Low flow toilet advice and ideas

Toto Eco Ultramax, in its native environment, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

For more before and after photos visit the toilet set on my flickr account.

We’ve amped up the eco-friendliness of our house by installing a new high-efficiency toilet, or HET for short. These models use less than 1.3 gallons/flush. That compares quite favorably to the modern standard of 1.6 gallons/flush, and is waaay better than the old 3.5 or even 5 gallons/flush of decades past. Our old one had “1964” stamped on the bottom of it, so I’m pretty sure it was on the high end before.

It also leaked, and rather than sink 20 or 30 bucks into rebuilding the flush valve I decided to get a Toto Eco Ultramax. Toto is a Japanese toilet manufacturer that makes really good toilets.

In terms of impact, here’s a good description from the EPA’s watersense page on HETs:

Over the course of your lifetime, you will likely flush the toilet nearly 140,000 times. If you install a WaterSense labeled HET, you can save 4,000 gallons per year and your children can save as much as 300,000 gallons during their lifetime. Additionally, if a family of four replaced a 3.5 gpf toilet made between 1980 and 1994 with a WaterSense labeled toilet, they could save more than $90 annually on their water bill, and $2,000 over the lifetime of the toilet. Savings could be as much as two to three times that amount if the model being replaced is a leaky toilet or a pre-1980 model that uses 5.0 gpf or more.

With these savings, a new WaterSense labeled HET can pay for itself in only a few years. Additionally, many local utilities offer substantial rebates (ranging from $25 to $175) for replacing old toilets with HETs.

I’m not so hung up on exactly what we’ll save, but it does make me happy every time I flush it to think I’m not wasting water. And it does look a heckuva lot more stylish than my old one.

I’m stubborn and thrifty and somewhat handy so I installed it myself, with the help of my mom who was visiting from Amarillo. Lucky her. 😉 Neither of us had done this before. Based on our experience here are a few tips that should help your new toilet installation go smoothly:

  • Plan on being grossed out from the get-go. There is no avoiding this so just suck it up and imagine this project done. Set up a radio and play your favorite station.
  • Buy the best toilet you can afford. I am really thrifty, and sure I’d rather spend my dough elsewhere, but there is nothing worse than a subpar flush. You will see and use this thing every day, why not make that little part of your day better? I read a ton of toilet blogs online before choosing the Toto, and someone on one of those strings put it this way — you will remember a bad toilet a lot longer than you will remember the extra hundred bucks you spent getting the best one. If you google toilet ratings you will get plenty of food for thought, and you’ll probably arrive at the website of my personal favorite toilet expert, which brings me to my next tip…
  • Visit Terry Love’s plumbing site. This guy is Mr. Toilet himself. He knows toilets. The internet has rewarded him with cyber stardom in this cultish realm of we-who-research-toilets. Anyway, there is lots of good advice here, an active forum (why is my flange moving?!?!), and helpful ratings, that I assume are not biased. His favorite toilet is the Toto Ultramax, so that is what I got.
  • Assemble the right tools. I bought a ratchet set from Sam’s Club for around $60 and a big wrench for about $10. Sure, this is bordering on how much it would have cost to hire a plumber, but I figured I’d need those tools again eventually. It’s also good to have a general reference book that covers toilet replacement. Get about twice as many rags as you think you’ll need. A bucket is good. To wrap things up you’ll need a hacksaw or a dremel to cut off the nuts that hold the device down.
  • Use three-in-one oil to lubricate the bolts that hold your old one in if they are stuck. Also use this oil to lube up the drill bit it you have to drill in tile at any point (to secure the flange, for example).
  • Take advantage of the time you have with the toilet out to clean up the area around the toilet. It’s a good time to paint, scrub grout, or use my new favorite product –white grout paint! Seriously, this stuff really improved the look of the tiled floor around the loo. It’s tedious, but trust me, you will never do this again once you put the toilet back in.
  • Buy two wax rings in case you screw it up the first time. Home Depot will always take the extra back.
  • Take the old supply valve hose with you to the hardware store. I found out they make different sizes. What a pain!
  • Have a friend help you lower it onto the nuts. I felt like the most difficult part of this whole deal was getting the toilet set down properly. You only have one shot at it. If one person holds up the base and the other acts as navigator to help maneuver the holes over the nuts, this will work more smoothly.
  • I recommend against caulking around the bottom of the toilet. Overcaulking is amateurish in general. Why glue the thing down to the yucky old tile? The other more practical reason is that if you did somehow miss the wax seal, you will more quickly know about the failure if there is no caulk.

