The 1.28-gpf limbo: how low can we go?

I'm on a toilet binge seriously! While I was admiring our newest 1.28-gpf water closet's performance the other day, it struck me that I've been working in the plumbing trade long enough to span the time-line from 10-gpf to 1.28-gpf kind of makes me feel a bit old. I also remembered that our so-called as plumbers has been in a continual state of flux. I can remember the angst our industry suffered

I'm on a toilet binge — seriously! While I was admiring our newest 1.28-gpf water closet's performance the other day, it struck me that I've been working in the plumbing trade long enough to span the time-line from 10-gpf to 1.28-gpf — kind of makes me feel a bit old. I also remembered that our so-called “comfort-zone” as plumbers has been in a continual state of flux.

I can remember the angst our industry suffered when we conserved by lowering consumption-per-flush to 5 GPM and the concerns regarding transportation of wastes all the way to the main in the street. Then came 3.5-gpf water closets and a flood of protests that 3.5 gallons of water wouldn't be sufficient to carry the load. In spite of the dire predictions, drains flowed just as freely as before. Toilets became a bit more challenging to repair, and we learned that even slight adjustments to the tank's water level dramatically impacted flushability. Water conservation was more heavily promoted and folks were encouraged to put objects inside their toilet tanks to displace a portion of the water-volume, which reduced the GPF. We installed more than a few new toilets for the folks who accidentally dropped a brick or other solid object (while negotiating the offset getting past the float-ball and rod) inside the china tank.

The 1.6-gpf debacle seared a tattoo of fear into our collective psyche. For every two installed, one had to be removed and replaced with yet another 1.6-gpf gamble. In some cases, three or four were required before moderately-acceptable flushability could be established. Meanwhile, 3.5-gpf water closets were available in Canada and many of us gave serious consideration of banding together to hire a tractor-trailer outfit for a clandestine potty-run across the border. Our customers complained about the need to flush two or three times to completely clear the contents of the bowl, and there were models whose target area was high-n-dry, which led to objectionable smearing. It was, to put it mildly, a black eye for the plumbing industry.

But we plumbers are a resourceful lot and a multitude of fixes were quickly developed and shared. A PVC coupling and short stub of pipe could be glued to many of the overflow tubes, effectively raising the tank's volume, which increased the GPF, and one brand's tank hadn't changed — they simply added a plastic basket with holes to limit the GPF for 1.6-compliance. Cut away a portion of the basket and you immediately had a 3.5-gpf tank. The only problem, and we reviewed this with our customers before overflow-tube-extension or basket-evisceration-surgery, was that the bowl had been redesigned for a 1.6-gpf. If the user managed to clog the trap, it would overflow. The extra two gallons of urine- or fecal-contaminated water had the unique ability to spread out over what seems like hell's half acre during a crisis!

At long last, after the seemingly endless series of Nightmare on Flush Street episodes, all of the manufacturers discovered they could, in fact, produce 1.6-gpf water closets that not only worked, they had great flushability. So, feeling guilty about the 3.5-gpf models in my own home, 1.6-gpf models were installed, and each one was from a different manufacturer. They each operate at different noise levels, although not one is equipped with a jet-engine-like pressurized tank to forcefully blast out the bowl's contents. I can live with a bit of added noise and it did feel right to toss out the 3.5-gpf models. Truth be told, the moderate increase in noise lets you know it flushed well and that there's no need to hang around for a second flush.

The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation might well be amended to include the environment. Across the board, we're not just dealing with potable water conservation. We're also dealing with all aspects of energy usage within our customers' buildings. Heating water consumes 15% to 30% of annual budgets. Several recent projects we participated in centered on varying levels of green, and 1.28-gpf water closets were required for a project that included EPA WaterSense guideline compliance.

The emphasis on becoming greener with each passing effort at resource conservation continues to grow stronger. Who better to tackle that issue than we who protect the health of the nation. The EPA states that over the course of a lifetime, the average person will flush 140,000 times. If that's accurate and you compare 3.5- to 1.28-gpf, then that would conserve 310,800 gallons of potable water. The EPA also suggests a yearly savings of $170 per year for water and sewage. Over a 20-year span with a 5% annual increase in costs, our customers could be saving $5,621!

Remember Chubby Checker's Limbo Rock? How low can we go? Will 1.0-gpf be next? The experts working on the next low-flush models aren't talking, but you and I will know once the threshold for drain-line-carry ability has been crossed.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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