Dallas Is Going to Spend $7.6 Million to Buy People Toilets

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If you live in Dallas and your house or apartment is more than 22 years old, and if your commode uses 3.5 gallons or more per flush, the city would like to give you a free, low-flow toilet. There's no catch. No strings. Ninety bucks of porcelain, yours for the taking.

The city's "New Throne For Your Home" program has given away some 72,600 units in its seven-year existence on the premise that it's cheaper to buy people toilets than to build a new reservoir. According to Dallas Water Utilities Director Jody Puckett, it's worked. She credits the program with reducing water consumption by 326 million gallons per year. (How much is 326 million gallons? About half the 789.6 million DWU used on its record day in 2000, or enough to water Tom Hick's yard for around 26 years, based on his usage in 2011.)

The savings were significant enough that the Dallas City Council this morning kicked another $7.6 million into the program, good enough to buy 17,500 commodes each year for the next five years.

The proposal didn't pass without without controversy. Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, who ultimately supported it, declared during a committee briefing yesterday, "I'm having trouble giving people free toilets with taxpayer money."

That's the philosophical objection. But what of the cheeks-on-the-seat reality? Gates said she's heard -- second-hand, of course -- that users of low-flow toilets often have to flush twice to clear the bowl, thus eliminating promised water savings.

She was satisfied by Puckett's characterization of the claim as "an old myth from 15 or so years ago" and a personal testimonial: "I don't flush twice with my toilet."

Councilman Rick Callahan wasn't so easily convinced.

"I'm not sure we've got the proper metrics in place to measure [water] savings," he said this morning as the council prepared to vote on the toilet program. He's spoken with constituents -- homeowners, apartment dwellers, businesses -- and they "all seem to be of the mindset that everyone's having to flush twice."

"I've replaced mine when I remodeled my restrooms, and I'm finding that to be a problem," he said. The reason Dallas Water Utilities hasn't fielded any complaints in the past? "Most people don't want to bring that up in public like I just did."

Puckett and Callahan's divergent experience probably has more to do with the nature of their bathroom usage than with flaws in the toilet design. The standard on which the EPA certifies low-flow toilets dictates that they have to move a minimum of 350 grams -- about three-quarters of a pound -- in a single flush.

For most bathroom trips not made by Rick Callahan, that's easily powerful enough to do the job.

Even if the toilets do require the occasional double flush, studies pretty consistently find that toilets do reduce a household's water consumption, even if it's sometimes slightly less than advertised.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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