Flush With Anger: Should Washington Regulate Toilets?

On Point No. 3

One of Congress’ dumbest ideas was having federal bureaucrats redesign household appliances. Under the 1992 Energy Policy Act, several plumbing fixtures must now meet strict water efficiency standards. In recent years, consumers have been enraged by the new water-stingy toilets and shower heads. Yet this is only the beginning. Having redesigned the bathroom, the federal government is moving on to the rest of the family home with tougher energy efficiency standards for electrical appliances. It is time for this meddling to stop, and for Congress to end these unnecessary restrictions.

Since 1994, new toilets cannot use more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf), less than half the 3.5 gpf of previous 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 for these tough federal mandates is “to conserve water” through arbitrary limits on water use.

Bothersome and Unpleasant. By now, 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. 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.

Imaginary Problem. An intrusive and annoying Washington “solution” is bad enough, all the more so when it is solving an imaginary problem. The bureaucrats and environmental activists who support low flow plumbing keep telling us there’s a dire water shortage, but they apparently forgot to tell the water. It remains plentiful

throughout most of the country. Thus, there is no justification for national austerity measures. Granted, there are some areas suffering from water shortages or inadequate sewage treatment facilities, but these problems can best be dealt with at the local level. Doubtless they could find smarter ways to reduce water use than requiring dysfunctional bathrooms.

Fortunately, help may be on the way. 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. Congressional leaders have promised to bring the 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. Under several statutes enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, the Department of Energy (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. Their stated purpose is to fight global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions attributed to electricity use.

Mold on the Walls. As with the toilets and shower heads, these 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 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. Moreover, 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.

Justification Doesn’t Add Up. As with the water conservation rationale behind the toilet and shower head standards, the environmental justification for mandated energy 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. 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. Unless Congress stops the agency, we will all get stuck with a lot more stuff that doesn’t flush, cool, heat, cook, illuminate or clean as well as it should.


Ben Lieberman ([email protected]) is a Research Associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.