Low Flow Toilets Causing A Stink

Katy Grimes: Not all of the green regulations in California are working as intended. Low flow toilets are causing a big stink in California cities because not enough water is making it into the system to dilute the waste in the sewer systems.

There was a good reason that older toilets flushed using so much water.

“San Francisco’s efforts to conserve water have had one adverse effect on the city – a powerful stench. To combat the smell, the city plans to purchase 27 million pounds of bleach. City officials said it’s an old fashioned solution for a smelly problem,” KTUV reported this week.

The fix will cost San Francisco $14 million for three years of Clorox to diffuse the stink. Brought to you by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission,  the 27 million pounds of bleach will be released from tanks into the city’s massive sewage system.

According to several news stories, the increased use of low flow toilets means there’s less water in the sewers to dilute the smell of waste. Ask anyone in any California city where low flow toilets are mandatory – the smell in nearby sewers is strong.

I live in a downtown Sacramento neighborhood in which smells emit from the sewer system in several locations. It’s not pretty. And every time one of our city council members talks about wanting Sacramento to be the greenest city in the country, I suggest that we should offer to be the brownest.

For a laugh, google  “San francisco sewage smell” and read the stories and online conversations. People speculating about the prominent smell in the air report that they thought there was a sewage spill in the bay, or stepped in doggie doo, but the best comment, “From the Financial District to the Inner Sunset, it smells like a freshly-fertilized field from my Wisconsin youth.”

California adopted restrictive green commercial building standards called “CalGreen” in 2010.  The legislation requires all newly constructed buildings to install green plumbing to reduce indoor water usage  by 20 percent, but residential areas have been requiring low flow toilets for many years. Current Federal law requires that residential toilets manufactured after Jan. 1, 1994, must use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush, and low flow urinals have been required in all new construction in California since January 1, 1992.

“The 2010 California Green Building Standards Code was developed through the outstanding collaborative efforts of the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Division of State Architect, the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the California Energy Commission, and the Building Standards Commission,” reads the acknowledgment. What’s most interesting is that the organizations involved in developing the code all have a financial stake in the process, but absent from the table were builders.

Residential building code has been changed to reduce water consumption by 20 percent as well. Plumbing fixtures and toilets must meet these requirements, and water meters are coming to all homes and businesses.

In another restrictive business measure, commercial buildings are required to have separate water meters for indoor and outdoor water use. And large landscapes are be required to have moisture-sensing irrigation systems that sense rain. What happened to timers and manual on/off buttons?

While most provisions in the code took effect Jan. 1, 2010, the water conservation provision did not become law later in the year “to give manufacturers enough time to have an adequate supply of low-flow toilets and water-conserving faucets.” How sensitive.

The San Francisco county board of supervisors are scheduled to make a decision on the $14 million bleach purchase on March 1.

FEB. 21, 2011


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  1. David from Oceanside
    David from Oceanside 21 February, 2011, 09:47


    Besides playing a part in the justification of their existence and meddling, what financial stake does the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Division of State Architect, the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the California Energy Commission, and the Building Standards Commission have in this process?

    As a side note, I once managed the installation of cell phone equipment in lease space throughout the western US. We would mount antenna on the rooftop and a small cabinet somewhere inside. Of the several hundreds managed, the one we installed at Childrens Hospital took the cake for over design and wasted efforts. All because the Office of the State Architect has jurisdiction. I would guess that hospitals in CA cost 50% or more than they otherwise would due to this state agency.

    Reply this comment
  2. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 21 February, 2011, 11:01

    Within the building standards document it states, “The enforcing agency may require special inspection to verify compliance with this code or other laws that are enforced by the agency.” Every commercial and residential building is subject to the building codes within the city, county, and state. Each of the state agencies listed receives funding from the penalties assessed, in addition to the fees charged just to begin the project(s), and has a plethora of code inspectors.

    This is explained on the Building Standards Commission webpage – the penalties are criminal and civil. http://www.bsc.ca.gov/cd_qustns/cq_faqs.htm#q30

    Here is an excerpt: “Additionally, these state laws say that a violation of the state regulations (included building standards) is also a misdemeanor punishable by a monetary fine or imprisonment, or both.

    One example is the building standards adopted by the State Fire Marshal and the Department of Housing and Community Development to implement the State Housing Law (SHL) in Health and Safety Code, Division 13, Part 1.5, commencing with Section 17910. Section 17995 establishes a misdemeanor crime for violations of the SHL and the provisions of Title 24 implementing the SHL.”

    Here is the building standards webpage: http://www.bsc.ca.gov/cd_qustns/cq_faqs.htm

    – Katy

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  3. Douglas Strother
    Douglas Strother 21 February, 2011, 20:28

    Waterless urinals: porcelain porta-potties. Extremely nasty!

    Go Green…barf.

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  4. toni little
    toni little 23 February, 2011, 14:31

    Sad to know some journalists don’t do their homework. Square 1: Laws are made to impose “best practice” on those who would otherwise disregard “the greater good”. A lot of good people toiled over the Green Code because the builders you mention could apparently care less about the greater good. Low-flow and waterless products are better in the long run for water consumption and sewer pipe life, and are a long overdue concept.

    San Francisco’s sewage problems could stem from any number of additional factors, including poorly installed toilets, low-flow mechanisms, archaic pipes and engineering. However, pouring millions of pounds of bleach into the bay’s eco-system is just plain ludicrous! Has the City of San Francisco’s Waste Management considered other more natural means of mitigating the over-populated “output”? Or, is “out of sight/smell, out of mind” just simple-minded and good enough?

    If anything, this situation should be a wake up call to recognize that the time-honored practice of flushing needs to be looked at very seriously and from a whole new perspective – It’s another form of human pollution and it has to be dealt with in a more sustainable manner.

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  5. John Koeller
    John Koeller 2 March, 2011, 12:20

    All this story does is raise false concerns about toilets when the REAL issue is probably their sewerage infrastructure. Firstly, ALL sewer lines smell!! Second, the fact that those odors are escaping tells me that they have some serious problems with the sewer lines (aging, leaking, failing, or ?). Third, the water efficiency emphasis by SFPUC has been in place for many years and toilets were NOT the only focus. If there is a lack of water in those sewers and someone has definitively established that the cause is water conservation, then they should examine ALL of the water reduction initiatives undertaken by SFPUC over those many years, not toilets by themselves. However, in my view, this ‘stink’ has nothing at all to do with water conservation or toilets, but rather with aging sewer infrastructure that needs replacement or repair.

    To then extrapolate this situation to other ‘California cities’ by the authors is even more ridiculous. Clearly, we have media people writing articles that get attention but have no factual basis behind them, because artificial publication deadlines do not allow for any fact-finding (or might it be because these columnists have no understanding whatsoever of technical issues, including infrastructure, engineering, and water demand?)

    Really, the ONLY thing that readers should be concerned about is the bleach issue. Is this merely replacing one odor with another? And have the impacts really been fully addressed?

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  6. Chuck Lambie
    Chuck Lambie 22 December, 2011, 16:26

    I wonder what 27 million pounds of bleach will do to the microbes that break down sewage in the digesters? If it kills them, then the city will have to add microbes back into the system so the sewage get treated properly.

    Reply this comment
  7. Dan
    Dan 24 April, 2012, 10:06

    The series Dirty Jobs had an episode where Mike went into the sewers with city workers to repair the aging “brick” sewer lines. Very old and very small lines nowhere near the standard of modern sewer lines. But how do you replace an already inadequate system that runs throughout the busiest and most influential areas of downtown SF without, temporarily at least, making the system worse?

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