Flooded with complaints from angry consumers complaining of sluggish low-flush toilets, a House subcommittee this week considered legislation that would "get the government out of our bathrooms."
The Commerce Committee's subcommittee on energy and power took up legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) that would repeal a provision in the 1992 Energy Policy and Conservation Act that allowed the Department of Energy to mandate that new toilets be "low-flow."
Promoted as a water-conservation measure, low-flow means 1.6 gallons per flush instead of the more ample 3.5 gallons. Water flowing out of shower heads also was cut to 2.5 gallons per minute from 3, a change that many localities had already made in the 1980s.
Though plumbing manufacturers said the current generation of low-flows does the job, Knollenberg and the 82 members who support his bill insist the new models do not work properly and often require double-flushing. Republicans view the toilet rule as the epitome of unnecessary, intrusive federal regulation that stifles free-market enterprise and limits commode choice.
Knollenberg, the subcommittee's star witness, said, "My office has received thousands of phone calls, letters, e-mails from disgruntled consumers who are angry that their new toilets repeatedly clog, require multiple flushing and do not save water."
"If you love them, you can have them," he said, noting that plumbing manufacturers would be free to continue making low-flow toilets--of which there are 35 million in use--but other, more robust models would be available as well.
As an aside to a reporter, Knollenberg confided that he has two "nonperforming" "slow-flush" toilets in his houses and that he avoids using them.
Some members of the subcommittee said they'd vote with Knollenberg if the bill ever made it to the House floor. Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who read his statement off a roll of toilet paper, said the issue hit home when he was in a hotel in Wilmington, N.C., and there was a sign in the restroom that advised it might be necessary to flush twice and, if that didn't work, to please summon the front desk.
"How is water conservation achieved when a person has to flush more than once or take a 10-minute shower instead of a five-minute one?" Burr asked, rolling up the loose ends on the roll.
Plumbing manufacturers, environmentalists and managers of water supply systems contend that the legislation, which was introduced two years ago, fixed the problem that it addressed. They said the first generation of low-flows may have been temperamental, but the newest ones are as good as their higher-flow predecessors. They also argue that this isn't the best time to think about swishing more water around in toilet bowls.
"It's so irresponsible to even discuss this now in the face of the drought," said Cece Kremer, vice president of government affairs for the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute.
The National Association of Home Builders, which originally supported Knollenberg's drive to dump the standard, is now "neutral" on the bill. In the meantime, the NAHB is working with plumbing manufacturers to figure out what the problem is.
"Our bottom line is, we just want a toilet that works," said Tammy Eddy, the NAHB's legislative director for energy and environmental policy.
Makers of the toilets said low-flow models and other water-saving appliances can cut indoor water use by 30 percent in a single-family home, from 74 gallons per person per day to 51.9 gallons. Plumbing manufacturers say that translates to a $50 to $100 savings annually on water bills.
A lot of water use is flushing. According to the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, flushing accounts for 40 percent of the water consumed in a home, and the American Water Works Association has it more finely pinpointed: The toilet gets flushed on average 5.05 times per person daily.
As for complaints, the manufacturers said only a small fraction of the new toilets are considered poor performers, a number that is not much different from the dissatisfaction level with the older models.
"The plunger was not invented in 1994," said Peter DeMarco of American Standard Inc. in Piscataway, N.J.
But Glenn Haege, host of "Ask the Handyman," a syndicated radio show in Detroit, said he has received plenty of complaints, most of them saying the toilets don't succeed at flushing on the first try.
"When don't you want your toilet to work? When the minister comes over on Sunday?" Haege said in an interview. "I can tell you without a doubt that there is a major problem in bathrooms all across America."
OUT FOR COMMENT: The National Association of Manufacturers wants an apology from Charles Jeffress, administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The NAM is irritated that OSHA posted on its World Wide Web site Jeffress's speech and a press release that NAM said did not reflect the friendly discussion NAM members had with the OSHA administrator on July 21. The NAM, which opposes a federal ergonomics rule, shot a letter off to Jeffress on Wednesday, accusing him of twisting what happened in the meeting. Jeffress said there was no discrepancy between the hard-hitting material on the Web, which told NAM to play a productive, not destructive role in the rulemaking process, and his personal remarks: "I challenged them to work with OSHA . . . instead of putting all their energies into opposing a rule. I was direct with them, and they were direct with me."