges state authorities to adopt its regulations.

New York has already mandated the 1.6-gallon toilet statewide, but the plumbers' association intends to lobby against any similar statewide adoption in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A proposal is before the legislature in Harrisburg to adopt the state's first plumbing code, including 1.6-gallon toilets. Nationally, the plumbers are opposing legislation introduced in Congress that would mandate the low-consumption toilet.


One of the elements in the Stevens Institute study is a survey of homeowners who have the 1.6-gallon toilet, including residents of a development in Princeton called Community Village.

"You have to flush two or three times," said one resident, who asked not to be identified. "I keep a plunger by the toilet."

Another resident, Hope Bucci, said, "In the beginning they didn't flush as well - the paper was clogging - but we've regulated our use of paper. You have to watch the paper. I keep a plunger just in case."

According to Featherstone, states across the country are looking at 1.6- gallon toilets, and toilet manufacturers are planning their futures around low-consumption models. And the 1.6-gallon toilet has been used extensively in Europe for years.

But the plumbers say the pitch of the wastewater line to the sewer line in the street is better suited to 1.6-gallon toilets in other areas than it is in New Jersey, where sewer systems often are older. They believe the waste will not make it all the way to the street, ultimately clogging the line and backing up into the home.

However, Thomas Konen, who is conducting the Stevens Institute study, said he is comfortable with 1.6-gallon toilets in residences but is not sure whether they will stand up in the greater use of a commercial setting.


And the July issue of Consumer Reports, which contains an appraisal of 1.6- gallon toilets, dismissed the fears of plumbers' associations, asserted that the toilets performed adequately, and ranked the best models.

To test toilets, experts use polypropylene balls and disc-shaped polyethylene granules to simulate wastes, and they use latex cylinders filled with water to test the toilet's ability to pass waste around bends.

But the plumbers' critique is not limited to mechanical testing. It incorporates some social anthropology, an analysis the DRBC at least nods at.

Featherstone, in a report prepared within the DRBC, acknowledged that ''customer acceptance of low-consumption water closets (is) more difficult to assess" than their mechanical qualities. He noted that 1.6-gallon toilets might require more cleaning than the 3.5 versions.

"At issue, if there is an issue with the public, is aesthetics," he concluded.

The heart of the aesthetics question is whether 1.6-gallon toilets experience more smearing of the enamel in the bowl. Toilet scientists have tried all kinds of substances to simulate body waste, but with little success.

"This is a serious problem," said the plumbers' association's Spinale. ''In Europe, housewives are used to getting down on their knees and scrubbing out the bowl. The modern American woman is never going to accept that."

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