Are High-Efficiency Toilets Worth It?

You can choose to conserve water.

What if conserving water was as easy as flushing a toilet? It is if you replace your old water hogging probably leaky toilet with a high-efficiency model.

A toilet replacement project may not be high on your list of priorities, but perhaps it should be.

The first day of spring is just behind us and here on the California Central Coast, a green blanket of grass covers the hillsides and the wildflowers are just beginning to show their colorful faces. It was a good rainy season for us meaning we received about the historical average rainfall for our area.

Yet, I am aware that another drought will occur in the future and that global warming will continue to make many regions like ours hotter and drier putting even more stress on already depleted water supplies.

This may sound weird but I usually have water on my mind more during the rainy season than the dry summer. Last March I wrote a series of posts about water conservation entitled Why is Now a Good Time to Implement Water Saving Ideas?, Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Indoors, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

This March I decided to tackle the unglamorous topic of high-efficiency toilets because toilets are notorious water wasters. Old toilet models use a whopping 3-8 gallons per flush (GPF) and they are prone to leaking. Also, in the United States, we mostly use potable water, which is water that has been treated to drinking water quality, for flushing toilets.

Toilet efficiency did get a boost when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Most of the law relates to energy but there is a provision to establish the first-ever federal water efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures like toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets. Toilets manufactured after 1994 are required to use 1.6 GPF or less.

Some of the early low flow toilets had performance problems that resulted in people flushing toilets twice defeating the purpose of using a water-efficient toilet. Fortunately, toilet designers unleashed their creativity and now 25 years later, high-efficiency toilets get the job done consistently with even less water.

Residential Indoor Water End Uses Pie Chart (Percentages and Gallons)

A 2016 Water Resource Foundation study found that each person flushes the toilet on average 5 times a day at home, which represents about 24% of residential indoor water use. (Image showing percentages and gallons – DziegielewskiBA – Wikipedia.)

By replacing your old leaky toilets with high-efficiency models you can reduce the amount of drinking water your household flushes down the toilet, conserve water, and save money on your water/sewer bill.

The balance of this post covers my family’s experience with high-efficiency toilets and provides a list of things to think about before you start your own toilet replacement project.

Deciding to Invest in High-Efficiency Toilets

Our mission to conserve water in our household began shortly after we moved here from Southern California in 2007. Originally, we focused on creating a drought-resistant yard and as our aging appliances needed replacing, we purchased water and energy-efficient models.

In 2013, when our water district banned outdoor watering with potable water, my spouse and I realized we needed to ramp up our water conservation measures.

One of the things we did was to implement an “if it is yellow, let it mellow” toilet flushing policy. This saved water but it did not seem like a good long-term strategy. Putting bricks in our toilet tanks or installing retrofit kits did not seem like ideal solutions. We also discovered that our toilets were leaking (see below for instructions on how to check for leaks).

My family strongly objected to my suggestion that we consider switching to composting toilets and to be honest I was not ready to make that leap either.

After I had thoroughly researched high-efficiency toilets, we decided to replace our three old leaky toilets. It was a considerable financial investment but the water savings over the past 4 years and 4 months have been and will continue to be significant for years to come.

Our High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Project

We opted for a Toto Connelly dual flush model with a lever versus a button. The toilet user pushes the lever one way to flush with 0.9 gallons of water and the other way to flush with 1.28 gallons of water (there is a label on top of the toilet tank). The lever design prevents over flushing.

Our cost per toilet in 2014 was $808 less a $25 rebate from our water company for a net cost of $783. This included the toilet, a toilet seat, small parts needed for installation, sales tax, installation, and disposing of the old toilet.

Performance

High-efficiency toilets use gravity-assisted technology to flush the contents down the toilet with substantially less water than older models. Our toilets perform adequately and consistently. It does help to toss toilet paper in the deepest part of the bowl but this is an easy habit to learn.

