Sunday, October 12, 2008

Low-Flow Toilets and the Blessings of Smart Regulation

Toilets don't normally come up in conversation. The last time they were in the news was back in 1997, when the federal government passed a law requiring that all new toilets use a maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush. The new requirement generated loud complaints on editorial pages about government overreaching, and the slew of poorly functioning toilets that ensued gave comedians some good punch lines. In fact, a little research at the time (see below) showed that government was being falsely maligned, and that a few unsung manufacturers responded to the regulatory challenge by designing effective toilets.

In searching for a replacement for the old, inefficient 4 gallon toilets in my house (3 gallons if one puts bricks or weighted bottles in the tank), it turns out that manufacturers have figured out how to use even less water than the government standard. Toto has come out with a 1.28 gallon toilet, and I've been told by a local retailer that all manufacturers will be using less than 1.6 gallons in the future. We bought a 1.28 gallon model, which works far better than any of the old 4 gallon types.

Examples of how limits, rather than unfettered freedom, spur invention can be found in many fields. The great classical composer, Igor Stravinsky would say that in constraint there can be freedom. Boundaries can help channel invention. The boundaries of a tennis court have brought tennis to a higher level than it would have achieved without them. President Kennedy's call for a man to land on the moon by the end of the 60s essentially framed a decade, creating a boundary within which the desired result should be and was achieved. Regulation, like goal setting, can be seen as either a burden or an inspiration.

Not all regulation is so constructive, but in the case of the lowly toilet, manufacturers responded by making a better product, and even going beyond what the government required. If you haven't had your quota of puns today, below is a letter I wrote to the Raleigh News and Observer back in 1997, telling how the need for catharsis can make the news media a channel for something other than truth:

Truth Down the Drain (from a 1997 letter to the editor)

Both Dave Barry's July 20 humor column and your April 5 editorial "Flunking the flush test" presented an appealing story line to feed our disgust with big government. The subject of these cathartic diatribes was, alas, low-flow toilets. By limiting the amount of water per flush to a measly 1.6 gallons, Washington bureaucrats have imposed on us, the hapless masses, a new generation of dysfunctional toilets.

Regulation run amok, it would seem. The only problem is that the distance between the story line and reality is, well, commodious.

For one thing, the regulations didn't come down to us from the feds, but instead originated in various water-poor states. And it wasn't overzealous environmentalists who led the push for a uniform national standard, but plumbing manufacturers frustrated by each state setting its own standards.

Nor are all 1.6 gallon toilets dysfunctional. Some manufacturers dumped poorly designed commodes on the market--no doubt secure in the fact that word-of-mouth on a subject like this would be next to nil. Contractors contributed to the snafu by installing the cheapest toilets they could find, regardless of quality.

Cast in this light, the federal government appears to be the only entity that has acted responsibly. That is, other than the unsung manufacturers who went to the trouble of designing dependable 1.6 gallon toilets, and now find their products unfairly maligned.

Whether it be a commode or the latest tirade against government, best not to buy it before checking the facts.