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You may have gotten flyers advertising toilets that were so cheap that, with the $100 DWP rebate, the toilet was FREE! Or even better, you might turn a slight profit on the installation. This is an absolutely fantastic deal which you should definitely take advantage of, provided you have no intention of actually using the toilet.

It may surprise you to know that toilets are not all created equal. Since Congress mandated that toilets use only six liters of water per flush, manufacturers have been scrambling to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their toilets. And, tremendous progress has been made.

What distinguishes a good toilet from a bad one? Well, here I’ll talk only about how easy a toilet is to live with; matters of taste I leave to you. If you ever wondered, toilets do have to meet national standards to be sold in the United States. These standards are set by the American National Standards Institute, and involve flushing small rods, little beads, balls, and ink and dye down toilets to test their performance. Well, how did you think they were going to test them?

So, here we go on a Baedeker’s tour of one of the cornerstones of modern plumbing.

1) Flushing action
Essentially, this boils down to, ‘Does it make it all go away?’ Ultra-Low-Flush toilets acquired a bad reputation in their early years, for requiring two, three, or even four flushes to clear the bowl. This doesn’t have to be the case anymore, if you take care in selecting a quality toilet with a first-rate installation job, such as provided by (guess who?)

Older toilets, especially the luxury lowboy toilets, had a lazy, swirling and very quiet flush that sometimes used up to seven gallons of water per flush (7 gpf). Now we must make 1.6 gallons do the work that used to be done by at least 3 1/2 gallons (3.5 gpf). What we’ve lost forever is that leisurely swirling action. Now the water comes out roiling, boiling and swirling. This was done by enlarging the internal waterways and ports in the china, and re-engineering the bowl. That is why you can’t just put a 1.6 gpf tank on an old bowl and make it work — it’s like trying to put a Honda engine in the ‘72 Eldorado.

One of the internal waterways that has been enlarged was the trapway, which on a toilet is that serpentine section at the back of the bowl. The size is measured by how big a ball will pass through this; this measurement is called “ball-pass.” Older Ultra-Low-Flush toilets passed balls only 1 5/8″, while with newer toilets it’s not unusual to pass a ball over 2″ in diameter. This means fewer stoppages.

2) Clean bowl
Sometimes, after use, there are some streaks of residue left behind. Two things (besides a brush) help to prevent this. One is the flushing action; a vigorous flush, with lots of turbulence, helps to scour the bowl clean. The other is the size of the water surface in the bowl, the larger it is being better. You see, it helps to keep the bowl cleaner if any falling waste falls on water, not china. As toilet technology has advanced, the size of the ‘water patch’ has grown from 4″ x 5″ to 8″ x 9″, or over three times larger.

3) Drainline carry
Once the waste is out of the bowl, the job’s not done. It must be carried down the drainline so it won’t cause a blockage downstream. Again, here we have to make 1.6 gallons do the work that used to be done by 3 1/2 to 7 gallons. One of the keys here is a proper installation; if the wrong fittings are used, the waste velocity can be so diminished that the toilet seems to have mysterious balkiness, where the toilet doesn’t seem to be really stopped, but neither is it flushing quite right, either.

To achieve happy customers, American ingenuity has been hard at work. Some have tried pressurized tanks inside the china toilet tanks, some have tried small pumps, some have tried vacuums, some have tried baffles and buckets inside the banks, and baffles on the outlets, and, and, and…. As the tired Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times,” and for plumbers and toilet manufacturers these past few years have been most interesting.

Another problem which comes up sometimes is not really the toilet’s fault, but the installer’s. A toilet is made of china; the drainline, of plastic or cast iron. The joint between the two is usually made of wax (although we offer a virtually blowout-proof neoprene seal also). If this joint between china and iron or plastic is not installed properly, every flush will allow a small amount of foul water to seep out, and onto the wood floor. Eventually, the wood becomes saturated and rots. By this time, your cut-rate installer is probably long-gone.

And, while there are certainly ways to save a few dollars on a toilet, you have to ask yourself if this is the wisest place to do it.