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

Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Indoors

Water conservation is a gift that keeps on giving.

Once you make water conservation a part of your daily life, you can almost effortlessly save water and money, month after month, year after year. It all adds up.

During the 2012-2017 drought in California, our small town on the Central Coast worried about running out of water. The water company imposed severe water use restrictions. Residents, businesses, and visitors all contributed to a massive reduction in the town’s water use. We made it through the drought.

This is the third post in a three-part series about making water conservation a way of life.

In the first post, I shared six years of our household’s water data to illustrate how water and cost savings can add up over time. The second post focused on ideas for making your yard both beautiful and drought resistant.

The third post is about indoor water use habits and water saving devices. My intent is to show you what is possible so that you can come up with your own ideas that will suit you and your family.

To me, water conservation is like eating a healthy diet. The best approach is to make changes and do things that you can do for the rest of your life.

Changing Water Use Habits and Installing Water Saving Devices

Picture your morning routine. Chances are you do certain things each day, almost without thinking, like making your bed, starting the coffee maker, or taking a shower. You probably have water use habits you learned over years or decades that you could change or stop.

Without spending any money, you can evaluate your water use habits and implement some water saving ideas. Purchasing and installing water saving devices can substantially increase water conservation, but you can still participate even if you buy nothing.

During the drought, we experimented with various behavioral changes. Some things worked and some did not. Over several years, we adopted water use practices that we could envision ourselves doing forever.

Doing Laundry

Changing laundry habits required significant reprogramming for me. We took a two-pronged approach to conserving water in the laundry room. First, we attempted to generate less laundry and then wash only full loads. That was easier said than done.

Creating less laundry meant being more thoughtful about getting dressed and undressed. For instance, instead of automatically tossing a t-shirt in the laundry basket, I had to learn to consciously decide whether it could be worn again or not. I became accustomed to wearing the same pants for several days or purposefully wearing a pair that I had worn earlier in the week and hung up in my closet.

I began washing towels and sheets every two weeks instead of once a week and I still do.

Back when I learned to do laundry, sorting and washing by color and fabric was important. If you threw a red shirt in with white socks, you might end up with pink socks. Today’s colorfast and blended fabrics can often be washed together (read the labels) making it easier to do full loads. Nowadays, I sort laundry into full load piles and I separate items by fabric weight before I put them in the dryer to make drying more efficient.

Fortunately, no one in our household ever requests extra laundry loads be done because their favorite whatever is in the laundry hamper.

Washing Dishes

If you have a dishwasher, use it.

A standard kitchen faucet pumps out 2 gallons of water per minute or more so if you run it for just 10 minutes while doing the dishes by hand you will have used 20 gallons of water. Older dishwashers use about 10-15 gallons of water per cycle and new models reduce water use by 50% or more.

Using the dishwasher was not a problem for me, but I was an over rinser. It was a hard habit to break. To find the sweet spot for our dishwasher I tried by putting in dishes with varying amounts of food left on and then seeing if they got clean or not. I also learned how to load the dishwasher to make sure the spray nozzles could reach the insides and outsides of the dishes.

Water and Energy Efficient Bosch Dishwasher

Our water conservation efforts got a boost in 2013 that put a dent in our wallet. The pump on our home’s original 23-year-old dishwasher died in a puff of smoke.

We considered having it repaired but decided to buy a new water and energy efficient dishwasher. It cost $570.00 plus tax and installation.

If you do not have a dishwasher or just want to do your dishes by hand, consider switching out your old kitchen faucet to a model that saves water every time you turn it on.

Showering and Bathing

Taking long, hot showers or taking a bath in a bathtub is not consistent with living in a drought-prone area.

In 2012, I decided to time how long it took me to take a shower (on average) so I could figure out how much water I was using. A standard showerhead pumps out 2.5 gallons of water per minute or more. At that rate, a 10-minute shower uses 25 gallons of water. A low flow showerhead uses a maximum of 2.0 gallons per minute and many models use less.

Low Flow Handheld Showerhead
Low Flow Handheld Showerhead that I Installed.

We decided to try a low flow handheld showerhead and I found one that used 1.6 gallons of water per minute for $45.00, which I installed. I am not the least bit handy so this demonstrates that almost anyone can do it. A handheld showerhead makes rinsing off easier, saving more water, so we decided to replace our other two showerheads.

As the drought worsened, we had to double down on water conservation so we probably took more basin baths than showers for a time. To take a basin bath you put your bath mat in front of your bathroom sink, fill the basin with water, wet a washcloth and soap up, and then use the water in the basin and your washcloth to rinse off. I did not like this at all.

I started practicing taking showers as quickly as possible without being ridiculous and eventually, this just became a normal way to take a shower. At one point, I decided to try taking a shower every other day unless I had been doing something that involved getting sweaty or dirty. Surprisingly, the condition of my skin and hair actually improved with less showering. On non-shower days, I would wash my face in the morning and before I went to bed. I still do this.

Flushing Toilets

Toilets are water hogs accounting for about 27% of indoor household water use. Older toilets use 3-5 gallons of water per flush or more and often develop slow leaks over time that end up wasting a lot of water. Newer models use 1.6 gallons per flush and high-efficiency toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush.

In 2014, we tried the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” toilet flushing policy for a while but it did not seem like a good long-term strategy. Neither did putting a brick in the toilet tank or installing one of the retrofit kits that were being marketed as inexpensive ways to make your old toilet more water efficient.

Dual Flush High Efficiency ToiletWe decided to replace our three old leaky toilets with new high-efficiency toilets. At $560 each plus tax and installation, this was an expensive investment (the water company gave us a $25 rebate per toilet).

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).

After more than three years, the toilets work flawlessly and are well on their way to paying for their acquisition cost in water savings. Even if we moved tomorrow, I would be happy to have provided the next occupant with toilets that will continue conserving water for decades.

If after reading this post, you feel like racing to the nearest home improvement store to buy a high-efficiency toilet, great, if not that is okay, too.

Perhaps trying some water conservation habits is right for you. All it takes is the willingness to question the way you use water and to try out water saving ideas until you find the ones you and your family can live with. In a severe drought, you can up the ante by dusting off some of the ideas you tried and decided against (like basin baths).

I realize that many people rent an apartment, house, or condominium so dealing with a landlord or facility manager may present a challenge especially if you want to convince them to install water saving devices. If anyone has experience with this, please share with other readers.

Regardless, you can reduce your water use through behavioral changes without involving your landlord. If utilities like water are included in your rent, then you might not reap the financial benefits of reducing your water use, but that does not mean it is not worth doing.

Water conservation is a gift we give to ourselves and all the living things sharing the planet with us.

Featured Image at Top: Water Drop Falling into Water Making Concentric Circles – Photo Credit Shutterstock/science photo

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