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Water-Saving Measure Creates New Contraband: Commodes

Americans have always liked things to be big - big cars, big-screen TVs, and evidently, a big flush.

But 1997 marks the passing of an era in the history of toileteering, as the last 3.5-gallon commode was sold in the US. As of this month, plumbing showrooms nationwide now display only gleaming new models with water-efficient, 1.6-gallon tanks.

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The phase-out of water-guzzling commodes, begun three years ago in compliance with the 1992 National Energy Act, will yield significant environmental and financial benefits, advocates say. But it has also created a flourishing black market in big-flush toilets, which has sprung up to relieve homeowner dissatisfaction with low-flow models.

Consumer discontent is reported to be driving demand for unorthodox retrofits. In at least two cities, Cleveland and Little Rock, Ark., plumbers are salvaging old toilets from apartment buildings slated for demolition. Certain refurbished toilets are selling for twice as much as new fixtures.

One plumber in Bethesda, Md., who requests anonymity for fear of flagging plumbing inspectors to his job sites, reports that "everyone was scrambling to get the last of those old ... toilets." Under the federal law, 3.5-gallon models could be installed in commercial properties through the end of 1996, but some homeowners have opted to install them illegally in their own bathrooms. Penalties for violating the plumbing code vary according to the jurisdiction: In one Washington suburb, violators face a $2,500 fine.

Complaints about the low-flow model center on one issue: performance. Elliot and Chris Weintrob of Bethesda point to a handsome, 1.6-gallon toilet in their recently remodeled half bathroom off the breakfast nook - and then nod to a plunger positioned discreetly in a white plastic trash can. "It should be standard equipment," says Mr. Weintrob. "When they sell the water-efficient models, they should say, 'Here is the low-flow, and here is the plunger.'"

Other owners complain it takes two flushes to get the job done. Plumbers say it's easy to soup up the new toilets to drop more than 2 gallons, increasing the odds of a satisfactory flush.

But earnest R&D efforts by bowl makers are gradually giving the dromedaries of the toilet world a big-flush feel.

"You have to know the boundaries and limitations of the toilet," says David Conrad, a water-conservation specialist at the National Wildlife Federation. "For the greater social good, if we can use a gallon and a half instead of 5 or 6 gallons per flush, it will lower the costs of water and sewage treatment, and it will lessen demand on water supplies."

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In fact, estimates are that a family of four can save up to 47 gallons of water a day with a low-flow toilet, reducing water consumption by about 17,000 gallons a year and their water bill by $30 annually.

Still, low-flow toilets are battling bad residual PR.

"When you go to the supply houses, you hear all the guys complaining," says the anonymous plumber. Even improved designs, he says, require consumers to make adjustments. "When you put the low-flow toilets in, people call you back if not one week later, then the next week. [The toilets] plug up very easily."

Still, the perceived need to turn to the the black market will soon fade, says Rick Church of the Chicago-based Plumbing Manufacturers Institute. He insists that the low-flow devices are already better. "In early '96 we talked to the major water-closet makers and asked them about what kind of complaints they are getting, and they said we are getting fewer about low-flows now than we did about the old 3.5s."

"Don't listen to the hysteria," is the advice of Peter DeMarco, product manager for commercial fixtures at American Standard, one of the largest toiletmakers in the US. The problem of early models "really amounts to water under the bridge," he says. "Behavior modification will have to occur, but states on both coasts have been using low-consumption toilets for years."

That may be industry spin, or swirl in this case, but Americans have no choice. Low-flow toilets are now the law of the land.

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