Flushed with Pride: Beyond Theory and Bathrooms

by Sandra Blossey


When I first found out about the purpose this assignment–to “show off my talents as a writer” for all to see, without any limitations or boundaries–I was somewhat mystified. And trust me, mystified is the correct word here. As a “writer,” I did extensive research on just that one word. It fits perfectly. For the duration of my title of “writer,” I have always had limitations or guidelines as to what I wrote about. When I jokingly asked my professor if I could write about the benefits of low-flow toilets, she condescendingly said: “If that’s how you want the world to see your writing, go ahead” (Kovacevic). So, with this newfound freedom to write about any topic, in any form, I thought to myself, why not write about low-flow toilets? There’s a market for articles about the Energy Policy Act of 1992 that created the law mandating low-flow toilets. And perhaps if I show that I can successfully write about mundane topics as such, I might be doing myself a favor. But would that be a waste of all of what I have learned in my schooling to become this “writer” that I am now supposed to be?

Perhaps I should write on theory (to show those “talents” off) and how the myriad theorists that I have been exposed to have enlightened and/or changed my ways of reading and interpreting literature-or even life for that matter. I once asked one of my professors what to “do with” all of the theory I have learned, her reply was: “Sandy, they [theories/theorists] are all in you now, and a part of you. What you do with them from now on is up to you” (Jones). She was right, they are a part of me–deeply embedded in my thought processes–whether I like it, or not. Which brings me back to the low-flow toilet paper and how it can be connected to theory and all that I have learned in my schooling to be a successful “writer.” But I don’t need to write about theory to prove that I know it; it is part of me, and will show through my writing. So, this essay is my attempt to connect the mundane topic of low-flow toilets (using the research strategies that I have also learned) to life and display the critical thinking strategies that I acquired in my theoretical learning process.

Toilets provide a necessary function; imagine what life would be without them. No, don’t. For if I led you there, I’d be leading into a wasteland of crap. I once had a professor tell me that I needed to lead my readers; he told me this on every paper I wrote. Finally, obsessed with not being able to lead, I sought out opinions from fellow classmates, who all felt led after reading my papers. I mention this because I am leaving the option of being led into imagining a world without toilets up to you. All of you except for said professor, who I’m sure won’t feel led no matter what chain I dangle in front of him, because the chain must be attached to both a handle and flapper to properly function–possibly, his needs jiggling. My point here is that toilets are something we need to work. When they don’t work properly, the flow is stopped; the drain is clogged. We take them for granted; we crap all over them, and we even politicize them.

“The Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 1992 set goals, created mandates, and amended utility laws to increase clean energy use and improve overall energy efficiency in the United States” (Kenney). Among other things, it provided income tax credits for developers and businesses who use renewable energy sources (such as wind) and also mandated low-flow toilets of a mere 1.6 gallons per flush to save water. Those two issues are creating quite a political controversy now, twenty years later, as the tax credits for wind farmers are due to expire in December 2012 (Laikaitis) and low-flow toilets are creating their own stink. In San Francisco, low-flow toilets are the cause of a sulfuric stench: “The increased use of low-flow toilets means there’s less water in the sewers to dilute the smell of waste and help convey it to treatment plants” (“City Considers”). And while this is an article on recent controversy with low-flow toilets, it would be great for both the wind farmers and the city of San Francisco to get together, in effect, blowing both issues away in the process. But as I’m not a politician, and I’m sure that my solution is just blowing hot, foul air, I digress back to the historical controversy of low-flow toilets.

As early as January 1997, just a month after the last 3.5 gallon toilet was legally sold (per The Energy Policy Act of 1992), there were reports of plumbers salvaging big flush toilets to sell on the black market (for twice the price of the new models) to consumers dissatisfied with their new, inefficient low-flow models; the low-flow toilets frequently required more than one flush and clogged up easily (“Water-Saving”). And while plungers prospered, people were pissed. Anyone that did the math recognized that the required 2 flushes of the low-flow 1.6 gallon toilet rivaled the restricted 3.5 gallon flush. Plus, this mandate was put into place to save water, as water conservation specialist David Conrad at the National Wildlife Federation said: “For the greater social good, if we can use a gallon and a half instead of 5 or 6 gallons per flush, it will lower the costs of water and sewage treatment, and it will lessen demand on water supplies” (“Water-Saving”). And while I’m not yet ready to announce my astute agenda, make note of Conrad’s comment about also conserving costs of sewage treatment. But through the late 90’s, controversy was still plugged up with conservation versus capacity.

