The Lowdown on Low-Flow Toilets: Game Changers, or Flushing Your Money Away?

Once upon a time, back when people smoked in airplanes and thought preservatives made food taste better, toilets used as much as 7 gallons of water per flush.

Then, in 1992, someone somewhere thought, “Uh guys? Is this really a good idea?” The Energy Policy Act was signed into law, and low-flush (aka “low flow”) toilets that use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush were declared the new standard in the U.S. Instead of relying on gravity—and lots of H2O—to wash things down, low-flow toilets use pressurized air to do the dirty work of pushing waste into the pipes.

But have low-flow toilets truly unseated their old-school porcelain counterparts in this game of thrones? We’ve flushed out the truth.

Low-flows come with high cost savings

Here’s what you really want to know: How much can you save by using a low-flow throne? Good news: It’s an impressive amount, and that’s because toilets account for nearly 30% of residential indoor water usage, according to Doyle James, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing.

Consider this: The average person flushes a toilet five times a day. And so switching to low-flow toilets can decrease your water bills by about $110 a year—and $2,200 over the lifetime of your toilet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

They’re not any germier

Without as much water to flush things away, you might think that low-flows are dirtier than toilets with big ol’ tanks. Not so!

“They’re likely the same,” says Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro, a visiting scientist at the University of Guelph and author of “The Germ Files: The Surprising Way Microbes Can Improve Health and Life.” “That’s because a low-flow toilet still uses over a gallon of water per flush—enough to rinse the bowl in the same manner as a regular toilet.”

That said, any kind of toilet can easily become a cesspool of disgusting bacteria, so you should still clean your toilet once or twice a week. Got that?

Low-flow doesn’t mean ‘low flushing power’

When these water-saving toilets first appeared on the scene in the 1990s, many people were underwhelmed.

Some required multiple flushes just to get the job done. Others clogged—a lot. Plus, some older models included a special pressure tank to help push everything through when you flushed.

“That extra noise annoyed people,” James notes.

But low-flow toilets are far more efficient now. Thanks to fancy improvements like better bowl contours (who knew?) and pressure-assisted flushers, any low-flow you buy these days should be as competent as any old, water-wasting porcelain throne.

Some plumbing systems can’t handle a low-flow

Low-flow toilets usually work fine with today’s plumbing systems. But there are some exceptions.

“There’s a chance that the plumbing found in older houses may not be able to support a low-flow system,” says Peter Duncanson, resident restoration expert at ServiceMaster Restore, a residential and commercial disaster recovery company. “You might want to check your plumbing system if your home is 40 years or older—so anything pre-1980s.”

What’s the worst that could happen?

“If a home cannot handle a low-flow toilet, this can lead to constant clogging, which can leak and potentially flood the entire bathroom and surrounding areas,” Duncanson says. As a result, you could end up with moisture buildup and water damage that can then become a serious mold problem.

But if it makes you feel any better, “clogs are not uncommon in older toilets either, as waste can sometimes be the root of the problem and not the toilet itself,” Duncanson adds.

Keep in mind that your toilet’s drain might look large, but the pipes that whisk your waste away are actually quite small—no more than 4 inches in diameter.

Don’t cheap out

So you have an old, water-guzzling toilet, but you’re now persuaded to make the switch. This isn’t a home feature you want to skimp on.

“If you pick the lowest-price toilet, you could be asking for trouble,” James says. “Newer designs by name-brand manufacturers work well, and are worth the extra money. An added benefit of a good design is a toilet that keeps the bowl cleaner between flushes.”

For instance, the TOTO Ultra Ecomax offers a wide valve, extra-large siphon jet, and ion barrier to keep the inside of your bowl tidy.

Think of the planet

Feeling “meh” about it all? Let’s go macro for a moment: The truth is that less than 1% of the planet’s freshwater is accessible to humans. And managing water is a big worry for the future, thanks in part to climate change.

Here’s what would happen if all old toilets in the U.S. were replaced with ones that used less water: The EPA estimates that within a dozen days, we’d save as much water as what flows over the Niagara Falls.

So you might as well do what you can to help—even if it’s just one flush at a time.

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