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Still won't flush? Call the toilet tinkerer

Plumbers get so many complaints, they fiddle with the flappers and flush more water.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001

Plumbers get so many complaints, they fiddle with the flappers and flush more water.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Kathleen Ford wants three of them for Mother's Day.

Hundreds of area residents, even those who never voted for Ford, would gladly give her theirs.

The object of Ford's wish list and others' disdain is the ubiquitous low-flow toilet. Local governments in the Tampa Bay area have spent or budgeted nearly $22-million in rebates to get owners of older homes to replace their water-guzzlers with water-saving toilets.

Now, in the midst of an unprecedented drought and with everyone looking for new ways to conserve water, officials acknowledge that many of the toilets they helped pay for don't work very well, something the toilet owners have known for years.

Not to be indelicate about it -- but the poor performance has convinced many people they must flush two or three times per use, which negates the water savings the toilets are supposed to provide.

Moreover, plumbers have received so many consumer complaints over the years that some have resorted to tinkering with the inner workings before installation to increase the water flow, even though the toilets then use up to twice the water they should.

"Some of the toilets, especially the earlier generations and the cheaper models out there today don't work as well as you would like," said David Bracciano, water conservation manager for Tampa Bay Water, the region's largest water utility. "But they do save water, and there are good ones out there that don't need multiple flushes."

Norman Davis, water conservation manager for the Hillsborough County Water Department, which has spent about $11.2-million in rebates on the toilets since 1994, said plumbers who tamper with toilet flows are breaking federal law.

"It's absolutely illegal," Davis said. "They chance fines of up to $2,000 per incident."

Low-flow models were developed after the federal government enacted legislation that limited all new toilets sold in the United States after 1994 to 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Previous generations had 3.5-gallon, 5.5-gallon and 7-gallon capacities.

While all new construction since 1994 has low-flow toilets, Hillsborough County and Tampa began their rebate programs to bring older homes into compliance as soon as the new law went into effect. St. Petersburg began in 1997, Pinellas County in 1999. Generally, the rebates to homeowners who replace their old toilets run between $100 and $168, depending on the jurisdiction.

By the end of 2003, the four jurisdictions will have underwritten the replacement of more than 122,000 high-flow toilets.

But is the expense justified by the savings?

A U.S. General Accounting Office study released in August said homes with low-flow toilets generally used 40 percent less water for flushing than other homes. But the savings in overall water use were much less dramatic.

Without water-saving devices such as low-flow toilets and special shower heads and faucets, water demand in Tampa would average 77.4-million gallons a day by the year 2010, the GAO said. With water efficiency, the demand would average 75-million gallons, a savings of 3.1 percent.

If Pinellas County were without water-efficiency devices, the average daily demand by 2010 would be 84.4-million gallons, according to the GAO. With water efficiency, the demand would drop to 80.6-million, a 4.5 percent savings. Kathleen Ford, a big supporter of water conservation who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of St. Petersburg this year, thinks low-flow toilets are so wonderful she often opened campaign appearances by touting them. She asked her audiences how many had the new toilets in their homes and reported that she had asked her husband for three of them for Mother's Day.

Managers of the rebate programs acknowledge they might not be saving all the water they could, but, like Ford, they think the program is worth the expense.

"We're very happy with it, which you can see by the fact that we're the biggest participant in the region," said Hillsborough's Davis.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which underwrites half of the cost of the program in Tampa Bay and other areas of its 16-county region, is pleased with the results.

"The data we have shows that households taking part in the program are saving about 38 gallons of water a day, so we consider it a success, and we plan to continue it," said Kathy Scott, manager for conservation projects for Swiftmud. "If there is widespread tampering, I guess our savings could be even more, but we can't capture everything.

"As far as how the toilets work, the choice of which toilet to install is up to the customer. My advice to them would be to do their research and find out which are effective and which aren't." The subject of cost is a sensitive one for some. "Around last Thanksgiving, we had house guests," said Mike Romonovich of Largo. "We were cooking, and a lot of stuff was going down the disposer. The low-flow faucet head apparently wasn't putting out enough water to wash garbage out to the sewer. Then we took showers and backed up water behind the garbage. Then people arrived and began using the bathrooms and everything, everything, backed up into our shower, all because there wasn't enough water pushing through the (outflow) line to clear it.

"I can't tell you what an awful mess it was."

A plumber told Romonovich how to alter his low-flow toilets to discharge more water into the bowl with each flush, putting more oomph into the push to the sewer.

"I asked him if he would do the work, but he said he couldn't, that he'd be subject to big fines," Romonovich said. "So I did what he told me, and I haven't had a problem since. But instead of putting two gallons of water through with each flush, I'm putting through four."

The retiree from PPG Industries understands the need to conserve, but says the low-flow toilets don't work. "I might have been saving more water before, but everything I saved I spent on plumbers," he said. Some plumbers say they want nothing to do with sabotaging 1.6-gallon models.

"I can change the flapper and raise the water level in the tank above the recommended level, and I'm liable to get that extra gallon or so right over the rim onto my bathroom floor," said Tony Delgado of Peninsula Plumbing in Tampa. "I also risk voiding the warranty."

Nevertheless, many plumbers grew tired of making two and three visits to the same customer, dissatisfied with the way a new low-flow toilet worked. So they began to change parts before the toilet left their warehouse to insure good performance, even if it meant less water conservation.

"I was hanging around a plumbing supply house the other day, and I asked the guys if they ever changed the flappers (to increase water flow), and they said, yes, they do it all the time," said Tom Newman, a plumbing contractor from Cape Coral. "It's very widespread. They say, 'Who's going to catch us, the toilet police?' "

In the early days of low-flow toilets, manufacturers tried to modify existing models rather than go to the expense of re-engineering. They encountered a high rate of failure.

"They tried putting in dams to hold some water back or putting in flappers that closed early to stop the water flow at 1.6 gallons, but they didn't work," said Bracciano. "A toilet specifically designed to operate with 3.5 or 5.5 or 7 gallons per flush simply won't work with 1.6 gallons."

There is wide agreement that some low-flow toilets built since 1998 or 1999 are better, but not all.

"Some of the highest priced ones don't flush well," said Ron Miles of McGill Plumbing in Largo. "It hasn't been economically feasible for the manufacturers to redesign units when they only sell 1,000 of them a year."

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