Flush with success: Low-flow toilets are water-conservation champ

Resource Central employees Max Hartmann (left) and Neka Sunlin haul the MacFarland family’s vintage toilet out of their 90-year-old home in Longmont, Colorado. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

LONGMONT, Colorado – Throughout the Western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet. And that’s a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has emerged in arid urban areas: Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down. The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

It’s impossible to give credit to one single solution, but one could make a strong case that the M.V.P. award for water-conservation efforts should go to the modern low-flow toilet.

The toilet is the single largest user of water in the home. It uses more than the washing machine, the dishwasher, the shower or the kitchen faucet. About a quarter of all water that enters a home will flow through the toilet, according to a 2016 study. The average toilet will use about 33 gallons of water a day.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s a big improvement. In 1999, the average toilet guzzled more than 45 gallons of water daily.

The story of how the toilet became the unsung hero of water conservation includes an act of Congress, a concerted effort to hunt down old models, logs of miso paste and some serious elbow grease.

Out with the old

Theresa MacFarland lives in an historical two-story home in Longmont with her husband and two kids. Built in 1928, it has all the vintage touches: hardwood floors, big windows, wood detailing – and one antiquated toilet.

A little stamp on the bowl says it was built in the 1950s. MacFarland points it out to her 4-year-old daughter, Althea.

“That toilet has been there longer than Daddy and I have been alive,” MacFarland said. “Probably longer than Grandma and Grandpa have been alive.”

As aging toilets are wont to do, it started acting up. McFarland called Resource Central, a Boulder, Colorado, conservation group and asked for help to put in a water-friendly model. Neka Sunlin, who oversees the group’s toilet-replacement program, Flush for the Future, showed up with the latest in toilet technology.

“We guesstimate this one is using about 5 gallons a flush,” she said of the old toilet. “The new one uses less than 1.”

Theresa MacFarland and her daughter Althea, 4, scrapped their 1950s-era toilet for a high-efficiency model to make their 90-year-old home more environmentally friendly. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

In Sunlin’s years with Resource Central, this is the oldest toilet she has dispatched to the local recycling center. By swapping it out, the McFarland family should see a significant dip in their water bill, she says.

Longmont, a fast-growing alternative to pricier Boulder, has an interest in what happens in the MacFarlands’ bathroom. Water saved from their home is water that can be put to use somewhere else.

That’s why the city, along with a handful of other water providers on Colorado’s Front Range, subsidizes the cost of high-efficiency toilets and their installation. MacFarland is paying $175 for the toilet itself, the cost of installation and removal of the old toilet. Her new model retails for $160.

Sunlin says it’s an easy switch with a big payoff. With other conservation programs, you first have to persuade people to use less water.

“But a toilet is a toilet,” she said, “and it’s no behavior change whatsoever – you literally just save water with every flush.”

In the past three years, Resource Central has upgraded 2,000 toilets, which they estimate will save 500 million gallons of water overall, based on the average 30-year lifespan of the toilets.

“Most people don’t realize that if their toilet is more than 10 or 15 years old, replacing their toilet or upgrading their toilet is one of the most impactful ways they can save water,” said Neal Lurie president of Resource Central.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“It can save between 200 and 300 thousand gallons of water over the life of that toilet,” Lurie said.

In with the new

The road to high-efficiency toilets began in 1992. The concern was less about water scarcity in the West and more about overwhelmed sewage systems on the East Coast. Congress was feeling pressure to pass national standards for water use and came up with the Energy Policy Act, which spawned a generation of low-flow fixtures.

For the plumbing industry, it was a huge deal.

“Absolutely, it was an extremely watershed moment, no pun intended,” said Pete DeMarco with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.

The law mandated that toilets only flush using 1.6 gallons of water or less. Throughout the 1990s, low-flush toilets flooded the market. Although the regulations received input from toilet manufacturers, DeMarco says, the new models received heaps of scorn from users who complained their new and improved toilets couldn’t finish the job in a single flush.

“There were some poor-performing products back in the mid-’90s. I think the regulation caught some manufacturers off guard,” he said.

In many cases, DeMarco says, manufacturers had simply reduced the amount of water a toilet used without making significant changes to its inner workings. A lower flow just couldn’t cut it.

Toilet-makers went back to the drawing board. A new test from a company called Maximum Performance allowed manufacturers to demonstrate that their low-flow toilets could actually evacuate the bowl with one flush. In simulations, toilets would be loaded with logs of miso paste to show their effectiveness.

Resource Central technician Max Hartmann installs a high-efficiency toilet in a historical home in Longmont, Colorado. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Although toilets can’t take all the credit, DeMarco says, this one innovation is a big reason why cities have been able to grow while keeping their water use in check. Indoor use dropped 22 percent nationwide from 1999 through 2016, much of that due to swapping out old fixtures.

In recent years, some states with water scarcity problems – including Colorado and California – have passed even tighter regulations on how much water toilets can use.

“So you basically have these high-efficiency toilets now as a matter of course,” said Drew Beckwith with the environmental organization Western Resource Advocates, which also receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation. “You cannot go out in a store in Colorado, in California, and buy an old toilet.”

Beckwith says conservationists have been a victim of their own success. With national standards in place and active replacement programs throughout the country, there’s not much more they can do to limit water use inside homes. All new developments are putting in high-efficiency toilets because there’s no option in the market; the same is true when old toilets are replaced.

“We’ve sort of done our business with respect to toilets,” Beckwith said. “And it’s time to, you know, maybe get off the pot and move on to outdoor water use which is more the focus of urban water efficiency today.”

Fixing the flush

Back at the MacFarland home, the transition is complete. The nearly 70-year-old toilet is loaded on a van bound for the recycling plant. The new one is hooked up and water is flowing.

“This is going to be a huge improvement,” Theresa MacFarland said. “And it feels like with very little effort, which I’m very excited about.”

Even though some conservationists feel like the indoor water use fruit has been plucked, a 2017 Alliance for Water Efficiency study found that more than 13 million inefficient toilets – those that flush more than 1.6 gallons – remain installed in five states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia and Texas.

A nationwide push to rid the country of old toilets could have a significant effect. If all toilets were high-efficiency, the study projected indoor water use could drop an additional 35 percent, to fewer than 40 gallons per person per day.

The Resource Central technicians ask for a practice flush to make sure it’s working right before they depart. The honor of the first flush goes to Althea.

“Check it out. There’s this new button,” MacFarland said. “Kind of the same as the other one, except inside the tank this is so different than the other one. This one just uses a little bit of water.”

“And it’s cleaner,” Althea said.

“And it’s cleaner, way cleaner,” her mother agreed.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Connect with us: