Sunday, June 2, 2013

Avoiding the Straight Flush

Of all the coming crises we're supposed to look out for these days, one that often doesn't get as much press as others is the looming shortage of fresh water.  While the majority of water is consumed by industry (probably a lot of it for things we don't even like!), individuals are also being encouraged to take conservation steps.  Storing rainwater, recycling greywater, and putting flow restrictors on faucets are all good ideas, but one household appliance gets a consistently bad rep for its water usage: the one that goes 'flush.'

It seems that most models these days drain 1-2 gallons of clean, pristine, drinking water every time that seemingly harmless little lever is pressed.  However, there are at least three easy ways to reduce the amount of good water that goes down the tube. 

The first is the old adage, "if it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down."  However, if you've let it stay yellow for more than a few days, you know that there's nothing 'mellow' about it.  We've tried.  It works to a certain extent, but certainly is not a silver bullet.  Plus, it seems like the hard-to-scrub deposits that form at the waterline in the bowl are more prominent when there's been yellow mellowing for a long time.  Still, as long as you're judicious about, um, mixing colors, this method can help reduce water usage quite a bit (maybe two-thirds or so, based on our schedule).

Visual approximation of the interaction of a normal olfactory system with fresh (left) and four-day-old (right) 'mellowing yellow.'   Good management is required to keep your harmless rubber ducky from becoming a t-rex.  Photo credit: Wikipedia for mellow and unmellow.

The second fix is to turn off the water line that automatically refills the tank, and fill the tank manually with collected rain-,  grey-, or other non-potable water.  We do this, too, and it's easy to control the amount of water per flush (it's not necessary to fill it all the way up).  But, it's kind of a hassle to haul in a bucket of water from the back deck, take off the top of tank, pour in the water, and then flush. It helps, but also not a silver bullet.

Filling the tank with collected rainwater.  This fix gives good control over the amount of water used and doesn't require potable water, but is kind of a hassle.  Be careful not to get your seed catalogs wet (doesn't everyone store them on the back of the loo?) or they might sprout.

Finally, it's possible to modify the tank so each flush automatically uses less water.  It's as easy as putting a quart jar or two in the tank.  One gallon tank?  Put in a quart jar filled with water, and water consumption is automatically reduced by 25% per flush.  How low can you go?  To some extent it depends on how much force is needed everything past the check valve. Combining all three of these methods, we can stretch our collected rainwater by enough to reduce our toilet's usage of potable water by probably 85% or more (although we haven't quantified that).

Quart jar in the tank.  We can only fit one of these, but we could maybe add smaller jars around the edges, or look for a bigger jar.  When we flush, the jar stays full, so that water isn't lost!

Of course, if you are lucky enough to have access to a place to put composted manure (i.e. a piece of land to call your own), you can go completely water-free in this regard, and gain a valuable fertilizer to boot.  There are lots of resources (see also here) out there on the internets for how to process your own humanure safely, responsibly, and odor-free. (or at least as odor-free as a regular arrangement!)  Check back in the future for our experiments to that end.

How have you cut down on your water usage?  Do you have another trick for making your toilet use less water?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!


  1. My mom follows your tip 3, but with bricks in the tank instead of jars. She also let the flush mechanism stay broken for about a year to mandate pouring in buckets of water because she liked the control, but I don't think most people would follow her lead there. :-) (Yes, I got my skinflintyness honest.)

    Those of you going the composting toilet route (like I am) --- don't forget the low-hanging fruit of gathering urine separately and using it directly on the garden! (You may need to water it down eight to one if applying directly to living plants.) I'm sure the solids will be useful eventually, but the nitrogen from the urine goes back to use immediately around here.

    Which reminds me that even some folks with regular plumbing skip the toilet altogether for their urine. Just pee in a bucket and use in the garden (or on the compost pile) once a day, and you shouldn't have a smell problem except possibly in very hot weather.

    1. Thanks for the insight, Anna! I suppose it would be just as easy to fit items other than jars in the tank to displace the water, and then we'd have a lot more freedom with what can fit in there.

      The toilet in the pictures has actually had a broken flush mechanism for a while, too, so we must be cut from the same cloth as your mom. :-)

  2. The biffi definitely solves some of these issues. :)

  3. Agreed--biffies are great, as long as you don't live in an apartment building. I don't think our downstairs neighbors would be too happy if we put one in on the deck. :-)