The Low-Flow Toilet Low-Down

low flow toilet lowdown

We’re willing to bet that most of our younger readers probably don’t even remember a time before low-flow toilets became the norm.

For those who need a little reminder, this happened back in the early 1990s, when Congress passed an energy policy act mandating a maximum flush volume of 1.6 gallons for all new toilets, a steep drop from the 3.5 gallons that had previously been the industry standard.

For any millennials looking for an example of what the popular opinion on low-flow toilets was back in the ‘90s, essayist Dave Barry probably captured the national mood quite effectively when he wrote:

“They stink. Literally. You have to flush them two or three times to get the job done. It has become very embarrassing to be a guest at a party in a newer home, because if you need to use the toilet, you then have to lurk in the bathroom for what seems (to you) like several presidential administrations, flushing, checking, waiting, flushing, checking, while the other guests are whispering: ‘What is [your name] doing in there? The laundry?’”

The new, more efficient toilet standard was so reviled in its time that some in Congress tried to pass bills rescinding it; on the consumer side, a black market of sorts sprang up, with homeowners making every effort possible to buy up older toilets, rather than make the switch to low-flow models.

Flash forward to today, however, and low-flow toilets are not just normalized, but celebrated. Compared to the mammoth toilets of the past, higher-efficiency commodes are faster, less expensive, and significantly greener.

So what did it take to get the pitchfork-wielding mob onboard with low-flow toilets? High-tech features, of course!

You see, the transition to low-flow toilets was initially so murky because manufacturers, at the time, believed that they could just continue to use the same exact flush mechanisms that they had been using for generations.

Conventional toilets work by means of a siphon flush, as pioneered by Joseph Adamson (and not Thomas Crapper, a common plumbing myth). When the user flushes, they engage a system that, in essence, allows gravity and atmospheric pressure to push water from the toilet tank into the basin, where it then proceeds to a trapway and then off to the sewer system. This system works better when the water is released from a greater height and aided by gravity, or else when there is a higher volume of water to maximize its force.

The switch to low-flow toilets meant less water, coming down from the same height – which meant, ultimately, that there was bound to be an issue with flushing! To make matters worse, some traps and plumbing systems weren't designed to accommodate the new low-flow models, leading to another set of issues. 

So with the switch to low-flow came innovations to the toilet, leading to the efficient and effective models that we now install and service around Chicago each and every day. Among the design improvements that led to a better low-flow toilet were wider flapper valves and finished trapways (which were redesigned and, occasionally, glazed, in order to cut down on friction and otherwise maximize flow).

Some designers are also totally rethinking the commode as we know it, experimenting with wash-down systems (in which water cascades from the sides of the bowl, allowing for less water to sit in the bowl itself) and the addition of pressurized air systems (allowing for water to push into the bowl with greater force as compensation for the loss of volume).

Tinkering with the toilet also led to one of our favorite innovations in recent years, the dual-flush toilet: First designed in the 1980s but experiencing a major boom in popularity today, the dual-flush allows users to employ different amounts of water whether they’re flushing liquid or solid waste, simply by pressing a button or pushing the toilet handle in a different direction.

Ready to finally replace your pre-1992 toilet with an efficient low-flow model? Eager to see a major difference in your water bill? Curious about what it would take to fully overhaul your plumbing and fixtures, and really make your home more sustainable?

Drop J. Blanton Plumbing a line, day or night, for service or a free consultation! Our team is here and always ready to answer these important questions and more!