21 Jul Toilets

To read about Ron’s four months in Micronesia, go to the archive to your left and click on “Marshall Islands Story Project.”

Jill and I got a cool, old toilet from a neighbor, so we decided to install it in the first-floor powder room. The modern toilet that occupied the powder room was running on and on so badly I had shut off the water. It had one of those irritating ball floats that I’ve never been able to adjust right. And the flapper for the outtake hole was thoroughly unreliable. It was the only new toilet (as opposed to vintage toilet) in the house and it had failed. So much for modern conveniences.


Our powder room’s not large enough to accommodate the bowl of the cool, old toilet. But we happen to have a lot of old-house surplus, which is to say that we happen to have two other cool, old toilets we collected for installation. And one of those bowls is small enough to fit in the powder room. But the wall-hung tank is too large. So we went out and found a smaller tank (which is not easy). Why this trouble for an old toilet? Old toilets have really good flushing power. New toilets can hardly get down a kitty turd. In 1992, the feds made old toilets illegal because old toilets waste a lot of water – 3 to 5 gallons a flush.

The Energy Policy Act, as it was called, was a good idea, but had unfortunate results. Most new conservation-friendly toilets simply aren’t strong enough to swallow the serious business. So we end up flushing twice or thrice. As a result, the plunger has become a too-common fixture in most bathrooms (where is your plunger right now?). Short of an approaching tornado, nothing incites panic in me like the sight of waste water rising in a stopped-up toilet. In the scheme of day-to-day life, the soon-to-be-spilling-over stopped-up toilet is the realest of disasters. It’s right there at your knees, an odorous upwelling of your most intimate solitary act. What could be more embarrassing, especially at a stranger’s house?

(Powder rooms by the way were originally little closets where a gentleman or –woman powdered his/her wig in the days when such folk wore wigs, i.e. 200 years ago. Well-off couples sometimes had both his and hers powder rooms. Somewhere along the line – probably the Victorian era — people started calling the guest bathroom a powder room. It’s like calling the bathroom a “restroom,” a nicey-nice term that has surprisingly wide circulation. Originally, there was a toilet in our basement for the maid and work-people. I don’t know what they called that. We took it out and turned our larder closet, on the first floor, into a powder room.)

A lot of do-it-yourselfers are wary of old toilets. They’ve heard the old ones leak and are unreliable and overly complicated. Not true. Toilet technology hasn’t changed in a hundred years. We’ve got a 1920s Crane in our master bath that works like a dream. Really, the only difference between old and new is that, on the old, the tank hangs on the wall and holds more water. That doesn’t mean you have to use all of that water. You can half flush or, in the case of Number One, flush only after a number of visits. You can also put a brick in the tank to displace the water if you think there’s too much. We are mindful of conservation in our household but want the option to flush big-time when the occasion calls for it.

I believe the higher tank of the old toilets gives gravity a better change to do its work. (And I can’t believe I’m still talking about toilets.) Nowadays you can get a turbo-charged modern toilet, with a pump to replicate the Niagara action of the old toilets. But the electrical energy expended defeats the conservation savings the new, tiny toilets are supposed to offer. Since 1997, manufacturers have been allowed to install a two-flush option that makes modern toilets more competent for the hard work. You can spend a whole lot of money on a new toilet. But I’ve yet to see a new toilet that has the charm of the old.

Here are some toilet facts. We have over 222 million household toilets in this country. Interestingly, that’s not quite one toilet for each person. And it’s well below the number of cars per capita: 8 cars for every 10 people. If you ever find yourself in New Delhi, be sure to visit the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets. The flush toilet dates back to 1000 B.C. That automatic-flush public toilet we’re so accustomed to (and yet don’t trust) came into existence in 1980. A 1947 sanitation study found that Baltimore had more outhouses than any of America’s seven largest cities.

Every year Americans buy ten million new toilets. Toilets account for 30% of household water use. That’s 2.1 trillion gallons a year. No nation uses more water for its business and no nation has been more particular about its bathroom hardware. Though Americans didn’t invent the seemingly hygienic porcelain apparatus, we made it the throne it is today—in part because we had the wide-open spaces to turn the water closet into a bathroom. The bathroom we know today got popular in the 1920s, when American designers went tile-crazy for that sanitary look. The master bathroom of our old house has tiles from floor to ceiling. That way you were sure you could wipe it clean, no matter what the mess.