Soundings

Eugene Kontorovich
Potty Police
Summer 1998

While civil libertarians warn us about Big Brother invading the bedroom, maybe they should look down the hall a little bit to the bathroom. There, the nanny state has been trying to re-toilet-train us.Most toilets used to flush with a more-than-sufficient 3.5 gallons of water, or even a cascading 5 gallons. In the early nineties, though, some environmentally concerned states began passing "low-flow" laws that limited toilet flushes to a miserly 1.6 gallons, since big johns, they claimed, worsened the nation’s supposed water shortage. The toilet industry, frustrated by the confusing array of state standards, teamed up with environmentalists to press for a low federal flushas long as it was uniform.  Congress listened and in 1992 passed the Energy Policy Conservation Act. The law required all new toilets to comply with the 1.6-gallon standard, but predictably enough, it had messy unintended consequences. For most people, one flush no longer does the job, so they flush and flush again, sending any water-saving benefits swirling down the drain.

People just don’t like the new toilets. For a while, enterprising folks got around the 1.6-gallon law by buying bigger commercial toilets until the feds forced business johns to comply with the new standard, too. Since federal law only banned manufacturers from making new bigger toilets, however, it left some still in circulation. A black market in full-flushers soon emerged.

Enter the potty police. New York and a few other states, cracking down on the underground market, enacted statutes that forced developers and home owners to install low-flow toilets anytime they built or did major renovations. To sell or install an environmentally incorrect potty became a crime.

Still, folks with the old-model johns hung on to them for dear life. So several  cities, with New York leading the way, decided to reimburse people who got rid of the old models and replaced them with low-flow toilets. Predictably, New York City’s Toilet Rebate proved to be a flush offer of up to $240 for a replaced bowl—almost five times what Tampa pays, over twice what Los Angeles doles out, and considerably more than the actual labor and material costs to have a low-flow toilet installed. In fact, the city’s subsidy was so generous that plumbers in other areas of the country complained it dried up the nationwide supply of low-flow johns.

Representative Joe Knollenberg (R.-Michigan) has introduced a federal bill with considerable support—to repeal the 1992 law and return to the happy days of one man, one flush. But even if the bill passes, it’ll still be a crime to get a 3.5-gallon toilet in New York State.
 

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