Stop Flushing Money Down the Toilet ... Literally

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

Toilets account for 30 percent of the average home’s indoor water consumption, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Older models can use up to 6 gallons per flush, which is more water than the Institute of Medicine recommends the average male drink in an entire week.

The current federal standard for new toilets is 1.6 gallons of water per flush, but high-performing models use as little as 1.28 gallons to a gallon per flush. Any toilet that uses 1.28 gallons per flush or less and performs as well or better than a standard toilet is eligible for the EPA’s WaterSense certification.

“People are flushing money down the drain,” said Christine West, a LEED-accredited principal at KITE Architects in Providence.

According to West, low-flow toilets pay for themselves through savings realized on water and sewer bills. West said her self-installed, $250 low-flow toilet paid for itself in six months. Outcomes will vary depending on a household’s water and sewer rates, bathroom usage, family size, and the type and condition of the toilet being replaced, she said.

While West enjoys saving her clients money, her motivation for encouraging the installation of low-flow toilets is energy savings. “Water treatment is a huge consumer of energy,” she said.

Processing water so it’s clean enough to flow from the tap, and then processing it again, after it is used, so that it is clean enough to go back into the bay requires energy-intensive water treatment facilities.

The Narragansett Bay Commission’s Field's Point Wastewater Treatment Facility, for example, built three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines to help offset the energy it uses to process 77 million gallons of wastewater daily. Those three turbines — enough to power about 900 homes — only offset 35 percent to 45 percent of the facility’s energy use.

Treating less water means saving energy, West said.

All the major brands offer low-flow toilets. While Toto used to be the low-flow industry leader, other brands have caught up, according to Carra Blais of Supply New England, a kitchen and bath supply store in Warwick. Further, since water-stressed states such as California and Texas passed standards requiring toilets to flush at 1.28 gallons per flush or better, Kohler, a popular brand, has begun phasing out its 1.6-gallon-per-flush models, she said.

When low-flow toilets arrived on the market 15 years ago, they earned a reputation for being unreliable. The first low-flow toilets all clogged, Blais said, “but that’s a thing of the past.” The flushing systems on new low-flow toilets have been completely redesigned, she said.

“We don’t need to caution people anymore,” said Prudence Stoddard, director of design at RI Kitchen & Bath in Warwick, “but we used to.” Stoddard said customer perceptions are slowly changing as well. “People are very accepting now,” she said.

Low-flow toilets cost the same as conventional toilets. They range from $175 to more than $1,200. The range reflects aesthetic differences, not a difference in the quality of the flushing system, according to Blais. More expensive units are usually more decorative than their lower-cost counterparts, she said.

Stoddard agreed that price and flushing reliability are unrelated. Instead, Stoddard said, toilets should be compared model to model, regardless of their price. Some models, she said, have better flushing systems than others, and even within a brand flushing systems can vary.

Having the toilet installed by a plumber adds an additional $200 to $400 to the project’s upfront costs.

Replacing a 3.5-gallon-per-flush toilet with a 1.28-gallon-per-flush model can result in saving 16,500 gallons of water annually, according Kohler’s website. Such a toilet change would save the average Providence household about $140 a year.

If all inefficient toilets in the United States were replaced with low-flow models, 520 billion gallons of water would be saved annually — the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in about 12 days, according to the EPA.