All Commentary
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Toilet Hell: 21 Years of Failed Flushing

Government broke the toilet, and it hasn't recovered

You flush and flush again. It’s clogged. You plunge, and it’s kind of blech. You have lost your appetite, but finally the situation is resolved. Thank goodness the water didn’t spill over the top, because you are at a friend’s house and that would have been humiliating.

That scenario is part of ordinary life today. Has it ever been any other way?

Americans under the age of 30 very likely have no memory of household toilets that work well. And they probably think nothing of it. They are used to it by now.

This is sad. A generation ago, toilets were wonderful. You pulled the lever, and everything went down with a huge whoosh, leaving a clean bowl in its wake.

You didn’t need to have a plunger nearby for common clogging emergencies. You could use thicker paper than one ply. You didn’t need to scrub stains out every few days. You didn’t have to replace the parts inside every few months.

Mostly you could depend with certainty that whatever was inside would flush away with one pull of the lever. Not two. Not three. Just one. No stains remained because, in the old days, 3 or 4 gallons would blast through the bowl and keep it clean. This rushing water would also keep the pipes clean and kept all stink away from the facilities.

It was glorious! I have a vague memory of this. But like some dystopian novel in which an idyllic past has been flushed down the memory hole, people today are completely unaware of what it is like to have a working toilet — a really working toilet.

A basic requirement of civilization — meaning health, cleanliness, and as limited exposure to disease as possible — is that we figure out ways to dispose of human waste. It was a big deal in the ancient world. Rome was a marvel of the world with its aqueducts and sewers that anticipated the best of modern sanitation.

The technology regressed after the fall of Rome and didn’t quite recover for another 1,500 years — and, in the meantime, lack of sanitation contributed mightily to the plagues. Once modernity was born, indoor plumbing was the first to arrive. In the 20th century, the problem was solved with great plumbing and fixtures.

Leave it to the United States Congress to revert the progress of millennia. In 1992, a new law was passed (the Energy Policy Act) that came into effect in 1994. That law mandated that all toilets sold in the United States use no more than 1.6 gallons, which was less than half the water usually used in every flush.

The result was awful. People would buy new toilets or move into new homes and be startled to discover that something they had taken for granted for ages suddenly stopped working.

Why is my new toilet causing so many problems? Why is it clogging all the time? What is that strange stink? Why am I having to crawl around the basement looking for that old plunger?

Then there was a huge shift in the toilet paper market. Paper once used only for the most primitive systems and in prisons suddenly became common.

Black markets developed. You could briefly buy large tank toilets online, but those ran out. Then a porcelain-running market developed between the US and Canada, until border control tightened. Fines increased to $2,500 for any plumber in the US who installed one, and inspectors were forced to report them.

Today, it is next to impossible to find a large tank toilet in the United States.

Several Congressman tried to repeal the law. As with most things Congress does, most legislators had no clue about what they had done. They had rolled back indoor plumbing, a pillar of civilization! But it is much easier to ruin things with regulations than it is to repeal those regulations, so the push came to naught.

And yes, there have been some improvements by manufacturers over time: new shapes, air blasts, different inner workings, and so on. But, in the end, when you are only working with 1.6 gallons, the paltry amount of water is good for some things but not for others, if you know what I mean.

What was the purpose of all of this? We are told often about how much water we are saving. What we are not told is that domestic water use in general, according to the Department of the Interior, is 1 percent of total water use. That includes your dishwasher, washing machine, showers, drinking water, toilets, and even watering grass. In other words, the savings is negligible and essentially pointless.

And look at the cost! The whole thing is outrageous. If you and I do not have a toilet that works super well in our own homes, something has gone very wrong with the state of civilization itself. As long as the technology is available, and we are willing to pay for it, it is a human right.

Next time your toilet clogs, turn your embarrassment into outrage and demand a change.