Water-Saving Plumbing Fixtures Have Come a Long Way

Today’s efficiency-focused shower heads, faucets and toilets perform better — and look better — than their 1990s counterparts.
Water-Saving Plumbing Fixtures Have Come a Long Way
Ed Del Grande

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With the big Greenbuild International Conference and Expo occurring in Los Angeles last week, I wanted to reflect on how water-saving plumbing fixtures have changed over the years in both performance and styling.

Younger plumbers may not realize that just a few decades ago, water-saving plumbing fixtures were off the radar. The few that existed were perceived to be low-performing and boring alternatives to standard fixtures. Combine that stigma with low interest from contractors and homeowners to even consider water-saving options. Needless to say, plumbers did not see a lot of action in the efficiency fixture category.

Then, in the early 1990s, water use for toilets dropped to the mandatory 1.6 gallons per flush. It was at that point that we were all caught with our pants down, because there were very few toilets that worked well with the new water-use limits.

When the first wave of water-saving toilets hit the market, most of us were not prepared. Poorly performing water-saving toilets made life miserable for homeowners and plumbers. The decorative plunger became a popular bathroom accessory. From what I can figure out, early water-saving toilets had two big strikes against them:

1. We were all raised with toilets that flushed with a lot more water and had longer bowl rinses. This created a lot of bad bathroom habits that were tough to break. I also saw no effort from the industry at that time to educate the public on how lower water limits would compromise the flushing power of the new water-saving toilets. As a plumber, I found myself explaining to my customers that they should consider switching to lighter toilet paper and using less of it. Needless to say a lot of people were unhappy with me and the new toilets.

2. I did not see any new flushing technology to offset the lowered water levels. The most popular option was to simply lower the water levels in existing toilet tanks. Another option was installing flappers that only released a portion of the tank water.

Either way, you had toilets originally designed to flush with a full tank of water now trying to do the same job with less water. Maybe they thought no one would notice. Well, people did, and a common practice was to tamper with the flappers and raise water levels to increase flushing power.

If water-saving toilets were actually going to save water and be accepted by the public, a big design change was needed. The good news was that many of the top toilet companies stepped up to the challenge. New high-efficiency flushing technology was eventually developed for single- and dual-flush toilets.

What also impressed me was that a few creative companies looked beyond new toilet technology and saw that the future for all successful water-saving fixtures was to combine function with style. I’m happy to say this trend continued and today we have a lot of high-performing and beautiful water-saving plumbing fixtures to choose from:

Shower heads — The days of small and wimpy water-saving shower heads are over. The big breakthrough was the addition of air-induction technology. In many cases the flow and coverage is so good you need to check the model number to make sure it is a water saver. Also, deep rich finishes and modern styling make them look as good as they work.

Faucets — The main water-saving component of most high-efficiency faucets continues to be the aerator. This allows easy conversions of installed faucets and allows creative styling of new faucets to continually evolve. Basically, you can put a high-efficiency faucet next to the same-model standard faucet and it’s difficult to tell them apart — even when the faucets are running.

Toilets — Today’s single-flush, high-efficiency toilets flush with power at 1.28 gallons per flush or less. Dual-flush models are still available, but the trend seems to be moving toward even more efficient single-flush models. As far as styling, toilet tanks are now smaller and sleeker. The bowls have not been forgotten either. Skirted models with comfort height have now taken the water-saving toilet to higher levels.

For a companion video to this article, visit eddelgrande.com and click on “Ed’s Bonus Banner” or see the video below.


About the Author: Ed Del Grande is a three-time master plumber, GBCI LEED green associate and contractor with licenses in pipe fitting, fire protection and plumbing. He grew up in a family-owned plumbing business, and has 30-plus years of construction experience.

A self-employed contractor and professional comedian, he combined his performing and construction talents to became a pioneer in home-improvement television. Starting on HGTV with shows such as Dream Builders and The Fix, Del Grande helped build the DIY Network and HGTVpro.com with shows such as Warehouse Warriors and Ed The Plumber.


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