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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Native Plants are Good for the Environment

Offer native plants a place in your yard.

Native plants give you beauty, a sense of place, and an environmentally friendly yard that does not need fertilizers, pesticides, or intensive watering.

Unfortunately, it took me many years to gain an appreciation for native plants (which includes trees and grasses). Now, it just makes sense to me that native plants should be our go-to plants, not the thirsty turfgrass lawns brought to the United States by wealthy European landowners or the exotic plants that colonists and immigrants brought with them from their far-flung homelands.

Trying to force plants to live in areas that they are unsuited for is not good for the plants or the environment. Why not reimagine your yard and try native plants? If you give them a chance, native plants will find their way into your heart.

Reimagine Your Yard

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family and I lived in a new subdivision of ranch-style homes near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Landscaping varied from house to house but every front yard and most backyards had a swath of lawn, a few trees, and whatever ornamental plants the homeowners fancied (which might have included native plants).

A few streets away, rebels must have been living in the white house with black trim because their yard did not comply with the neighborhood norms. It looked weird, out of place. Small speckled rocks covered the front yard interspersed with groupings of hardy-looking yet attractive plants. Years later, I realized that these rebels had chosen an easy-care drought-resistant yard well suited for the low rainfall and warm climate of Southern California.

Later as an adult still living in Southern California, my spouse and I maintained landscaping that fit in with our neighborhood including two turfgrass lawns, two dozen rosebushes, several hydrangeas, a handful of azaleas, and an array of pots that we rotated with seasonal flowers. Possibly the only native plant on the property was a lovely old oak tree that had taken up residence in a corner of the backyard long before we arrived.

Sprinklers Water Turfgrass Lawn and Sidewalk
Sprinklers Watering a Turfgrass Lawn and the Sidewalk – Photo Credit iStock/marcutti

Moving to the Central California Coast, eleven years ago, during a drought, caused me to reimagine what makes a yard beautiful and stirred my interest in learning about native plants. Instead of green lawns and flowering ornamental shrubs, our yard here is mostly wild and is frequented by mule deer, wild turkeys, and a variety of birds searching for water, food (plants and bugs) and a place to hang out.

I began observing the plants and trees noticing that some seemed to do well even during our dry summers and others died without irrigation. Some plants coexisted with a variety of different plants and some like ice plant and Italian thistle seemed intent on taking over the yard meaning they are invasive. I got an idea into my head that we could restore our land to a happier and more environmentally sound state appropriate for our location.

Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard
Three Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard among Native Monterey Pine Trees in June 2013 (see the patch of invasive ice plant in the background).

Armed with a pair of clippers and a shovel, beginning with ice plant and thistle removal, I embarked on an amateur yard restoration project that is still in progress. I knew that to be a good steward of our yard I would need to learn about both native and invasive plants. If you want to, you can read about some of my experiences as a native plant novice in various posts including Wood Chip Mulch Mountain, Weed Whacking – Do it Yourself, Adopt a Native Plant, Arbor Day 2018 – Join Millions of Tree Enthusiasts, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

Pause and take a moment to reimagine your own yard as a place where native plants, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife can thrive and so can you.  If your yard is already full of flourishing native plants, please share your story.

What is a Native Plant?

While I was working on this post, I found myself returning to a question I have often pondered, “What constitutes a native plant?” I wanted to find out and I thought you might want to know, too.

The answers I found on the Internet varied quite a bit and left me wondering, “How am I supposed to plant native plants if no one seems to know what defines a native plant?” I discussed it with my family over dinner. They did not seem to understand why I was having a dilemma or why I felt the need to ask the question. Undaunted, I plucked up my courage and posted my question on the Facebook group page for the California Native Plant Society.

California Native Plant Garden with Bench
California Native Plant Garden with a Bench – Photo Credit Jeff Silva (click the photo to open it on Flickr).

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked for a native plant definition and it created a small flurry of responses including “Not this again!” and “We are sworn to not be crabby towards newbies, remember?”

I did receive some useful responses but not a definitive answer. Some people suggested that a native plant (at least in the U.S.) is one that was growing here before European colonists brought plants from home and other distant lands. Others said that a native plant is a plant that evolved in a particular area or region over thousands of years. Several people said that a native plant is able to survive on its own without human intervention.

Okay, I accept that science is not black and white. I came away with the general understanding that a native plant is one that has evolved over a long, but indeterminate amount of time, adapting to the climate, terrain, soil, wildlife, and other plants in a particular place and requires little or no care from humans.

Botanists and other plant scientists use historical records, field observations, and scientific testing to determine whether a plant is native to a certain location.

The next section will cover why native plants are good for the environment.

Native Plants and the Environment

Native plants are good at their jobs. With no need for micro-managing bosses, native plants routinely perform their job responsibilities including using water wisely, running on renewable energy, recycling materials, storing carbon, providing food and habitat for others, keeping toxins and diseases out of their workplaces, and reproducing new generations. Each year, they take a vacation, well, actually a staycation going dormant in preparation for the next growing season.

California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Tree
California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Trees – Photo Credit Steve Hartman (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Moving away during environmental downturns is not an option for native plants. It is in their best interest to adapt to the conditions where they find themselves not relying on humans to apply fertilizers, pesticides, or extra water. This also makes native plants good for the environment.

Synthetic fertilizers are made from fossil fuels that are dangerous to extract, disastrous when spilled or leaked, and emit greenhouse gases when burned. Fertilizers running off from yards and agricultural fields cause dead zones in water bodies where nothing can live so not using them in your own yard reduces this problem.

Pesticides are poisons created from fossil fuels to kill specific living things that humans consider pests, but their use results in collateral damage to humans and nonhumans. By not using pesticides in your yard, you are eliminating a hazard to bees, butterflies, birds, pets, and you and your family.

Using water sparingly protects groundwater basins that provide drinking water for tens of millions of people and irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Overdrawing your account at the bank is not a good idea and neither is overdrawing a groundwater basin. A groundwater basin is overdrawn when it cannot be refilled on an annual basis by rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of both.

California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping
California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping in Bloom – Photo Credit Pete Veilleux (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Maintaining biodiversity is another beneficial trait of native plants. In the wild, nature encourages a wide variety of plants and animals to live together keeping the overall ecosystem in balance. Of course, sometimes things get out of balance but native plants are better equipped to handle it than non-native plants. Evolving over a long time, native plants have experienced adversity many times and adapted to it so they have a long history of making comebacks, sort of a plant version of “Been there, done that.”

The environmental benefits of native plants motivate me to grow them in my yard. Having fun is why I grow some of my native plants from seeds. We will continue this conversation in the next post.

Featured Image at Top: California State Flower California Poppy– Citation Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237. I found this photo on the California Native Grasslands Association website.

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