The extremely hard water our household receives is tough on plumbing fixtures including faucets and toilet guts. One of our toilets required a replacement part a few months ago. Even without hard water, you should expect that any kind of toilet might need maintenance from time to time.

Cleaning

A special material coats the toilet bowls to keep them clean with less water but skid marks do occur occasionally. Toilet cleaner manufacturers have programmed us to believe that our toilets should always be sparkling clean so if you feel uncomfortable with skid marks you can easily clean them off with toilet paper, a water spray bottle, or a sponge.

To protect the special finish in the toilet bowl manufacturers recommend that you do not use abrasive cleaners or toilet brushes (plastic is okay) and do not put automatic toilet bowl cleaning disks inside the bowl.

For cleaning the toilets, I don rubber gloves, squirt toilet bowl cleaner in the bowl, and use our designated toilet cleaning sponge to clean it. I find this is easier and quicker than using a toilet brush.

Payback Period

A payback period is the length of time it takes an investment to recover its initial cost either in profits or savings.

For reasons, I do not fully understand there seems to be an expectation of a payback period for some home improvement projects like installing solar panels or high-efficiency toilets but not for others such as remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.

I am willing to play along if it helps you with making a decision to replace your old toilets. My family of four refused to participate in a toilet flushing study so I used five flushes per day in my analysis. Here are our results for replacing three old leaky toilets with high-efficiency toilets.

The total cost of the toilet installation was $2,349 divided by an estimated annual water savings of 502 gallons = a payback period of 4.7 years.

Our toilets are dual flush models that use less water overall so we have probably already passed the payback threshold.

You can do your own analysis using the Excel spreadsheet I created for our project.

Tips for High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Projects

Whether you have one toilet to replace or several, buying and installing a high-efficiency toilet is not an inexpensive project so you will want a toilet that works and will last for many years. Here are a few things to consider for your own project.

  • Do your homework so you can select a model that is suitable for your household. Read reviews and watch videos made by manufacturers and high-efficiency toilet fans.
  • Beware of unnecessary bells and whistles. Do you really need a toilet with a sensor that flushes the toilet when you pass your hand over it?
  • Do not buy a cheap model. In the world of toilets, you get what you pay for. There is a wide range of high-quality toilets on the market so chances are you can find one that fits in your budget.
  • Do not buy a toilet online. Toilets are made of vitreous china and are prone to getting hairline cracks during shipping. Imagine the hassle of shipping a toilet back to the manufacturer or even worse not realizing that it will leak.
  • Unless you are a plumber, hire a professional with experience installing high-efficiency toilets.
  • Contact your water company to find out if they are offering rebates (every little bit helps).

Pay It Forward

When you sell your home, include your high-efficiency toilets as a selling point.

If you live in a municipality (I do) that requires new homeowners to certify that their home is retrofitted with high-efficiency plumbing fixtures you will have saved potential buyers the inconvenience of doing it themselves while they are trying to move into their new home.

High Efficiency Dual Flush Toilet Top Flush Label
The handy label on the left side shows toilet users which way to push the vertical lever mounted on the left side of the toilet (backward for 0.9 GPF and forward for 1.28 GPF).

After reading this post, I hope you feel more informed about high-efficiency toilets and are at least considering replacing your old water guzzling and possibly leaky toilets. Once you do, you will be conserving water every time you flush your toilet.

I realize that this may not be a good time for you to embark on a high-efficiency toilet replacement project for a variety of reasons. If that is the case, there are plenty of other actions you can take to conserve water at home. The posts below in the resources section provide a variety of ideas including actions that are easy and low or no cost.

Featured Image at Top: Low water levels at Lake Mead, which is a man-made lake on the Colorado River – photo credit John Locher/Associated Press. When full, Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States. Click here to read the article that accompanies the photo.

How to Check Your Toilet for Leaks

Leaking toilets waste water and money. Here are two easy methods for determining if a toilet is leaking.

