Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

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Re: Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

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  • KaiMikkel
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Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

I am curious if others have experienced similar issues with flush toilets in the US or elsewhere, as I describe below.

Recently, while in the midst of our work updating the wikipeda page on UDDT's, I suggested to Elisabeth that we add the following sentence:

However, the health risks are somewhat higher when compared to a flush toilet where the user does not have to carry out any emptying or maintenance tasks at the household level unless the flush toilet plugs, back-flows or otherwise experiences operating problems.



Elisabeth disagreed with this sentence at first, arguing why would a flush toilet plug or back flow? Her reasoning was that operational problems with flush toilets are very rare.
I responded to her by describing my own experiences with flush toilet failure in the US thusly:

Toilets blocking during normal use is a very common occurrence in the United States. I think this the result of several factors: 1) people’s poor diets (particularly the fact they are very low in fiber), 2) societies’ growing caloric intake (which produces a correspondingly larger volume of solids) and the fact that older toilet designs were products of a different era, 3) toilets’ relatively long service lives, 4) the relative totality of corporate irresponsibility and the basic lack of regulatory oversight that existed both before and immediately after passage of the federal mandate that requires that only low flow toilets be produced.

I was a property manager at large community land trust around the time that this occurred and it was a nightmare. I shared on-call duties and it was a common occurrence to field plugged toilet calls. What happened was that manufacturers rolled out a generation of low-flow versions of existing toilets prior to any meaningful real-world testing having been undertaken. There was also a lack of any national standard so manufactures were somewhat in the dark about what they were striving for (and able to get away with selling modified versions of existing designs to maximize profits and, in some cases, possibly recoup the R&D expenses of earlier generations). Plus, in order to meet the new demand and address the failure by “corporate America” in doing so, new companies popped up and began selling low-cost toilets (many imports) that were no better performance wise. More than a decade passed – during which time a lot of under-performing toilets were sold – before people finally understood the extent of the problem. Standards were ultimately created and action finally started being taken to produce low-flow toilets that actually worked. At the same time, old full-flow toilets that maybe were reaching their design lives were held onto (an international cross-border black market of sorts between the United States and Canada that catered to those wanting full flow toilets actually existed around that time) rather than replaced which resulted in its own set of problems. Many people heard the horror stories of new toilets not working (or they experienced the horror themselves) and so they resisted buying new toilets since the only toilets being legally sold were of the low-flow variety. And with toilets costing several hundred dollars a piece there was a disincentive to jettison brand new toilets so early in their lifespans. It was a total mess. And that’s not all, the poor designs leaked across the borders too, eventually affecting Canadian and Mexican users. As a result, it’s a very common thing to see plungers behind toilets and I would suspect that the majority of households in North America owns or has access to a plunger.

Contributing to this issue (and another reason that I raised the idea) is the prevalence of antiquated and poorly maintained public sewer systems which, along with flooding and/or large volume rain events (now being exacerbated by the effects of climate change), make instances of whole-house/whole neighborhood backups rather common. In my home city alone (Burlington, Vermont) the government is still, more than a decade on, trying to resolve deficiencies that exist in certain neighborhoods. Part of the reason behind the slow pace of change is that municipalities are generally held exempt from liability in backup events so there’s been little incentive to spend the money to correct the factors (at least those that a city has direct control over) that produce them given that the problem is relatively isolated. Plus, now that we spend a majority of our federal revenue (and debt service) fighting an endless war there’s even less monies available to cities and towns to address their failing infrastructure.

Other habits may contribute to the problem of plugged toilets too, like poor public education (which may result in people flushing things down toilets and pouring things down drains that don’t belong in sewers), crumbling privately owned sewer lines and poverty. Ceramic sewer lines have a high failure rate, either due to collapse or failure of the putty that was used to seal joints which succumbs to tree root infiltration. Homeowners or landlords with little money (and, in the case of the latter, perhaps little scruples) may not put money towards landscaping/maintaining grounds which results in a proliferation of flora which exacerbates the problem. Bankrupt cities tend to cut back on tree maintenance too.

So, here in North America (and maybe particularly in the United States) plugged toilets and sewers backing up into homes and toilets are more common than you might realize. And I bet that if you were to ask most any resident of the USA, they would corroborate my claims. Plus it may be that we’re not alone in the world in experiencing these problems. So, I think that what I added about flush toilets failing should be restored. In a nutshell, toilets plug or backup due to user-misuse, poor design or exterior forces like failing, inadequate or poorly designed sewers or sewer connections.



Thanks everyone! :)
Kai Mikkel Førlie

Founding Member of Water-Wise Vermont (formerly Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge)
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