What You Don’t Know: Toilets

  • August 16, 2011 9:37 am

The toilet is one of the few absolutely necessary household appliances, even for the most ardent environmentalists. Argue with me all you want in comments, family cloth-ers (!), I stand by these words.

The rub is it’s also one of the largest household consumers of water, especially if it gets a lot of use–i.e. you have a large family or live in, say, a frat house. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to ensure that your toilet is as eco-friendly as possible, which I explain in Planet Home, excerpted here:

Older toilets may have 3.5-gallon or even 5-gallon tanks, whereas toilets made in the United States for home use after 1994 are required to consume 1.6 gallons of less per flush.  Environmentalists flush them as little as possible, but even extremists should try to flush at least once daily (especially if said toilet has multiple users).  One can go longer without causing any harm, of course, but the odor isn’t great, and concentrated urine can stain.  People who let yellow mellow may also find themselves battling clogs from time to time if too much of their 100 percent recycled, non-chlorine bleached toilet paper has accumulated.  Keep an eye on the levels and flush before you reach a problematic clump.  If you’ve got a clog, plunge it.  Then clean your plunger by rotating it vigorously in a recently cleaned and flushed toilet.  Store it where it can dry so it won’t grow mold.


Another way to conserve water is to retrofit your toilet so it uses less water per flush.  There are several ways of doing this, from the very DIY (put a brick or a water-filled half gallon plastic jug of water with its cap closed in the tank to physically reduce the amount of water being used) to more high-tech solutions (there are dual-flush toilet retrofitters you can purchase for less that $100 – this gives you the option for a small flush for liquid waste or a full flush for solid).  If you buy a dual-flush kit, follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.  If you’re going the DIY route, be careful not to reduce the water level too much or the toilet won’t work well and you might wind up flushing several times in a row to get the job done, defeating the purpose.  If this happens to you, it’s simple to fix: just use a smaller jug – like a one-liter soda bottle – or a brick.  A little trial and error will get you what you need; this isn’t an exact science, and much depends on the size of your tank.

Recently, my editorial assistant, Glenny, had some toilet issues of her own. Read on for her tragic experience (thanks for sharing Glenny):

“I’ve been living in my apartment for a year now, and never had any problems with my toilet until the past few months.  To say that it had a “weak” flush would be a drastic understatement.  More like pathetic, sad, and downright feeble.  Often I would have to flush two or three times to clean the bowl, a very frustrating and pretty gross process.  Convinced that the problem was getting worse, I contacted my landlord, who happily trekked to the fourth floor to investigate.  Within 5 minutes my flush was back to normal: strong and efficient.  The issue?  The tub in the back wasn’t filling with enough water (exactly like what Alexandra describes above), but it wasn’t because of a DIY project gone array.  Instead the pressure gauge was set too low.  With a couple of quick adjustments and a few trial flushes, the back tub was filling to the correct water mark and producing a forceful flush.  Phew, a clean bowl using less water!  Problem solved.”

A good reminder to keep our bowls in working order and using the least amount of water possible. Now enough about toilets.

Q&A: Air Conditioners And Relationships

  • July 14, 2011 12:41 pm


Dear Alexandra,

It’s so hot in New York right now, and I know its not going to get cooler anytime soon.  I hate air conditioning – I know it’s bad for the environment, wastes energy, and costs me a fortune.  Sadly, my apartment is on the fourth floor and is sweltering without it.  My boyfriend has threatened to never sleep at my place unless we keep it at a reasonable temperature (colder than I’d like).  Can you advise on how to best reach a compromise for this situation?  Obviously I can’t survive the summer without it, and don’t want to survive without him, so what is the best way to meet in the middle and be the most environmentally sound?




Hi Beth!  Thanks for the question.  You’re so not alone. I cannot tell you how many couples have this same dispute every summer (cough cough).  Obviously you’re not going to give up your boyfriend, but it can be hard to agree on when to use the A/C and how much.  If he can survive some days that are below a certain temperature with natural coolers like fans, window shades, and lots of iced tea (or cold beer?), always go that route first.  Some days, even I’ll admit, are absolutely unbearable in the city, so the air conditioning is necessary. Talk about it and strike a compromise that works for both of you. Agree on what temperature you will set the A/C at, too. 75 is the current number in my apartment, and it goes on usually only after it’s around 88ish outside. If it’s humid, sometimes it goes on when the mercury is lower than that. Um, don’t tell anyone, but if it is on, I frequently sneak it up higher than 75 and–sssshhh!–even turn it off. I suspect the other people I live with are equally sneaky. Once you decide on your limits, both of you should really stick to it. Don’t act like my family.

If you’re in the market for a new machine (or don’t have one), I’d suggest upgrading your air conditioner to a high efficiency Energy Star rated unit, which will both lower energy bills and impact the environment somewhat less. Win win(ish). Air conditioning efficiency is rated using a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER). Any system sold in the U.S. after July 2006 must have a rating of 13. To be Energy Star rated, it must have a SEER rating of 14.5 or higher.

Window units are rated differently, through an EER rating. Energy Star units have an EER rating of at least 9.4, although the American Council on Energy Efficiency recommends a 11.6 or higher. All of this detail might make you want to fall asleep, but is worth paying attention to.

Basically, if your system was installed before 2006, you definitely have room to improve in the energy efficiency department–and have plenty of options to choose from. I’ll spare you the heat pump and geothermal information here. I’m not thinking either are in your future on the fourth floor. If so, an experienced contractor can come to your home and give you a tailored analysis of your options. You can also check out the American Council on Energy Efficiency’s site (http://www.aceee.org/consumer/cooling) for more information.

Stay cool! With any luck, the weather will cooperate with you and you’ll have many nights of just fans and the boy. Happy summer.