  1. Turn off the water valve behind the toilet. After an hour or so, check the level of the water in the toilet bowl. If it is lower or the bowl is empty your toilet leaks.
  2. Put 10-15 drops of food coloring in the toilet tank. After 20 or 30 minutes, if you see color in the toilet bowl your toilet leaks.

Related Posts

Resources

Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Saving Tips

You have the power to conserve energy.

This October, fulfill the promise you made to yourself earlier in the year to get serious about saving energy and reducing your carbon footprint.

October is an ideal time to address your energy use for a number of reasons. First, you still have plenty of time to put energy saving ideas into action before cold winter weather arrives in earnest and the holiday season diverts your attention. Second, if you enjoy challenging yourself during national awareness days or months, you are in luck because October is Energy Awareness Month (it should be Energy Action Month). Third, reducing your energy use can also save you money.

I realize that switching to LED light bulbs and putting on a sweater instead of cranking up the heat will not stop Americans from burning fossil fuels. However, if millions of Americans take these and other seemingly small actions, it all adds up and can make a significant impact.

For instance, if each American household tackled their energy vampires for Halloween we could save 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and use it to provide the annual power needs of 35 million Americans.1

I believe that taking action, even a tiny action, acts as a strong antidote for inertia. The first action may be difficult but each subsequent action is easier because you gain momentum.

Are you ready to take action to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint? If you are, below are ten tips of varying degrees of difficulty and expense to help you get your creative juices flowing. Most of the tips include links to other posts where you can get more information and find useful resources.

Light with LEDs

If you have not made the switch to LED light bulbs yet, now is the time.

Residential LEDs use 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs and they do not contain hazardous mercury as compact fluorescents do.2

The cost of LEDs has dropped dramatically over the past several years and now you can purchase an LED light bulb for around $2.00 maybe less (depending on wattage and type).

If you put LED bulbs in your indoor and outdoor light fixtures this month, you may not need to change a light bulb for a couple of decades and you will immediately reduce your energy use. You can even decorate your Christmas tree with a few strings of colored LEDs.

Snug House

Snug House - Scarf Wrapped Around Miniature HouseKeeping cold air outside and warm air inside during winter months and vice versa during the summer is a good idea, right. What you may not realize is how even small air leaks can wreak havoc with your heating and cooling bills. For example, a 1/8” gap under your front door lets in as much air as if the door had a 2 ¼” hole.3

Fortunately, you can shore up your home’s air defenses with a caulking gun, door sweeps, and weather stripping. You may be able to reduce some air leaks with things you have on hand like rolling up a bath towel to minimize door drafts. I folded up a piece of cardboard and stuck in a crack where the weather stripping on the fixed side of our double front door did not quite reach the threshold.

Read more in Seal Air Leaks to Reduce Home Energy Use and Cost.

Take Advantage of Your Thermostat

A thermostat is a useful device for moderating your home heating and cooling system. Turning back your thermostat 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day could save you 10% on your heating and cooling bills.If you frequently forget to adjust your thermostat when you leave for work, try hanging your keys on a hook next to it.

Learn more about thermostats, recommended temperatures, and thermostat options by reading Use Your Thermostat to Save Energy and Money.

Staying Warm Indoors

On average, home space heating consumes a whopping 42% of the energy Americans use in our homes.5 Hot air rises and cold air sinks so during the winter we are living in the coolest layer of our homes.

You probably take care to dress appropriately for the weather when you go outdoors in the winter so why not carry that theme indoors. Instead of ratcheting up your heater consider wearing clothing made of warmer materials or trying one or more of the tips in 7 Ways to Stay Warm Indoors in the Winter and Be Green.

 Shower Power

Low-flow showerheads are water and energy saving devices. Using less water also means using less energy to heat water. A standard showerhead sprays out at least 2.5 gallons of water per minute even when you are lathering up your body or washing your hair.