In April 1998, columnist Dave Barry writes of his experience with low-flow toilets: “They often must be flushed two or three times . . . these new toilets were not only annoying but in some cases seemed to be using MORE water than the old ones.” He continues on, sharing the responses he received after writing a column voicing his support of new legislation that would repeal the low-flow mandate: “I got a few letters supporting the new toilets, but these were mostly from ecology nuts who, because of their organic granola diets, probably don’t even NEED toilets . . . But the vast majority of the people who responded agreed strongly with me and were ready to revolt over this issue” (Barry). In February of 1999, conservative congressman Joe Knollenberg commissioned a bill, HR 623, to cancel the command in response to consumer complaints; consequently, even with over 100 co-sponsors, the house committee pulled the plug on HR 623, consoling conservationists, yet continuing the clogging crisis.

For the next 10 or so years, there were continued articles about the problems of low-flow toilets and comparisons to the older, more tactical toilets of the 5 gallon flush. There were articles that offered hope for new toilet manufacturing designs that would flush all the problems away with just one pull of the handle, like this snippet from a 2004 USA Today article: “New higher-end offerings are flowing into the market as manufacturers develop better-performing flushing systems. For consumers and plumbers fed up with clogging, leakage and other problems associated with toilets, the products could not have come sooner” (Jacobs). But in early March of 2008, the articles surrounding the controversy of low-flow toilets took a different angle. Apparently, a program in Pima County, Arizona to install low-flow toilets in older neighborhood homes was halted because “the new toilets may reduce flows too much. They’re worried that without enough liquids in sewer lines, solids will settle into the lines, causing corrosion, odor and even sewage backups” (“Low-Water-Use Toilets”). The article does make mention that very few resident’s that had the mandated toilets installed moaned about having to flush multiple times. Clearly, manufacturers of the low-flow toilets had perfected their performance; poop was purged with just one pull, but where did it park?

In “Low-Water-Use Toilets Might Be Too Effective,” we learn that county officials restricted the installation of the low-flow toilets at the end of the sewer line; there is already too low of a flow of liquid waste at the end to fully flush solids through. We learn about the unfairness of the water saving costs for some: “the program no longer is worth doing, said the Water Conservation Alliance, because it makes no sense to have one home get the toilet while a neighbor doesn’t.” We learn that Pima County had already been flushing sewer lines with water, to dissolve the droppings; wastewater officials predict that the frequency of flushing will have to increase with the addition of more low-flow toilets. But most of all, what we learn are the combined facts that the low-flow toilets are not only the cause for sluggish sewers, but also that to compensate for this blockage, that the very water that conservationists were trying to conserve was being used regularly to flush the sewers. For this article and all other’s that I read, no actual quantity of water was given for this type of sewer flushing, but it gets better.

Earlier, I told you to make note of what David Conrad at the National Wildlife Federation said in 1997 about the purpose of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, but since that was almost 700 words ago, I will re-quote him: “For the greater social good, if we can use a gallon and a half instead of 5 or 6 gallons per flush, it will lower the costs of water and sewage treatment, and it will lessen demand on water supplies” (“Water-Saving”). Since I have already covered the controversy about the necessary double flush for a decade after Conrad said that, and I have connected it with Pima County’s controversy with the increased number of sewer line flushes and the fact that a non-disclosed amount of water was what was used to flush it, I wish to now connect the next controversy. This one is in California. The city of San Francisco is planning on purchasing 27 million pounds of bleach to dilute the smell of solid waste in the sewer system that is causing a sulfuric stench in the city, due to the fact (yes, fact) that the ongoing use of low-flow toilets is not producing enough water to dilute it itself (“City Considers”).