Those are my tips. I am ready to replace my other toilet and bet I could do it in around an hour. I absolutely love the model we chose, it flushes beautifully and refills in about 8 seconds. Here’s to saving water!

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8 responses to “Low flow toilet advice and ideas

  1. Hey I have a toilet question:

    My downstairs toilet always seems to be running. Not in the “bowl part” but in the “command center” behind the seat.

    I took the top off and there is a little hose feeding water into a tube.

    Is it always supposed to be running like this?

  2. Bad news. Shouldn’t be running like that. You have a leaky toilet. In general toilets are not hard to repair so you might look in a general plumbing reference. I believe that part is the fill valve and it can be adjusted or replaced.

    In this situation, if you get some food coloring and put a few drops in the “command center,” you will see it trickle into the “bowl part.” A fun experiment in toilet mechanics.

    Many toilets leak like this and it doesn’t seem to be a big deal until you realize how much water is getting wasted. Thousands of gallons a month, no joke. It can also cause structural damage to your house to have water constantly running. The water wears away at plumbing and can rot wood if it gets in contact with it. So it can turn into a big deal.

    Visit that Terry Love website for all kinds of info for how to fix it. I look forward to hearing about what you find out.

    Thank you for your comment.

  3. Great blog! I’m also in the market for a toilet.

    Do you have any tips for things I should think about/look for as I’m searching for the right HET model?

    How long should I expect it to take to change out as a first-time toilet installer? I’m moderately handy.

  4. We are going with HET toilets in our remodel. We decided on the Kohler ones, after researching the brands listed on http://www.getwithgreen.com. We also plan on leveraging rebates.

  5. Glad to hear about all the interest in HETs. Whether you buy an HET or just a regular toilet, I think the number one thing to consider is how well it works. From what I understand, Toto does very well overall and also offers great “rim” flushing, so nothing sticks to the sides. Thus far it has worked wonderfully. Couldn’t ask for more. My mom bought an American Standard Champion (not the HET, but 1.6 GPF and supposedly OK), and she has said the lack of “rim” flushing sometimes bugs her. So I would definitely consider that factor.

    It’s hard to say how long it will take you to replace your toilet. I think it depends on the situation. If you were doing this project in a new house with a new toilet on a floor that was totally good and level and everything about getting the old one removed went smoothly, then not long at all, maybe an hour. If, on the other hand, you find like I did that the old closet flange moves a bit or that the tile needs some regrouting or whatever, that’s what slows you down. Regardless, it’s not hard, and what you gain from not having a plumber do it is knowing what you accomplished. I feel like I did a better job than a plumber would have as far as cleaning around the old one, etc., just because I wasn’t under the gun to get it done in the shortest time possible. I also feel like if I were to do this again it would take no time. I am thinking about replacing my guest bathroom toilet, just because I love this new one so much!!

  6. David,

    I own a couple of regular Kohler 1.6 gpf toilets, and they are the worst toilets I have ever experienced. They were in the house when we moved in. I don’t know if they are first generation 1.6 gpf toilets or what, but they stop up like crazy.

    I already replaced one of them with a Toto, which I purchased before the whole Watersense HET standard was introduced. (It’s one of those with a bigger 3″ trap so it flushes really well.) http://www.totousa.com/productpage.asp?PID=657

    It also has a no-slam seat, which is really cool. You tip it, and it just slowly lets itself down until it is closed.

    I am going to eventually replace the other one in the house, and I am leaning toward an Australian made Caroma HET dual flush toilet.