Low Flow Handheld ShowerheadWhen you switch to a low-flow showerhead that puts out 1.6 gallons of water per minute you can easily cut your water use by 25% and reduce the energy needed to heat your shower water. If you buy a model with a “trickle” button or a shut-off valve you can reduce your water and energy use even more by restricting the water flow while you are soaping up.

Even non-handy people like me can easily install a low-flow showerhead for under $50.00.

Use Your Dishwasher

Washing dishes by hand is not a water or energy saving activity. A kitchen faucet pumps out 2.5 gallons of water per minute so you may be using more water than you think filling up the sink or a dish tub and then rinsing dishes.

Cramming a bunch of dishes in a dishwasher willy-nilly may result in some items not getting clean so do pay attention to where the spray jets are and learn to load your dishwasher efficiently.

Green and Lazy Laundry

Doing the laundry is a habit that you learn and then repeat thousands of times over your lifetime so you may find energy and water savings hiding in your laundry room.

I did not think much about my own laundry habits until my kids went away to college but if you have children at home you do not have to wait that long. If you are interested in evaluating your laundry habits, you may find the posts Laundry – Laziness is Good and Greening Your Laundry Habits useful.

Extra Credit: Using the sun to dry your clothes on a clothesline is a significant energy saving action, but I admit that I do not do it, at least not yet.

 Tackle Your Energy Vampires

Energy Vampire - Cell Phone ChargerAn energy vampire is a piece of equipment that sucks power even when it is not in use; this is called standby power. For instance, a cell phone charger left in a wall socket or a television both draw power just standing by waiting for you to use them.

Our Halloween activity for 2013 was tackling our energy vampires. It was fun, easy, and inexpensive. A few weeks after we completed our energy vampire project I learned the hard way that cable boxes must be on standby power to receive system updates. Our cable television service was abruptly discontinued without notice because our cable box had been going offline each evening. Now I leave it on.

Energy and Water Efficient Appliances

I am not advocating buying new appliances unless you need to replace a worn out or un-repairable appliance or piece of equipment. However, if you are in the market for a new refrigerator, air conditioner, or television, consider adding energy and water efficiency to your list of must-have features.

Look for the ENERGY STAR and WaterSense labels to identify and compare appliances and equipment. I wrote about my search for a high-efficiency replacement dishwasher in Dishwashers – Top 3 Eco-Friendly Features.

Go Solar

There is no better time than right now to go solar. Solar panel prices are low, tax incentives are available, and the summer rush for solar installers is over. You can increase the value of your home with solar panels while reducing or eliminating your electric bills. If you do not want to buy a rooftop solar system, then consider leasing.

Purchasing solar panels for your home is a sound financial investment and even more importantly, it pushes the ball forward in creating a clean renewable energy future for all our children.

You can learn more about home solar panels and our real life rooftop solar experience by reading Go Solar with Home Rooftop Photovoltaics – We Did, Rooftop Solar Costs Less than You Think, and You Can Increase Your Home’s Value with Owned Solar Panels.

My energy saving action for Energy Awareness Month is washing our laundry with cold water. I know, I know, why did I not make this change years ago? My only defense is that old habits stick with you. The good news is that you and I can change our habits today or any day and make a positive impact.

I hope one or more of the above ideas has struck your interest and helped inspire you to take action to reduce your energy use and carbon footprint. Please share what you are doing to reduce energy use with other readers.

Featured Image at Top: Coal-fired power plant looming over a residential neighborhood in West Virginia – Photo Credit Wigwam Jones

Related Posts

References

  1. Energy Vampires and Phantom Loads – Standby Power, Green Groundswell
  2. LED Lighting – Energy.gov
  3. Energy Advice for Owners of Historic and Older Homes – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  4. Thermostats –U.S. Department of Energy
  5. Use of Energy in the United States Explained: Energy Use in Homes – U.S. Energy Information Administration