Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States


  • 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

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

Hi Kai

Never had a problem with flush toilets backing up in Australia or Asia I have to say.

Maybe the US cisterns (or systems) are different in some way? Piping, water volumes, other?

Not sure
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Re: Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

Dennis - I think that you're on to something here.

Based upon my own personal travel experience (and on the photos that some of the links that I earlier provided contain) the design of the bowls are very different. The bowls of "euro-toilets" (for lack of a better term) are more compartmentalized and feature the drain at the front followed in the back by a gradually sloping surface that slopes towards the front, the latter of which is all located above the waterline. The drain at the front is centered in a small basin that contain a small volume of water. Feces deposited into a euro-toilet hits the dry sloping section and is washed downhill towards the front of the bowl (and ultimately to the drain) by the gravitational action of the flush water.

In marked contrast, North American flush toilets (& I'm guessing South American too?) feature an un-compartmentalized step-sided bowl with the drain located at the rear and marked by a basin that encompasses the total volume of the bowl and which contains, in some cases, a relatively large volume of water (this being even more pronounced in older full-flush style toilets). A complaint with this style of toilet, and as is frequently made by folks who are used to euro-toilets, is that there is a tendency for splash-back when depositing feces; which definitely makes sense given that feces is not only deposited from directly above but also directly into a comparatively large pool of water (not unlike like dropping a handful of small rocks from a height of approximately six inches or 15 centimeters straight down into a bucket containing a few liters of water).

So, enough textual description...here's what I'm talking about:

First, a profile view of a euro-flush toilet:

And, second, a front-left quarter view of a North American flush toilet:

At first glance, I'd wager that its this crucial design difference that plays a large role in the North American prevalence of this:

Having thus ascertained something that may prove important in understanding why we in N. America are not only well acquainted with plungers but also why most or all of us have at one time or another experienced the condition displayed in the above photo, I'd love to know how our two styles of flush toilet bowls came to be; their origins and why ours in N. America persists in spite of itself.

Certainly there must be some flush toilet historian amongst the forum-goers?

Kai Mikkel Førlie

Founding Member of Water-Wise Vermont (formerly Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge)
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Re: Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

Hi Kai,

I have found flush toilets to fail pretty often, both in the US and Latin America. One never knows the exact causes, but I suspect large, solid feces or children throwing things into the toilets. One then needs to try to unblog the toilet with the rubber plunger, with almost inevitable splashing and sometimes overflowing.

Remember that even if flush toilets do not get plugged, they emit plumes of microscopic droplets of fecally contaminated water that drift through the bathrooms and land on people's toothbrushes. (People should learn to close the lid before flushing, although I guess that almost no one does that, because they want to see if everything has gone away).

Also remember that the wet surfaces of a flush toilet are much more amenable to pathogen survival, compared to the pile of dry soil, etc., in a UDDT.

I invite everyone to see the relevant papers that I cite in this interview:

I encourage us to put discouraging words about flush toilets on the UDDT Wikipedia page. People tend to be brainwashed that flush toilets are the only civilized option, so it is worthwhile to shake up this mindset whenever possible.

Best wishes,
Chris Canaday
Conservation Biologist and EcoSan Promoter
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  • Marijn Zandee
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Re: Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

Dear Kai,

Must say that In cannot recall ever having a blocked flushing toilet in Europe. In South Asia on the other hand...

I guess in this part of the world filled-up septic tanks, small diameter pipes, bad workmanship and flushing of non-flushable items would mainly be to blame.


Marijn Zandee

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

Chris - Thanks for adding these insights! As you may recall I was actually the one who added the language and citation detailing the health risks associated with flushing flush toilets to the UDDT Wikipedia page:


In addition, I also advocated for and did everything I could to, as you put it, "add discouraging words about flush toilets" to the UDDT article. However, in the end, those of us who spent the most time working on it decided that the place to really do this is the article dedicated to flush toilets. So, I encourage you to contribute this yourself since I am aware that you're also registered on Wikipedia and helped some with the updates. I am excited to read what you add! :)

And for what its worth, I'd planned to add what I've learned in this thread to the flush toilet article but had to reconsider upon discovering that at least some of it already exists:


I'll review more and see if there's anything else that could stand to be added.
Kai Mikkel Førlie

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

Hi Kai and others,

Thanks for the interesting topic. I recognise and have come across/heard of the issues with flush toilets that you mention, in Africa as well as in Europe. I haven't got any experience with operating problems in the US/ LA, but have experienced the considerable flush volumes.

Apart from the design of the toilet, which in turn determines the amount of flush water needed (see below as well), other aspects are also relevant here. These are design of the plumbing system within the house (slope and diameter of pipes, distances to and from other branch junctions and wastewater producing facilities in the building, and the ventilation system of the plumbing), as well as the design and condition of the sewage system, as mentioned before (tree roots, movement of earth, collapsing of pipes etc). If the ventilation of the plumbing system is not in order, a large flush volume can result in air being trapped in the system, thus blocking the sewage pipe. Sharp turns in combination with large volumes and small pipes are also great ingredients for a blockage.

