Wrong way to lower fixture flush requirements

WHILE CALIFORNIA must be applauded for taking the problem of its water shortages head on, a new bill there that would lower the required amount of water used to flush toilets and urinals just doesn't make sense right now. The state bill, AB2496, would mandate 1.3 gal. of water be used to flush toilets and 0.5 gal. to flush urinals. It is the wrong way to improve fixture efficiency for three reasons:

WHILE CALIFORNIA must be applauded for taking the problem of its water shortages head on, a new bill there that would lower the required amount of water used to flush toilets and urinals just doesn't make sense right now.

The state bill, AB2496, would mandate 1.3 gal. of water be used to flush toilets and 0.5 gal. to flush urinals. It is the wrong way to improve fixture efficiency for three reasons: water efficiency is a national concern, not one to be resolved by a single state; producing different plumbing fixtures for use in different states is costly and impractical; and technology issues must be resolved before making more efficient fixtures mandatory.

First, California is not alone in its struggle to conserve water. James A. Hanlon, director of the EPA's Office of Water Management, told members of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute in April that 36 states are projecting non-drought-related water shortages in the next 10 years, including New England and the Great Lakes States.

At the same meeting, Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, acknowledged that water efficiency is an issue that goes beyond the borders of her state. "States that have plenty of rainfall are still in a water-efficiency crisis mode," she said.

Any movement to improve the efficiency of plumbing fixtures should occur at a national, not a state, level. PMI, while careful to maintain a position in support of water conservation, voiced its concerns about taking the state-by-state route to saving water, and we share those concerns.

'It is our industry that will deal with customer complaints.'

PMI President Claude Theisen said his group opposes a piecemeal approach to water conservation. The California bill would establish that state as the only one in the country that requires 1.3-GPF toilets and 0.5-GPF urinal standards, he noted. Besides the added costs of designing, engineering and producing these new toilets and urinals, another concern voiced by PMI is the regulatory confusion that the fixtures would create.

We agree with PMI that uniform nationalflushing standards would allow manufacturers to focus on improving the performance of products in both residential and commercial applications. And that brings us to our third point against the California bill.

The technology issue applied to water conservation extends beyond the plumbing industry. When Hanlon told PMI members about the EPA's waterefficiency program, which will be launched soon, he said the first announcements would cover irrigation products. High-efficiency toilets flushing 20% less than 1.6-GPF models — or about 1.3 GPF — also may be included in the launch, but it should be noted that EPA's program is voluntary.

In California, Dickinson cited one study that estimates up to one-third of the state's urban water use could be saved with existing technologies. Clearly these technologies should be examined before making improved fixture-performance mandatory there.

When applied to the plumbing industry, the technology issue probably is the one of most concern to plumbing contractors. As Lake Coulson, vice president/government affairs for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association, noted when discussing AB2496 last month with members of the California PHCC, "After all, it is our industry that will deal with customer complaints."

Coulson also asked the contractors whether the failures of 1.6-GPF toilets had been corrected. We hope that Coulson's question was largely rhetorical. It should remind plumbing contractors, however, that they have a stake in when and how these more efficient fixtures are brought to market.

Contractors outside California and the rest of the plumbing industry should take AB2496 seriously and not dismiss it as another example of California dreamin'. Coulson reminded contractors that the federal government adopted California standards when it passed its current low-flush requirements in 1992.

The California bill is not the right approach right now, but the issue of even more water-efficient plumbing products is not going to go away.