MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 30th of January, 2020. So glad you’ve joined us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: water regulations and appliances.
Even President Trump is fed up with low-flow toilets and so-called efficient dishwashers. He’s railed against them in recent interviews and rallies.
TRUMP: People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times as opposed to once.
REICHARD: Now, this may seem like an odd target for presidential ire, but a lot of people share his frustration.
Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to roll back regulations on low-flow toilets, faucets, and shower heads.
WORLD Radio correspondent Katie Gaultney reports.
KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: Ashleigh Lankford lives in an area she calls “country-ish.” It’s close enough to have major retailers within just a few minutes’ drive. But on their acreage, surrounded by livestock, things get dusty and dirty quickly. And with a big dog, a cat, and three young, homeschooled kids, Lankford does a lot of laundry.
LANKFORD: You know what, I have a laundry day. So on laundry day I’ll probably do around at least five loads, not counting if we do any sheets or extra things like that.
About a year ago, her old washer broke, and she replaced it with a new, high-efficiency model. It’s supposed to use less energy and water than older models. But efficiency doesn’t always translate to “getting the job done.” Lankford starts a load of wash to illustrate her point.
LANKFORD: And so I can actually see the amount of water that’s going in and um, I’ll be able to see it turning the clothes around and some of them are dry.
Lankford compensates by putting her washer on the “extra heavy load” and “max fill” settings, just to get it to cover even the smallest loads. Some things have to be washed more than once.
But how did it start? Why is our satisfaction with water appliances and fixtures “circling the drain?” In 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act. The law made 1.6 gallons per flush a mandatory federal maximum for new toilets. Other water-efficient policies relating to washing machines, dishwashers, and the like followed in the mid-1990s.
Of course, the goal of water conservation is laudable. Biblical even, some would say. Rev. Mitch Hescox leads the Evangelical Environmental Network. He says caring about water conservation is part of loving your neighbor, particularly with what he calls a strain on our current supply.
HESCOX: From the Midwest to the Western United States, we are running out of fresh water. You know, we are pumping more water out of aquifers than we’ve ever done before…. New Mexico is probably the worst state off, then California, Arizona, Colorado, even Nebraska and Iowa are all going to have continuing pressures on having water security in the coming years.
And those who support low-flow standards say frustration with appliances is misplaced. Jeff Porter has been in the plumbing industry for over 40 years and now trains new plumbers.
PORTER: Low flow toilets. The modern ones, they’re good! They work. I’ve actually got a 0.8 gallon, low-flow or ultra low-flow commode in my house and I’ve had one for about four or five years and it works perfectly well… As long as they’re maintained properly… You don’t have to flush it 10 or 15 times that somebody said that you do.
Porter said the “multiple flushes” come into play with older models of toilets that people tried to retrofit. Or maybe they only replaced part of the toilet, not the whole thing.
So a low-flow toilet that really works may not be just a pipe dream. But some policy experts say laws and regulations aren’t the best way to encourage environmental conservation.
Brendan Steinhauser is a political consultant in Austin. He and his wife work from home, and there are often six people there at once. His frustrations with the low water pressure that arise in a full house with efficient appliances and fixtures aren’t just practical, they’re ideological too.
STEINHAUSER: I think that for things like water or electricity, kind of the daily needs of a family or of an individual, those decisions should be made by that individual and by that family… So to have government come in and mandate things or tell you what the price of something is always leads to some kind of economic distortion and usually a disaster for that commodity or for that service.
Still, government data show that—though they may not realize it—homeowners with low-flow toilets could be flush with cash. Replacing old, inefficient toilets with WaterSense-labeled models saves the average family $140 a year, and 13,000 gallons of water.
Steinhauser says that’s why people should consider efficient appliances, not because they have to.
STEINHAUSER: I mean, I do think it’s important to protect the environment, to have clean air and clean water, to use resources in a way that’s efficient, to the best of your ability and how it makes sense for you and your family. And for society at large. I just think that if you look at history, the most inefficient way to manage those resources is through government.
Even if the Trump administration rolls back water regulations, efficient appliances and fixtures are likely to stick around. Local governments often offer rebates to homeowners who install them. And most consumers are interested in saving money and conserving resources as long as they really can do both with one flush.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Katie Gaultney, reporting from Dallas, Texas.