    What was your experience with the Kohler, David?

    My concern about the new HET Watersense standard is that the first generation toilets are going to suck as bad as the first generation low flow 1.6 gpf toilets.

    Erin, you should also know about these awesome waxless toilet seals that they sell at Home Depot and Lowes. They work best on a brand new toilet that hasn’t already had a wax donut installed on it. It’s basically a rubber flange kind of thing. You can pull the toilet up and put it back down and it will continue to work. Which makes it easier to install a toilet too.

  7. Just a few thoughts to help y’all out out…

    Andrew, try tightening the little screw on top of the ball cock (the end of the floating thing). That may do it. If not, turn the water off at the wall. Flush the toilet and hold the handle down til all the water is out. Now let go, and remove the flapper. Take it to a plumbing distributor that supplies your brand – or HD/Lowe’s for a generic one. The flappers will deteriorate over time due to water conditions, as well as those dang tank biscuits that no mfr. suggests you put in there (they have chlorine in them, that breaks down the rubber gaskets and parts!) If those don’t work – you may have to replace the fill valve or the tank to bowl gasket (it can deteriorate as well, but is usually a slow leak and noticed by the water filling into the toilet area without stopping.)

    Chancey, the HET model of your choice first and foremost should have the WaterSense label on it. If it doesn’t – run, don’t walk from it. Another thing to keep in mind, is that anything with ‘pressure’ or ‘power’ in the name, probably suggests a pressure assisted toilet – similar to commercial ones. They’re loud (especially at night!), and tend to shred the paper, rather than get rid of it. Ever seen that happen in a commercial bowl? Same principal. (Hear that David?) And those sometimes go down to 1.1 gal or so – so certainly a lot of that water is going to the siphon jet to get rid of the solids, rather than worry about the rim wash!
    That being said – the harder part to check on is the rim wash that Erin spoke about. I haven’t found a sight that talks about it yet, but I do know it becomes a HUGE issue with HET’s. You’re using 20% less water! I know for a fact that all the TOTO one’s have better rim wash than any of the others. They made adjustments within the china, to compensate for this. Most mfrs. will sacrifice rim wash water, to make sure they still get flushing performance. That’s how they pass the Water Sense tests – so LH – you’re kind of right. You will get flushing performance, but sacrifice somewhere else. Keep this in mind – any research you do back to the 90’s says that TOTO was the first 1.6gpf toilets that actually worked (without pressure assist). That’s because they had used the 6. 0 litre (1.6gpf) in the Pacific Rim for years before the states decided to go to 1.6! If it wasn’t for them, we’d still have something like what LH has in his/her house!:(

    LH, shame on you for being happy with one brand, and going to another. Where’s the loyalty these days?! Be aware that you HAVE to use a Caroma seat on their toilets (becasue they’re shaped kind of funny). I’m not sure if they have the slow close or not, either! They’ve always been known for their Dual Flush toilets, but there are better ones out there for the money.
    Another item for the shopping list would be wood shims (you can find them in the building materials area). If your floor isn’t flat – use the shims to level the toilet. You just slide them underneath, then break them off at the edge of the toilet. Put your level on the rim of the toilet (without the seat) to check it all ways. I’d suggest you use a LITTLE bit of caulk around three sides of the toilet, then – to hide the shims. Have a wet rag handy, and use it to wipe the excess caulk off your finger as you go around the toilet to smooth it out. Only do three sides, though, because as Erin noted – if you do have a problem, you want to know about it before it becomes a problem and rots your floor out!

    Hope this helps. Good luck to you all, and Erin – keep up the good work!

  8. Hey, this is a lot of great info for anybody getting a new toilet. It sounds like Toto would be one of the best to get. I got a Kohler Cimarron a couple of years ago. My main concern then was flushing, which it does great. Because my old toilet used lots of water to swirl out the bowl, I didn’t realize that ‘rim wash’ would be a problem, which it can be on the Kohler Cimarron. They solved one problem, and created another.

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