A HEADLINE IN YESTERDAY'S REAL ESTATE SECTION ABOUT LOW-FLOW TOILETS WAS INCORRECT. A CONGRESSMAN SEEKS TO REPEAL A LAW THAT MANDATED SUCH TOILETS, NOT TO OUTLAW THEM. (PUBLISHED 08/08/99)

"Low-flow" toilets, which have been bugging consumers ever since the government laid down the law on using them, are back in the news: A congressman has launched a crusade to pull the plug on the law that mandated them. But the bottom line is that the nouveau commodes aren't going away soon.

And they may not be so bad after all. Manufacturers swear the johns are doing the job better five years after the law took effect. Conservation groups and water suppliers not only agree but wave glowing consumer surveys. Plus, the congressman's argument for increasing water usage--which is what going back to the old toilets would mean--couldn't have come at a least favorable time: the second-worst drought in U.S. history.

So, regardless of a steady torrent of complaints, it looks like we'll have to live with them. And so far, we've found a way to accommodate the new commodes. Renovators and plumbers are "reeducating" clients on bathroom habits. Or are agreeing to reinstall clients' old toilets. New-home builders, riding above the fray, are looking for the most complaint-free commodes at the best prices. And they say they've found them.

Buyers, meanwhile, can choose from updated traditional toilets to those with flush boosters. (And there will always be diehards, who hold on to the hope of finding a black-market toilet out of Canada and Mexico or one hidden away by plumbers before the law took effect.)

Herewith a look at the tempest in the toilet and how we are coping.

If you haven't bought a new house or renovated an old one lately, you may not know what the tissue issue is. Unless, that is, you saw the fixtures being dumped on on "Seinfeld" and "The Practice."

Conversations about "low-flow" toilets can quickly sink into bathroom humor and euphemisms. They're "crappy," opponents say. "Homeowners all across America . . . are frustrated to tears with this kind of government meddling. hSo we're going to flush them out," House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) told reporters. Supporters counter that plungers "weren't invented yesterday" and warn of "rising toilet populations" that, left unregulated, would threaten water supply and treatment planning.

Buoyed by complaints, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) finally secured congressional hearings two weeks ago on his repeal bill. Dubbed "the Patrick Henry of porcelain" by a conservative backer, Knollenberg cites widespread disgust not only with the toilets but with government intrusion in America's bathrooms.

Even the fixtures' biggest boosters concede it's been a haul to make them as good as the old toilets. After all, they use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush (gpf), compared with the typical 3.5 gallons before 1994 and a whopping five to seven gallons in '70s toilets.

Water conservationists and the plumbing industry contend that water savings make them worth the switch, that low-flow technology has caught up and that proper installation is the key, but as Glenn Haege, a radio personality known as "America's Master Handyman," put it recently, "Without a doubt there is a major problem in bathrooms all across America."

The solution, those on the front lines said, is reeducation. "The conversations can be uncomfortable," said David Lee Flara, vice president of Metropolitan Bath & Tile of Hyattsville, "but we have to have this kind of discussion every time" low-flow toilets are installed. Otherwise, he said, buyers "don't understand that you just need to plunge them every now and then and that you can't put as much waste in."

"It hasn't been easy" to accept the passing of the 3.5-gpf toilet, said Flara, whose firm does $600,000 a month in bathroom renovations. While Flara said the number of complaints about waste left behind and clogging is down from the early days, they are still routine. Metropolitan still uses a disclaimer attached to contracts in 1994 about what to expect from low-flow toilets.

"From my perspective, the complaints are easing, but the toilets still are not as good [as the 3.5-gpf units] so there still are complaints," said Bruce Case of Case Design/Remodeling Inc. of Bethesda, the largest home design/build remodeling firm in the area. "Our rule of thumb is that two out of 10 times, you're going to have to flush twice."

Though handyman Haege said "Americans are crossing the border to Canada and Mexico" to buy toilets, Case said his clients "don't have the time or interest to go hunting a toilet." "We've heard stories about them coming out of Canada," said Flara, but no customer has offered one.

Flara sells mostly American Standard Inc. and Kohler Co. products, he said, because parts from larger manufacturers are readily available. But customers generally "are concerned more about design or color than about the operation" of the unit. Case often recommends the Kohler Wellworth, priced at around $100, because "of the price, and because of its enlarged trapway and glazing."

