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.

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Resources

Simple and Eco-Friendly Solutions to Keeping Produce Fresh

Long live your lettuce.

Are wilted lettuce and slimy mushrooms spoiling your quest to eat healthier? Keeping fruits and vegetables fresh can be simple, inexpensive, and eco-friendly.

January is popular for beginning a healthy eating New Year’s resolution or recommitting to eating healthier. For many people, this means eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are beautiful, colorful, delicious, packed with nutrients, and perishable. It is as if each spinach leaf, potato, or apple contains an invisible hourglass counting down its freshness. If the sand runs out of the hourglass before you make the spinach into a salad, bake the potato, or bite into the apple it will spoil and you will not want to eat it. That previously lovely but now yucky produce item will end up in your trash, garbage disposal, or compost pail—along with your money.

Unlike a jar of marinara sauce that you can take out of your grocery shopping bag, put on a shelf in your pantry, and forget about until you want to make spaghetti, your fresh fruits and vegetables need a little bit of care when you get home from the market. The few minutes you spend preparing your produce for storage will be worth it. After all, you get zero health benefit from Swiss chard unless you eat it.

Composting changed the way I view fresh produce. The act of putting brown lettuce leaves or a moldering orange in the compost pail was somehow different than throwing it in the trash or garbage disposal. I recognized that I was treating fruits and vegetables that cost money and had been edible as if they were expendable and not valuable contributors to my health and my family’s.

This realization was disturbing.

I decided to find out what I could learn about keeping our fresh produce fresh long enough for us to eat it.

Some of the advice I read made sense but did not seem that practical. The suggestion to shop for fresh produce every couple of days makes sense, but if your schedule is jammed packed, you might not have time to do that. Another idea was to buy only the fruits and vegetables that you know you and your family will eat in a certain amount of time. That is good advice if you have a crystal ball that will show you exactly what you and your family will eat this week.

The point is that you have to adopt practices that fit in your life.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that extending the life of fresh fruits and vegetables does not need to be complex, expensive, or require a lot of throwaway material.

If you are tired of fresh fruits and vegetables ending up in your trash instead of your stomach, you might find one or more of the following suggestions useful or perhaps one of them will spark an idea of your own.

Buy Naked Fruits and Vegetables

Buying whole fruits and vegetables without packaging has several benefits. First, your fruits and vegetables will stay fresh longer than their pre-prepped and packaged counterparts will. Second, peeling a carrot and slicing up mushrooms yourself gives you a closer connection to the food you are putting in your body and a sense of accomplishment. Lastly, whole fruits and vegetables come in their own edible or compostable skin, which reduces packaging waste.

Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags
Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags

An environmentally friendly way to shop for produce is to bring your own reusable produce bags. Several years ago, I spotted mesh grocery bags in the produce section of our grocery market so I bought a set of three (for around $5.00) to try them out.

It was easy to bring them to the store in one of my reusable shopping bags and the cashiers at the checkout counter could easily see what the bags contained so I bought several more sets. These mesh bags are sturdy, inexpensive, and washable.

Although, I have substantially reduced my use of throwaway plastic bags I do still use them. For instance, I will put a wet head of lettuce in a plastic bag to keep the rest of my groceries dry and then I keep reusing the bag (rinsing it out it out and drying it if needed) until it gets a hole or falls apart.

Containers are Not All Created Equal

After conducting research on produce storage containers for the refrigerator, I decided to try the lettuce keeper container made by Progressive International. I was amazed at how well it worked. Almost everything we tried putting in it would stay fresh for well over a week and sometimes two or more including lettuce, spinach, carrots, bell peppers, green beans, zucchini, and herbs.

Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli - Progressive International
Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli – Progressive International

Over the course of a couple of months, I bought five more of these containers and we put almost all our refrigerated produce in them. My total financial outlay was less than $75.

The containers are large enough to fit a head of romaine lettuce, slightly trimmed leeks, or several bell peppers. Each container has a removable plastic divider that you can insert for separating items if you choose, like radishes on one side and blueberries on the other. Mushrooms will stay fresh with the bottom lid left off and a paper towel lining the bottom. If you only use part of a cucumber, you can put the other part back in with the whole ones (without any wrapping) and it will stay fresh for days.

This container does not work for cut tomatoes, onions, or avocados so I store them in small glass containers or in plastic wrap (ugh).

I do not recommend putting these containers in the dishwasher. I tried it and the top lid came out a little warped. I contacted the company’s customer service department and they sent me a new lid free.

Now, I just rinse the containers and occasionally wash them with soapy water when I am hand washing something else.

Location, Location, Location

Like in real estate, the location you place your fresh produce contributes to whether you will eat it or not while it is still fresh. In this case, I mean giving your produce visibility. Humans are creatures of habit and sometimes we forget that we can adjust things like our smart television settings, office chair height, or refrigerator shelf arrangement.

Most refrigerators have a “crisper” drawer, which supposedly helps you keep your produce fresh but you usually have to bend over to reach it and you have to open it to find out what it contains. This creates an out of sight out of mind problem.

I rearranged the shelves in our refrigerator so that our produce containers can be stacked in the middle where we can see them and see what is in them. Now, our fresh fruit and vegetables greet us when we open our refrigerator door. We use the crisper drawer for other refrigerated items or an occasional extra long or large vegetable that will not fit in our produce containers.

Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market
Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market

My family enjoys eating most fruits at room temperature so we store them on the kitchen counter corralled on plates to prevent them from rolling around the counter or onto the floor. I think fruits last longer when stored in a single layer rather than artfully arranged in a bowl.

Whenever a family member or I walk into the kitchen, we see our fresh fruit beckoning us to eat it. We do try to focus on eating the most perishable fruits first, like strawberries. Any kind of plate, pan, or tray with an edge will work.

Potatoes, onions, and garlic like to hang out in dark dry places like your pantry or a cupboard. As far as storage containers, open cardboard boxes or plastic tubs that you have on hand will work. Instead of relegating these healthy and perishable items to the bottom of the pantry, consider giving them a prime location at or near eye level and put snacks and cereal on the lower shelves.

Making a relatively small investment in reusable produce containers and rethinking some old storage habits has really paid off. Our fresh fruits and vegetables are staying fresh longer and most of the time we eat them, which saves money. Besides eating healthier, we use less disposable packaging, which is good for the environment.

You can get going on your commitment to eating healthier by grabbing your reusable shopping bags and heading out to the grocery market to select some fresh naked fruits and vegetables, buying a produce storage container to try, and clearing a space on your kitchen counter for a plate of fruit.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Homemade Fresh Salad with Spinach, Walnuts, and Apples in a Wooden Bowl – Photo Credit iStock/bhofack2

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