Bold New Toilet Adventure

We had to take the plunge, so to speak, so as not to have to plunge so much.

May 01, 2008
May/June 2008
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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There are benefits to working at Home Energy, besides working for a great cause. I learned about our new toilet while working as special issue manager on the “Water/Energy” special issue, specifically John Koeller’s article about high-efficiency toilets (see “The Real High-Efficiency Toilets Have Arrived,” p. 10). Our old toilet clogged frequently, which required double flushing and plunging on a regular basis. It ran loudly at random times and for no reason. It was a handsome American Standard with copper fittings and many retrofits in the tank.

My ten-year-old daughter is the one responsible for the new toilet in our bathroom. Last summer, she wanted the same popular toilet that our friends had just installed—because it looked cool, had buttons, and had an easy-close seat. She harangued me enough to convince me we had to take action. It didn’t help that I had asked for a new toilet for my birthday the previous year, and no one gave me one. We had to take the plunge, so to speak, so as not to have to plunge so much.

On July 31, 2007, my daughter and I began to research our new toilet together. She helped to prioritize our different desires (she wanted buttons, I preferred a handle; she wanted a modern elongated bowl, I preferred round); research online (to see the photos); and mark up the ridiculously large and detailed spreadsheets for the hundreds of toilets manufactured and their competing features and water-conserving ratings.

We chose five possible models: the Caroma Sydney 305 RF, Gerber Ultra Dual Flush RF and Ultra Flush RF, Kohler Sterling Karsten RF, and the Nansfield Eco Quantum RF.

I sent John Koeller an e-mail with the subject line “toilet advice column.” I listed the five possible high efficiency toilet (HET) models (1.28 gallons per flush or less) in alphabetical order, and asked his opinion about each one, based on his expertise with respect to some specifics about our home that I had learned to pay attention to from reading his article. Based upon our requirements, he suggested the Caroma Sydney 305 RF, a dual-flush toilet (1.6/0.8 gallons per flush). The toilet cleared a very impressive 1,000 grams of test media in a single flush in the Maximum Performance (MaP) testing, which was developed by U.S. and Canadian water utilities to test flush performance (see “Which Toilets Deliver?” HE May/June ’05, p. 19). Dual-flush toilets are classified as HETs because the ratio of reduced flushes to full flushes results in an effective flush volume below the qualifying threshold. The Caroma toilet is also certified as high efficiency through the EPA WaterSense program.

The Quest

This was a difficult toilet to find. Our local water utility in Oakland, California, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), promoted (through their billing statements and the media) a $150 credit on water bills for purchasing and installing an HET. They sent out a brochure that was very explicit about the importance of purchasing only the specific HET models on their qualifying list, and included a list of local vendors who carried or who could special order the brands with qualifying toilets. An up-to-date list of brands, qualifying toilet models by manufacturer, and vendors who carry or who can special order qualifying toilets are also on the EBMUD Web site. 

I called through the entire list of vendors in my neighborhood, one by one. Most of them had never heard of Caroma toilets and were either unable or unwilling to order one. The few who were familiar with Caroma carried older models. They didn’t understand my insistence on the HET rating. The majority did not know that EBMUD offered a $150 rebate and that their store’s name was included on EBMUD’s list. When I contacted Caroma, they gave me the number for a manufacturer’s representative, who promised to get back to me, but never did. When I e-mailed EBMUD and outlined the specific problem—that is, that I could not find the toilet—and asked them to help me, they sent me another brochure in the mail. When I called EBMUD and left a message, no one called me back.

At first, my husband refused to take the informed consumer’s big risk: buying a product without laying an eye on it. It wasn’t because he was worried about the toilet; he worried that I wouldn’t like it after it was in the bathroom and I had sat on it. So one day we took a Saturday drive. None of the well-known plumbing and heating stores in our area carried it. There was not one single showroom where we could see it, including the big-box stores and the nostalgia-filled, trusted, local hardware store that my husband insisted we go to.

Our neighbor and our plumber, Rey Lacayo, of Lacayo-Colt Plumbing & Heating, has helped me to maintain and slowly make improvements on my family’s 1913 Arts and Crafts style 980 ft2 California bungalow over the last 9 years. He knows that when I mention a problem that needs to be addressed, it will take me a long time to finally get around to starting the project. He waits with great patience and curiosity about the new technology he will have the opportunity to learn about and struggle mightily with to install correctly (furnace, ducts, insulation, water heater). Rey was also dubious about buying an unknown brand, with no local sources for maintenance and parts. We were warned against buying a newfangled toilet altogether by a salesman who removed the lid from the tank of an older Caroma model, whispered to me to look inside, and asked me if I wanted something that looked like that in my bathroom. Inside, it was all unrecognizable plastic, like what’s under the hood of a modern, fuel-efficient car. The salesman pointed to my six-year-old son and said that he was likely to play with the toilet and break it as soon as we brought it home. Then we would be in trouble, because no one would know how to repair it or where to find the parts.