San Francisco Public Utility Commission Assistant General Manager Tommy Moala is quoted in the article, posted on February 2011, which explains the cause of the stench is from restricted flows in sewer lines because of the low-flow toilets (“City Considers”). Unfortunately, “Most San Franciscans have learned to live with foul sewer smells . . . But some residents are finding a growing effort by the city to combat the odors too objectionable to ignore” (Wingfield). Moala also explains in a March 2011 article from The Wall Street Journal that in 2010, the city of San Francisco had already doubled their spending on bleach, to a whopping $1.2 million (Windfield). Combined with the bill of $14 million for 27 million more pounds of sodium hypochlorite (or bleach) that is scheduled to be put into circulation within the next 3 years, that’s an average of $3.8 million per year to combat a smell that has been permeated by laws that were put into place to not only conserve water, but also save money on sewage treatment.

Also worthy to note here, is that: “each pound equivalent of chlorine requires approximately 3.5 pounds of salt, 15 gallons of water, and 2.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity” (Chen). Besides the actual cost of the sodium hypochlorite, salt, and electricity, the city will have to use 405 million gallons of water to flush the very system that was intended to save on water; 405 million gallons of water equals roughly 213,157,895 flushes. But wait! What about all that bleach entering the system, where will it go? Ironically, most of San Francisco’s treated sewage deposits into the San Francisco Bay, resulting in yet even more costs for required neutralization treatment process, to protect wildlife, using sodium bisulfite to de-chlorinate the sewer water before it enters the bay (Wingfield). And while I won’t get into the cost of de-chlorination, the benefits of low-flow toilets needs to be considered.

Tyrone Jue, of San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission, attributes low-flow toilets to be a helpful aid in cutting San Francisco’s water consumption by 20 million gallons per year (Matier and Ross). But if the city spends the $14 million on the bleach treatments over the next three years, using the required 405 million gallons of water to achieve this, the 20 million gallons per year savings is nothing compared to the 135 million gallons for each of those three years to force the flow and fight the ferocious fumes, not to mention the addition of aggressive agents to both dilute and then decontaminate. Low-flow toilets were mandated to conserve water, not to waste it. They were not intended to force municipalities like Pima County or San Francisco to add toxic chemicals to their sewer lines. Because of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, that mandated the low-flow toilets, we obviously have not been flushing enough. And while the purpose of this assignment was to simply write a paper on anything at all, I learned a lot about low-flow toilet controversies and my own capabilities as a writer.

Oh, and one last note about water. While we are in the middle of an undisputed global water crisis, only 10% of the total global water consumption is for domestic use; 70% is consumed by agriculture, the other 20% by industry (www.worldometers.info/water/). Perhaps we should look beyond our bathrooms for a solution and into other places to conserve.



Works Cited

Barry, Dave. “FLUSHED WITH EXCITEMENT OVER A NEW TOILET.” Fresno Bee. 12 Apr. 1998: E6. Gale Power Search. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Chen, Alex. “Landsburg – DRAFT Fluoridation and Chlorination Alternatives Study.” Seattle Public Utilities. 9 Sept. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

“City Considers Buying Bulk Bleach To Squash Sewage Odor.” KTVU.COM. Cox Media Group. 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.

Jacobs, Karen. “Companies vie to build a better toilet.” Usa Today. Reuters. 16 April 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.

Jones, Melissa. Class Lecture. Writing About Literature. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI. April 2011.

Kenney, Robyn. “Energy Policy Act of 1992, United States.” Encyclopedia of Earth. Ed. Cutler Cleveland. Washington D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, 18 Nov. 2008. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

Kovacevic, Natasa. Class Lecture. Senior Seminar. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI. Sept. 2012.

Laikaitis, Algis. “In the wind? Work could stall without tax credit.” Lincoln Journal Star. Journal Star. 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

“Low-Water-Use Toilets Might Be Too Effective.” Redorbit. 13 March 2008. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Matier, Phillip and Andrew Ross. “Low-flow toilets cause a stink in SF.” San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Newspapers. 28 Feb. 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

United States. Cong. House. Energy Policy Act of 1992 [introduced in the House; 4 Feb 1991]. 102nd Cong. Washington: GPO, 1992. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

United States. Cong. House. Low-Flow Toilets Bill [introduced in the House; 9 Nov. 1999]. HR 623. 106nd Cong. Washington: GPO, 1992. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

“Water-Saving Measure Creates New Contraband: Commodes.” Christian Science Monitor 23 Jan. 1997: 3. Gale Power Search. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Wingfield, Nick. “Residents Turn Up Noses at Sewer Stink Cure.” The Wall Street Journal. 31 March 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

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