I’m sure what you were waiting for this Friday afternoon was an implicit announcement from the president that he takes enormous shits.
“People are flushing toilets ten times, 15 times, as opposed to once,” the president said in front of cameras at the White House, at a roundtable about small business and regulation.
President Trump’s attitudes and fixations often seem stuck in the 1980s, so perhaps it’s a step forward that he issued this very 1990s gripe. What the president said is not true anymore. But ’90s kids know it used to be true — okay, not literally true that you had to flush ten times, but true enough in the sense that the first generation of low-flush toilets, introduced when the regulation capping toilet flushes at 1.6 gallons per flush came into effect in 1994, worked poorly and often required multiple flushes.
“I live in a home with three new toilets, and I estimate that I spend 23 percent of my waking hours flushing them,” Dave Barry wrote in 1997 humor column. Barry, who lacks the president’s penchant for hyperbole, noted his then-new toilets often needed to be flushed “two or three times.” Three flushes of a new-style toilet indeed uses more water than a single flush of an old toilet.
Historically, toilets have relied on gravity: Gravity pulls water from the tank, into the bowl, out through the trapway (or “snake”) and into the sewer pipes. As the water flows out, it pulls waste along with it. But as buyers of first-generation low-flush toilets learned the hard way, a smaller amount of water may not generate a powerful enough flush to remove all waste, especially if you have produced a lot of waste.
But that was then, and in the intervening two decades, there have been major advances in toilet technology. Now, as far as I can tell, toilets are just as good at clearing the bowl with 1.6 gallons of water as they used to be with 3.5 gallons of water. Modern toilets address the problem that less water means less power by finding ways other than volume to increase flush power, or by reducing the amount of force needed to clear the bowl.
Jenny Nash has produced a useful rundown of the specifics of toilet innovation for HGTV. She notes toilet manufacturers widened the valve that dispenses water from the tank to the bowl (so it pours faster) and widened the trapway pipe that takes water and waste out of the toilet bowl (so it flows more easily.) They also started glazing the inside of the trapway so waste faces less friction. And many new toilets come with “pressure-assisted flush,” meaning they use compressed air to push water out of the tank faster than gravity alone could pull it. (This is why toilets make a “whoosh” noise now.)
Far from being an example of regulation run amok, the history of low-flush toilets is a demonstration of how private enterprises successfully innovate to follow new rules while preserving the customer experience. It’s a story about regulation working well and about markets working well. We get to flush all our shit out of the toilet on the first try, and we save on our water bills. America is already great.