Slow and low, that is the tempo

Written by mira


We moved into a new house this past October and from the first week, it was one toilet problem after another. It seemed at least once a week, we were pulling out the plunger, which then became an auger. A few extra squares of toilet paper were enough to put us over the edge…literally.

The first plumber we called over verbally cursed politicians for mandating the use of low-flow toilets, on which he blamed all of our problems. Toilets use a lot of water. After outdoor irrigation, toilets consume the largest portion of water use in a typical American home. Thus, beginning in 1992, U.S. law required all new toilets to consume no more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). Going from an old school toilet to a low-flow one can reduce your water use by 50%.

That’s an incredible amount of savings, which sounds like a win for consumers, environmentalists, business and government. Except that in those early years low-flow toilets didn’t work so well. They often required at least a second flush to get anything down (and down with that flush: your water and financial savings). Americans were so frustrated by the new mandates that a bill was introduced in Congress in 1998 to repeal the low-flow law and Americans were even turning to a black market of 3.5 gpf toilets to meet their needs.

Thankfully, in the last 10 years or so, toilet technology has vastly improved and today’s low-flow toilets have quite the powerful flush. After some research and talking to a few more plumbers, it looks like we’ve found the low-flow toilet of our dreams with 1.6 gpf and G-Max technology.

If you’ve still got a 3.5 gpf+ toilet in your home, call your local water company and see what kinds of rebates they might have available for you when you purchase a low-flow or high-efficiency toilet. There are other ways to further reduce your gallons per flush, like this handy tip from TerraPass. Or if your throne is already efficient and effective, then maybe it’s time to incorporate some handy gadgets to help you in the shower too.

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  1. john kurmann

    Hi, Mira. It would be helpful if you could add some info about the amount of energy that’s consumed–and greenhouse gases emitted–pumping water around. Most people don’t think about that they’re also using energy when they use water, but my understanding is that the water pumps used by cities and towns consume a tremendous amount of energy. Unfortunately, I don’t have any figures at my fingertips.

  2. darooda

    My wife and I just replace our highest use toilet in our home with a Watersense compliant model from Kohler. 1.28 Gpf, picked it up at Lowes, easy self install, and for a month now flawless perfomance. Since it’s more efficient than the others in our home, we use it most of the time. It costs more than the cheapos, but at about $200 it isn’t the most expensive either.
    My point of posting is don’t settle for 1.6 Gpf when an excellent performing 1.28 can be had just around corner at a reasonable price.

  3. Eric

    We live in San Antonio and the water company here offers up to two free replacement toilets if your home is older than 1992. We did that when we bought our house a couple of years ago. The best part is they were Caroma dual flush toilets. For those who don’t know, the have two buttons for flushing. One uses 1.6GPF when needed. The other only .8GPF. We have found that most of the time the small flush is enough with the way this toilet is designed. Did I mention they were free?!? Great water savings! Check them out, a few companies make them and they are big in Australia and Europe.

  4. Patrick

    You can always use the old adage, “When it’s brown, flush it down, when it’s yellow, let it mellow.” This saves the most money. Flushing every time is unnecessary, although in this Texas 105-degree weather, I’m finding that the yellow mellows much quicker!

  5. Pat

    I appreciate this information, however I’d like to hear more about composting toilets. THAT’S really going sustainable.

  6. gatcheson

    kudos to eric #3 for the dual flush. I hate to say trash an old low-flow toilet, but the new ones truly are much improved. Used to be only Toto made good low-flow toilets but the others have caught up in the last 10 years. My favorite part? In addition to the water savings, the low-flow toilet refills so much faster so I can get in the shower sooner.

  7. Kim

    When I moved into my house a few years ago and found myself “double-flushing” on a fairly regular basis, I just assumed it was because my house is old and the pipes aren’t that good. When I called a plumber to snake my toilet he told me the problem was the two-piece Crane model that I had. He installed a Vitra 1.6 and haven’t had any problems since! (This is all the more important as there is only one bathroom in my house so it HAS to be functional at all times.)

  8. Dave

    I’ve had a number of crappy (no pun intended!) low flow and high flow toilets. One thing you’ll notice now is that toilets are rated on how much mass they can flush down cleanly, so make sure you get one that is highly rated!
    I installed an American Standard Cadet 3 1.6 gpf toilet 3-4 months ago which has been the best toilet I’ve ever had.
    It flushes quickly and quietly, refills fast, and has not clogged a single time yet. This particular toilet has a 800 flush rating.
    I’ve just ordered a Cadet 3 1.28 gpf toilet to replace another one which clogs all too often (For some crazy reason Home Depot doesn’t stock all that many 1.28 gpf toilets which is why I had to order it). It has a 1000 flush rating so in theory it should flush even better than the other one, but we will find out in a week or two once I get and install it.

