All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 2001

The Federally Mandated Toilet Still Doesn’t Work

What Is the Government Doing in Our Bathrooms?

Three years ago we moved into our newly built home in Grand Blanc, Michigan. The whole family was excited.

While all new houses have some problems, I was not expecting the toilets to be among them. How could this be? After all, these toilets were brand new. As it turns out, that was precisely the reason they weren’t working. You see, I am the not-so-proud owner of three federally mandated environment-friendly, but consumer-unfriendly toilets. The primitive 3.5-gallon toilet, which worked, was outlawed by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1992 in favor of the politically correct 1.6-gallon toilet, which doesn’t work.

Pulling the lever on the 1.6-gallon toilet has become an anxious game of chance for all members of the family. Will it work as advertised? Will it require two or more flushes to get the job done? Will it clog up? Or, heaven forbid, will it overflow? Contrary to the assurances of consumer groups, environmentalists, and politicians, these new toilets are still not working as advertised. For the longest time my youngest daughter would not flush the government toilet for fear that it would overflow.

To address this situation, I saw three options:
1. Get a really good, expensive plunger and keep it close by;
2. Proactively double flush; or
3. Visit Ontario (in spite of its socialist tendencies, Canada still sells 3.5-gallon toilets).

I chose option 2. However, this double-flush solution only works so long as everyone understands and plays by the rules. Beware of provincial visitors who still have the 3.5-gallon versions. Unless you train your unsophisticated guests in the proper use of the government-mandated toilets, be prepared for some very embarrassing moments. I was recently awakened from a sound sleep to hear my wife say: “Michael, the toilet is overflowing in the guest bathroom.”

What’s wrong with this scenario? Why don’t I have the right to choose? Isn’t this pro-choice America? If I want to buy a gas-guzzling environmentally unfriendly sport utility vehicle (SUV), that is—as of this writing—my choice. I can water my lawn all day and wash my car in the driveway. However, because of this government decree I am not allowed to choose a 3.5-gallon toilet. I am forced to buy a toilet that, in theory, saves 1.9 gallons of water per flush (this assumes no double or triple flushing) and saves me $50 per year, again in theory. For peace of mind, I am willing to forgo the mythical $50 savings. Unfortunately, I don’t have a choice.

What’s going on here? While the government says it will not dictate what we can or cannot do in the bedroom, the same is not true for the bathroom. Here, intrusive laws are permissible. Manufacturers who are caught selling or distributing toilets that work will be fined $100 (per toilet). In addition, new homes, or older homes with remodeled bathrooms, will not be able to pass inspection if any working toilets are found on the premises.

This sounds a lot like Prohibition. Once again the government is denying the public a product that it wants, needs, and enjoys. Law-abiding citizens are becoming international smugglers. Expect to see a modern day Eliot Ness-type figure emerge (note that I did not say hero) to command a convoy of large FBI trucks equipped with battering rams. No warehouse in America will be safe. Based on tips from environmentalists, The Unflushables will swing into action. They will blast through warehouse walls and once inside, The Unflushables will start smashing the illicit 3.5ers with sledgehammers.

Who’s the Victim?

If you will recall, the American people eventually prevailed over Prohibition. This turnaround occurred even though the government apparently had the moral high ground. It was only trying to protect the American people from the ills and crimes associated with alcohol. This may be blasphemy, but I see buying, installing, and using a 3.5-gallon toilet as a victimless crime that does not warrant a return to Prohibition. I realize that a certain segment of our population will become apoplectic with this statement. I can hear them now: “The environment is the victim!”

But how serious is this particular environmental problem really? The stated reason for enacting the law was to save water. We are told that the 3.5-gallon toilet accounts for 30 percent of the household water use. This sounds significant. However, the people who throw this figure around to win support for draconian measures conveniently fail to mention that up to 60 percent of total household water use occurs outside the house through lawn watering, washing cars, and wading and swimming pools. Thirty percent of the remaining household water is only 12 percent of the total. Twelve percent is not as impressive as 30 percent. If we then include the water used by agriculture, commercial firms, and industry, we find that the household water represents 10 percent of total water use. This means that toilets account for slightly more than 1 percent of America’s water usage. Again, how serious is this environmental problem really?

There is a second (equally weak) argument put forth to support the politically correct toilets. The Environmental Protection Agency told Congress that America will need to invest $280 billion in the next two decades for the treatment of drinking and waste water. That cost will be a function of how much water is treated each year. True, but won’t it be borne by those who use the service? Isn’t that the only fair way? If the federal and state governments aren’t paying it, why is this a problem?

If the EPA had instead told Congress that America needed to invest $280 billion in the next two decades for petroleum refining, would we be shaking our heads in disgust over the enormousness of the cost to Americans? Not at all, because in this case we understand that those using the product would pay for it. The SUV owners will pay more than the Volkswagen owners. People can certainly save money by buying smaller, fuel-efficient cars. However, many make the conscious economic decision to buy larger cars.

The politically correct toilet law was not a well-chosen piece of legislation. Its environmental and economic benefits appear, at best, marginal. The law has become a source of ridicule and derision, which only serves to undermine any concern about the environment. But who can blame those who scoff at this law? It indeed symbolizes the increasing level of government intrusion into our daily lives.

  • Michael Heberling is the Chair of Leadership Studies in the Baker College MBA program in Flint, Michigan. Prior to this, he was President of Baker's Center for Graduate Studies for 16 years. Before Baker, Dr. Heberling was a Senior Policy & Business Analyst with the Anteon Corporation. He also had a career in the Air Force retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. Dr. Heberling has over 75 business and public policy publications. His research interests focus on leadership, military history and the impact of public policy on the business community. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.