In fact, I talked to a sewage maintenance company the other day who mentioned that they recently removed half a surfboard (!!) from the sewage system. How that got in there is unknown, but people somehow manage to flush all sorts of stuff down the toilet/drain. Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam) mentioned that they priodically remove winter coats and other large items from their plumbing systems..

Back flushing can also occur when the precipitation intensity exceeds the capacity of the sewage system, of somehow rain (or surface) water is also collected here. This is one of the reasons why in the Netherlands rainwater drainage and sewage systems are being separated. Before rain and wastewater were removed in one pipe, resulting in overflows into surface waterbodies, streets and houses...

So operating problems with flush toilets can't always be solely attributed to a flush toilet or its poor design-other factors can play a large role here too.

Nevertheless, the design of the toilet is important for lessening flush-water demand, which favours treatment and resource recovery. The objective of the flush water is to flush away the faeces and renew the water in the siphon. In lessening flush water volume the latter is the major challenge. In our search for a conventional ‘ultra-water-saving’ flush toilet we have found that at the moment at least 3.5 litres is needed to renew the water in the siphon, if one is not making use of a pressure or vacuum system. These toilets seem to work very well and have not given problems over the past 1.5 years.

Although the toilet manufacturing sector is conservative, innovations regarding spread of pathogens (control of water flow and spashing, rimfree toilets) and water saving are occurring, albeit it perhaps being at a bit too slow a pace...

Kind regards,
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  • F H Mughal
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Re: Operating problems with flush toilets – experiences from the United States

Dear Kai,

These are localized problems, which you have mentioned, that occur in flush toilet systems. I would not magnify them to a large scale, as the caption of this thread suggests. Common factors that cause problems include discarding sufficiently large objects in toilets, improper WC design and, inadequate gradient.

US cities have very high water consumption per capita per day. In LA, it is 230 gallons per capita per day (gpcd), while in Karachi, it is less than 30 gpcd. So, theoretically, Karachi should be more problem to problems associated with flush systems.


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

I have been finding this thread very interesting. When Kai first told me about relatively frequent problems with flush toilets in the US by e-mail, I found it hard to believe and thought he was too biased towards dry toilets. ;-)
(even though on my trip to Toronto last summer, I did manage to end up with a blocked toilet after a simple act of straight-forward defecation and was totally shocked how this could have happened, as I had never ever had a blocked toilet at home in Germany; my rellies then told me it happens in these so called "condos" (multi-storey appartment buildings) all the time. Go figure).

I mean, a country that technologically advanced as the US (space missions, IT advances, health advances etc.) would surely not have a problem with getting their flush toilets to do reliably what they should be doing: flushing the waste away!?

But apparently not so, so this is quite intriguing - and should be a bit of an embarrassement to the American people and decision-makers...

(Mughal: the amount of water consuption per day, and the amount of flush water used, is not that relevant here, I don't think, as it seems to come down more to the design of the toilet itself, as well as the piping and the habits of the users. Even the biggest amount of flush water is not going to help when there is a blockage in the pipe. Quite the contrary, it could make things worse, see the picture above of the overflowing toilet which Kai posted.)

If anyone ever comes across some comparative statistics of flush toilet failures from one country to the other please bring them to our attention.

I think this blog post that Kai had provided in his initial post sums it up quite well - enjoy the Australian accent in the video!:

After I moved here from Germany I noticed that Americans often have a plunger in their bathrooms. It took me not very long to find out that toilets clog more often in North America than they do in Europe. I didn’t learn about the reason why they clog, until I started ecoTransitions during the drought in 2007, supplying Australian designed Caroma Dual Flush toilets to Georgians. It’s a matter of design, trap way size and flush method.

Standard US toilets clear the bowl with siphon technology, so the waste in the bowl gets pulled into the drain and out into the trap way. In order to create this siphon action, the trap way needs to be as narrow as possible, usually around 2 to 2 3/4 inches. You can see how siphon vs. washdown technology works here

Although most of the time this flushing method gets rid of the waste efficiently, there is a tendency for blockages to occur in the toilet trap way.

Australian and European designed toilets use a wash down method which “pushes” the waste down, instead of of “pulling” it. This is why European toilets have a larger diameter trap way which results in less clogging.

One drawback wash down toilets have versus siphon models is the smaller water spot in the bowl, which can result in “skid marks” happening on ocassion. So it really comes down to a matter of personal preference. If you are comfortable with getting out a plunger to unclog your toilet every now and again, then stick with an American style toilet. If you have issues with clogged toilets and don’t mind using a toilet brush every now and then an Australian or European style model may work better for you.

For me, I definetely prefer the European style flush toilet, if it has to be a flush toilet - or of course a urine-diverting dry toilet which has neither clogging nor skid marks. ;-)
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