Flush With Anger

The federal government does a lot of dumb things. Perhaps the dumbest was Congress’ decision to have the federal government redesign household appliances. In recent months, consumers have been enraged by water-stingy toilets and shower heads. Yet this is only the beginning. Having redesigned the bathroom, with auspicious results, the federal government is moving on to the rest of the family home.

Buried in the numerous provisions of the 1992 Energy Policy Act was the requirement that manufacturers substantially reduce the water consumption of new toilets and showers by 1994. The new toilets cannot use more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf), less than half the 3.5 gpf of typical models. New shower heads must not emit more than 2.5 gallons per minute, also a sharp decline from what consumers had come to prefer. The stated purpose of these tough mandates is “to conserve water” through arbitrary limits on water consumption.

The water standards were actively pushed by the environmental lobby and supported by the Department of Energy (DOE), the agency charged with implementing the standards. In contrast, the general public was almost completely unaware that their bathroom experiences would never again be the same. The bill was enacted with virtually no debate over the consumer impact.

Then reality hit home. Since 1994, millions of people, perhaps after moving into a new house or remodeling a bathroom, have had to deal with these “water saving” fixtures. Many have been disappointed, to say the least. The low-flow toilets, in addition to costing more than the old models, do not work nearly as well as the old models. They clog more often and require increased cleaning. Some new models are unbelievably noisy. A number of consumers even complain that they have to flush two or more times to clear out the bowl, which, in addition to being bothersome and unpleasant, defeats the entire purpose of water conservation.

The new shower heads are nearly as unpopular. Their weak trickle leaves many people both soapy and angry. Want to wake up in the morning to a torrent of hot water beating down on your back? Tough. Even if you are willing to pay for the increased water consumption, you are out of luck unless you have a pre-standard shower head.

An intrusive an annoying Washington “solution” is bad enough, all the more so when it is solving an imaginary problem. “There is no national water crisis,” says Terry Anderson, water policy expert and Executive Director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. The supporters of low flow plumbing keep telling us there’s a dire water shortage, but they apparently forgot to tell the water. It remains cheap and plentiful throughout most of the country. Thus, there is no justification for national austerity measures. Those areas that do have water shortages or inadequate sewage treatment facilities can best deal with these problems at the local level. Doubtless they could find better ways of reducing water use than mandating dysfunctional bathrooms. If the feds want in on water policy, they should eliminate irrigation subsidies and leave the rest of us well enough alone.

Fortunately, the issue is not yet dead. In response to a flood of constituent complaints, Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-MI) has introduced a bill to repeal the toilet and shower head provisions. “The federal government should be out of our bathrooms,” he says. Knollenberg is taking a stand not just for better plumbing but for more limited government as well.

The fight won’t be easy. Low flow toilets and shower heads are still defended by DOE, environmental activists, and several manufacturers who are profiting from the new standards. These special interests may prevail, despite strong public support for Knollenberg’s effort. House leaders promise to bring to bill to a vote later this year.

Toilets and shower heads are not the federal government’s first foray into home appliance micromanagement, and they won’t be the last. Indeed, several equally ill-conceived appliance regulations were enacted prior to the Energy Policy Act, and several more are now in the pipeline. DOE has already set more than a dozen “energy efficiency” standards for air-conditioners, refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, clothes washers, light bulbs, water heaters, and other products. The agency is currently in the process of substantially tightening many of these standards.

DOE’s authority to regulate these appliances comes from several statutes enacted in the 1970s and 80s. Originally, their purpose was to reduce energy use and cut down on air pollution caused by electricity generation. In recent years, however, the emphasis has shifted to global warming and the potential reductions in carbon dioxide emissions attainable through reduced energy use. Rather than eliminate government interventions that distort energy prices and consumption levels, DOE wants to design the ecologically correct home of the 21st Century.

As with toilets and shower heads, federal appliance standards have had adverse consequences. Quality, cost, and choice suffer for the sake of conservation. For example, many new, energy efficient air-conditioners do not dehumidify the air as well as older models. “I’ve seen state of the art, high efficiency air-conditioners in homes where there’s mold and mildew on the walls,” says Dave Debien, owner of Central City Air, in Houston, Texas. The most recent refrigerator standard will increase prices by an average of $80, according to DOE estimates. Some manufacturers have ceased production of the cheapest versions of certain appliances, as the cost of complying with efficiency standards has rendered these models unprofitable.

DOE’s current attempt to sharply ratchet down several of these standards will only make matters worse. If the agency succeeds, we can all look forward to the day when many appliances in our homes work as well as the new toilets and showers.

Such unintended consequences are not surprising, given the regulatory myopia behind these standards. Alan Kessler, Vice President of Raytheon Appliances, believes that “from the perspective of DOE and standards advocates, the purpose of major appliances is solely to save energy,” and not to provide consumer satisfaction. In effect, the free market and unfettered consumer choice has been replaced by regulatory fiat and the single minded obsession with energy conservation.

As with the water conservation rationale behind the toilet and shower head standards, the environmental justification for mandated conservation doesn’t add up. Questions about the seriousness and imminence of global warming aside, it is unclear whether energy efficient appliances will accomplish anything in terms of carbon dioxide reductions. Even with past efficiency standards in place, Americans are using more electricity by owning more appliances and using them more often. “People always seem to find new uses for energy,” says Herbert Inhaber, principal scientist at the Westinghouse Savannah River Company. At best, the reduction in carbon emissions would be slight.

Justified or not, DOE plans to keep cranking out more regulations affecting home appliances, with little regard for the concerns of consumers. As a result, we all get stuck with a lot of stuff that doesn’t work as well as it should.

Ben Lieberman ([email protected]) is a CEI research associate.