  9. Ray-ray

    I want a composting toilet.

  10. Tom Harrison

    We have a couple of the hateful toilets mentioned in the article. We have a good plunger and a Dad who knows how to use it (moi).
    But as you say, they are better today, than even 5 or so years ago.
    I want to call out one brand that is remarkable: Toto — I did a little guerrilla office greening and managed to get the good ole American Standard 100 GPF model (actually only 7.5 gallons, but it leaked continuously) replaced with new Toto toilets. They are nothing special, and the model we got was around $200. It uses standard parts, and is otherwise unremarkable.
    But it uses less than 1.6GPF and it always (and I mean ALWAYS) works. Somehow, Toto has figured out how to create a great gush of water, so the flush is over in a moment. I suppose I could write a Haiku about my feeling of wonder…
    Anyway, like all products, some work, some don’t. Like CFL bulbs, and shower heads, low-flow toilets got a bad name because many didn’t work as well. But there are good alternatives.
    And just to make one tiny other little point: legislation caused this evolution to happen. And over time, the market adjusted, we adjusted and now we use far, far less water.
    Tomorrow an imperfect bill, the “ACES” climate change bill (aka Waxman-Markey) will go up for a vote in the House. It’s a start, and we can also adjust, complain, find problems … then fix them. That’s what we do in America: we do something, then improve upon it.
    Call your Representative and let him or her know you support the bill! And if you don’t, call to chat about low flow toilets 😉

  11. Trent

    What to do with the old high flowing toilet? Any way to recycle it?

  12. Eric

    In San Antonio, there is a place to drop off old toilets for recycling, so there may be one in your city too. It can be pulverised and used as aggregate in different materials. There is a company in Texas ( that uses old glass and more recently toilet porcelain pieces in counter solid surfacing and terrazzo flooring. Check them out!

  13. Tom Harrison

    Trent —
    Check out — they have a database of recycling resources by zip code and type of product.
    We cleaned up our old office toilet and re-purposed it as much needed seating for interview candidates. 🙂

  14. Peter Harrison

    As an Australian, and we have a dry continent, low flush dual flush toilets have been manadatory in new homes for about 20 years or more, and retro fitting is often assisted by public utilities too. All new commercial buildings must have low flush / dual flush pans too. It is sooooooo common that it is nor even talked about anymore!!!
    Caroma – Australian company – developed the great low flush dual flush system and has refined pan design to continue reducing litres used per flush. Standard is now 6/3 litres per flush and you chose which button to push, easily shown as full or half. Without good pan design and rapid entry, it is all a bit of a mess.
    Six litres is roughly 1.5 US gallons.
    They are very hard to fault.

  15. john kurmann

    I understand that it’s not feasible in every situation to simply forego the water-flushed toilet, but we really need to purifying water to the point where it’s clean enough to drink, then pooping and peeing in it before sending it back to the sewage treatment plant. That’s just nonsensical, energy-intensive, and expensive.

  16. Hairshirt

    While toilets are impossible to control in the amount of water they use per flush, showers are easy — just lighten up on the water pressure! In our water district in California, in addition to the aforementioned low flow toilet mandates, we are also strongly encouraged to replace all showerheads which seems completely unnecessary when I can just turn it off when soaping, run at low pressure, skip showers every so often, etc. BTW, I have two 1.3GPF Toto’s and a 1.6GPF Kohler and they all work well. The Caromas are great (lived in Sydney for two years so very familiar) but at my local hardware store the Toto was $200-ish and the Caroma was nearly $500! It would take decades of lower water bills to make up that difference. Half flush is nice to have but you can just let it mellow or flush every other use. Bottom line: don’t believe that technology alone is the answer, human behavior can lower your water bill too.

  17. Frank

    We bought a Toto dual flush toilet a couple of months ago, and while it works fine, on the lowest flush side, it leaves a bit of residue in the form of slightly murky water and a few bubbles which leads me to believe it isn’t changing the water completely. Is anyone aware of an adjustment that can be made to increase the water flow to get rid of the bit of leftover. It seems to work fine on the 1.6 l flush, but the toilet is off a family room and is used mostly in the lowest flush mode.

  18. Steam Shower

    Thanks for this information, however I’d like to hear more about composting toilets.