The only reason I didn’t cave in to the pressure (from my daughter, our plumber, and local plumbing and heating supply stores) to buy the most popular, cheapest, dual flush on the market was that I had already decided which toilet I wanted to buy. And John Koeller held my hand (through e-mail, of course). At first he said that it was worth the effort to see the Caroma toilet in the showroom before buying it, because of its unique look. When that proved impossible, he suggested that we still choose it over our other HET options. He said that the Caroma toilet has been around for well over 20 years—9 years in the United States—and that it has a very widespread parts and repair network. Plumbers and homeowners install many thousands of these toilets every year in California.

How difficult can getting a toilet be? The next time I ran into Rey, he asked me if I had given up looking for that hard-to-find toilet and was I ready to buy the popular model. When I said no, he suggested I try the place our mutual friend, neighbor, and contractor had used for his recent remodel, Style Bath & Kitchen in Oakland. When I finally got around to calling them, the woman who answered the phone asked me if she could research the toilet model I wanted and call me back the next day. She never called me back. When I finally rather sulkily called her back, she apologized profusely; explained that she must have written my number down wrong; said that she was familiar with Caroma, had located the model, and did I want her to order it? I bought it from her over the phone that very instant for $353.25, not including tax.

Installation

I had won an auction item at our local school for Rey’s plumbing services (I knew him before I bid on him). Rey and his crew removed the old toilet, unhooked the shower from the tub, moved our claw-foot tub to the living room, moved a heavy cabinet to the dining room, and waited two days while we had Marmoleum flooring installed. Which was the greater need—replacing our old toilet or covering the cracked and crumbling asbestos-containing linoleum floor tiles? On October 11th, 2007, Rey and his crew returned to install the new toilet and replace everything else they had removed. Toilets are generally quite easy for the experienced plumber to install. He usually charges $120 to replace a toilet, which does not include the optional $40 dump fee for the old toilet.

Rey was very dubious after he first flushed the toilet that we would be happy with it. He said that in his experience, having such a small amount of water at the bottom of the bowl meant that the bowl would get dirty easily (leaving what are known as skid marks) and would have to be cleaned often. Our experience has been similar. The bowl does get dirtier than our old one did, but cleaning it is much more pleasant than plunging on a regular basis. Another benefit is that flushing is quicker. It is quite unlike our old water-wasting toilet. You had to hold down the handle to complete the flush, wait to make sure the flush was successful, and quickly release the handle if the toilet became clogged to prevent it from overflowing. Then if needed, you had to wait for the tank to refill completely before you attempted a second flush. The old toilet required lengthy plunging sessions and had a handle that didn’t work when the toilet was running.

The Proof Is in the Billing

Here is our EBMUD bill for October 25, 2007 through December 26, 2007 (new toilet was installed on October 11, 2007):



This year we saved half the water we needed during the same billing cycle last year. We paid  $42.12 for 7,480 gallons over 62 days (120 gallons per day), compared with last year’s bill of $61.70 for 14,960 gallons over 62 days (241 gallons per day).

I purchased the toilet over the phone from Style Bath & Kitchen for $353.25, not including tax. Lacayo-Colt Plumbing & Heating removed the old toilet and installed the new toilet for $120 labor and $40 to cover the dump fee. EBMUD gave us a $150 credit on our water bill.


When we first installed the new toilet, my kids were fascinated by the buttons and fell off the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” wagon. Now they seem to be less revolted by the dirty water in the new toilet than they were with the old and let it be for almost too long before flushing.

When we received our next water bill after installing our new toilet, it confirmed that our toilet tryout was a success. This year we saved half the water we needed during the same billing cycle last year (see “The Proof Is In the Billing”).

Everyone in my family is so pleased with our new toilet that I don’t think we have fully realized how many other things we have to complain about now.


Ann Hutcheson-Wilcox is a mother of two and the former special issue manager at Home Energy. She is currently marketing director for Low Carbon Productions, and can be reached at ann@lowcarbonproductions.com.


For more information:

For an up-to-date list of high-efficiency toilets offered in North America, go to: www.cuwcc.org/maptesting.lasso.

If you have questions or comments about high-efficiency toilets, MaP testing, or water utility incentive programs for high-efficiency toilets, contact:

John Koeller
Koeller and Company
5962 Sandra Dr.
Yorba Linda, CA 92886
E-mail: koeller@earthlink.net

The Web site of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) is www.ebmud.com.

For information about the EPA WaterSense program, go to www.epa.gov/watersense.

For more on Caroma’s newest models, contact:
Kurt Bramstedt
Caroma USA Inc.
Tel: (714)538-8547
E-mail: kbramstedt@caromausa.com
Web site: www.caromausa.com

For information about training and accreditation to become a Green Plumber or to find a Green Plumber in your area, contact:

GreenPlumbers USA
Carrie McChensey             
Tel: (888)929-6207
E-mail: carrie@greenplumbersusa.com
Web site: www.greenplumbersusa.com

Lacayo-Colt Plumbing & Heating
Tel: (415)726-8549
Web site: www.lacayocolt.com

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