From his personal experience, Case said the "key may be the toilet paper." "We used to use Charmin--you know, they advertise how heavy and puffy it is--and we switched to White Cloud or a brand like that, and the toilet works much better. . . . The clogging problem is definitely going to be exacerbated" by thick tissue, Case said.

Case added that standard two-piece toilets seem preferable to newer low-slung one-piece designs because "the key to gravity-flush toilets" is the height of the water delivery system.

While renovators are caught up in the toilet turmoil, representatives of area builders Toll Brothers Inc., Centex Homes and Winchester Homes have heard few complaints from new buyers and few anticipatory concerns.

"The earlier low-flush toilets were terrible--they almost had to come with a plunger. But the newer ones are much better," said Alan Shapiro, vice president of marketing for Winchester, which will build 650 homes in the region this year.

Winchester offers an elongated-bowl Sterling gravity-flush toilet as standard in houses that run $400,000 and up, and a traditional round-bowl model in less-expensive homes. As a subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser Co., Winchester would not boost higher-flow toilets, Shapiro added, because of the parent firm's conservation bent. "Builders today are trying to figure out how to get more green," he said.

Shapiro noted that the National Association of Home Builders changed from supporting repeal to a neutral stand, indicating conservation has won the day. NAHB officials testified at the House hearings that the group wants toilets that work and is pushing the plumbing industry to make them.

Manufacturers swear that toilets today work much better than the first models rushed off production lines to meet the federal mandate. Changes have been made in gravity-flush designs to increase the size of trapways and the surface area of water covering the bowl between flushes, to adjust the placement and size of jets of water in the bowl rims and to glaze more piping. New designs boost the flush with pressurized-water and vacuum pressure. The first pressurized versions "sounded like airplane toilets," Case said.

"If, indeed, we felt that these products were not adequate . . . we would bite the bullet to get back to the products that we thought were," said Peter DeMarco, of American Standard Cos. of Piscataway, N.J., the biggest manufacturer of fixtures in the world. "But to turn back now [during a drought] would be just a sin."

As for the shower of complaints Knollenberg cites, DeMarco said customer surveys show "we're making products today that people like and that do work." He said 50 million to 60 million toilets have been produced since 1994, "and if there are thousands of toilets that are dissatisfactory, that is consistent with the number of complaints" about the old toilets.

"There are some products that don't siphon as well as others," he said, "but it's a very small fraction of 1 percent of the toilets made."

Don Gamble of Eljer Plumbingware Inc. of Dallas, another large manufacturer, said his company "was in a unique position" in the market because it began producing the Ultra1/G, which used only a gallon of water per flush, in 1984. Complaints about the Eljer line "have dramatically decreased" since 1994, he said, in large part because of "consumer education--I don't think we prepared the consumer for what was happening. . . . Changing from having seven gallons per flush to 1.6 gallons is a tremendous difference."

Ed Osann, a consultant for plumbing manufacturers, conservation groups and water and wastewater utilities, stressed how low-flow toilets can save water and thus billions of dollars in avoided water supply and wastewater treatment systems. His 1998 report, "Saving Water, Saving Dollars," cited 15 percent savings in residential water use since 1994 from low-flow toilets. And that translates into savings of $50 to $100 a year in homeowners' water bills.

As for complaints, he said, "it's hard to distinguish between people who have a 1.6 [toilet] and don't like it and people who don't like the idea of the government telling them they have to have these toilets."

On the subject of double flushing, Osann said a soon-to-be-released study by the American Water Works Association--the largest survey of residential water use in North America--finds that the number of flushes in houses with 3.5-gpf toilets and those with 1.6-gpf units "is statistically indistinguishable."

DeMarco and the plumbing industry dispute the contention that they joined forces with conservationists to avoid retooling factories again. Retooling before 1994 did cost "hundreds of millions of dollars," he said, but eliminated the stack of separate state regulations that existed before the federal law took effect. Preserving those "economies of scale" is critical, he said.

While the drought has put a damper on the Knollenberg repeal bill, support in the conservative ranks runs deep. The bill, HR 623, has been endorsed by the Cato Institute, which believes the real problem in America is that water is underpriced, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Consumer Coalition, which say the water crisis is exaggerated and that federal intrusion guarantees a market for low-performing toilets.

Chances for a House Commerce subcommittee vote are good, said a staffer for panel Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), one of 80 House co-sponsors of repeal. Barton's communications director Samantha Jordan said last week that "the drought is a consideration" but "part of what [subcommittee schedulers] are thinking is that it probably will be fall before the bill is taken up, and then it will be a new ballgame. In September, it might rain like crazy."

New Styles for the Water Closet

The four basic types of low-flush toilets are:

* Gravity-flush. These rely on the weight of the water and the shape of the bowl to push waste down the drain. Gravity-tank toilets make up 80 percent or more of the total U.S. market, according to a 1998 report by Potomac Resources, a consulting group for a coalition of water conservationists, manufacturers and water suppliers. In a May 1998 analysis, Consumer Reports magazine found the latest gravity-flush 1.6-gallon toilets "are less effective at removing solid waste than pressure-assisted toilets, but they're generally the cheapest to buy and install." And the cheapest to maintain.

* Pressure-assisted. These have a pressure vessel in the tank. When the toilet is flushed, the tank retains the pressure of the water supply lines, helping force the waste down the drain. Consumer Reports says "this type tends to be the most effective, but it's also expensive to buy and maintain because parts are more specialized." Users sometimes complain about noise because the toilets need water pressure of at least 25 pounds or more per square inch to run well.

* Pump-assisted. An electric-powered pump under the tank adds pressure to gravity. As Consumer Reports notes, if the power goes out, the toilet doesn't flush.

* Vacuum-assisted. Vacuum chambers inside the bowl pull water and waste from the toilet bowl.

* Other types: Commercial and multifamily buildings also might have flushometer valve toilets, which operate without a storage tank and release water directly to the bowl under pressure from a release valve on the supply line. These units need larger-diameter water-supply lines and are costly to install after construction.

A "blowout" toilet, according to Potomac Resources, "combines the flushometer design with an enlarged trapway at the base of the bowl to allow for the evacuation of large obstructions." These are found in unattended public restrooms in areas subject to vandalism or abuse, according to their report.

Rating the Flush Factor

Humor columnist Dave Barry caused an independent plumbing contractors' group to be flooded with 17,000 letters and calls when he mentioned in April 1998 that the group knew of a company that had tested 1.6-gallon toilets and "found one particular . . . toilet that actually works."

Contractors 2000 in St. Paul, Minn., responded to the inundation by sending interested consumers a letter listing five toilets that passed a side-by-side flushing test.

Passing the flush test were the Gerber 21702, Western Pottery 822ULF, Toto CST-704, Sterling 402015 and St. Thomas Eclipse 6201.010.

Consumer Reports in 1998 rated the Gerber Ultra Flush, a $270 pressure-assisted toilet, as a best buy in low-flush toilets but with a noisy flush. The pump-assisted Kohler Trocadero, which is quieter, performed as well as the Gerber, according to the magazine, but costs $940. The three highest-rated gravity-flush models were the Eljer Berkeley ($420) and Patriot ($120) and the American Standard Cadet II at $145.

Toilets today can cost between $75 and $1,000, depending on color, trim and style.

Lower, Quieter And Maybe Gray Water

Since we're on the cusp of the millennium, it might be appropriate to consider what toilets or their successors might look like in the future. Movies and TV shows about futuristic societies never seem to show bathroom scenes.

No one is suggesting yet that we'll be able to "beam" wastes elsewhere a la "Star Trek." But some plumbing insiders do see changes coming.

"I do believe toilets will change in their appearance in the future," American Standard's Pete DeMarco said. "A demand for a less visible toilet is on the rise. . . . People don't want to see them, so builders are putting them in little alcoves or cubbies" separated from the rest of the bathroom by low walls or doors.

"Lower and quieter" fixtures that "blend in with the overall decor" is the immediate prediction of Don Gamble at Eljer Plumbingware Inc. Low-slung one-piece designs already on the market look more like furniture than plumbing, since the tanks are at or below the rim.

And from the World Future Society in Bethesda comes the word that some environmentally attuned communities are exploring ways to use "gray water" in bathrooms, recycling dishwashing water or other previously used supplies into the toilet.

One old favorite that could even reappear is the composting toilet, in which wastes travel from home to garden rather than to treatment plant.