Twenty-five years ago this week, President George H.W. Bush ushered the federal government into our bathrooms.
This turned out to be a good thing.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct 92), approved with bipartisan support in Congress and signed by Bush 41 on October 24, 1992, contained the first national standards requiring water efficiency in new consumer products. Despite being the butt of some toilet-themed ribbing, this historic act has brought about a sea-change in how Americans use water. Over the past quarter century, standards for plumbing fixtures and appliances such as shower heads, washing machines, and yes, toilets, have saved taxpayers billions of dollars while protecting water resources across the country—and they’re still working today.
The plumbing industry actually lobbied for the passage of national water efficiency standards back in 1992. Beginning in the 1980s, states and localities became aware of the benefits of water efficiency, and by 1992, 17 states and the District of Columbia had adopted their own minimum requirements. Industry saw the implications of a patchwork of dozens of state and local rules. They preferred a national market for their products, and the federal standard provided it, making life simpler for manufacturers and distributors, and protecting against non-compliant products from foreign manufacturers as well.
The EPAct standards focused on newly made products, which gradually make their way into homes and businesses as owners upgrade or replace their old equipment. While most surveys found customers satisfied with their new products, a few loud complaints of poor performance with early products led some columnists and politicians to lampoon federal standards for toilets as emblematic of all the pitfalls of government regulations. Better designs and consumer information quickly emerged, however, and an effort in 1999-2000 led by Michigan Congressman Joe Knollenberg to repeal the water-efficiency standards collapsed in the face of united opposition from plumbing manufacturers, water utilities, and the environmental community.
Nationwide, this shift toward more efficient plumbing has resulted in a quiet but dramatic drop in household water use, which previously had been on the rise since the 1940s. According to a 2011 study in the Journal of the American Water Works Association, by 2008 a typical single-family household used 32 fewer gallons of water every day than an identical household in 1978, largely due to more efficient plumbing. At today’s median U.S. water and sewer rates, these water savings are worth about $90 per year. Coupled with the energy savings from more efficient faucets, showerheads, and clothes washers that reduce the amount of water that needs to be heated, the total savings from products that meet federal water efficiency standards are well over $100 per household each year.
The savings trend was further documented in a 2016 study that found that indoor household water use dropped 22 percent nationwide since 1999, from 177 gallons to 138 gallons per day. Most of this drop was found to be due to more efficient clothes washers and toilets. Toilets are still the biggest water users in the house—even more than showers—responsible for an average of more than 33 gallons a day. That’s because only 37 percent of these toilets in 2016 households were in fact high efficiency, leaving plenty of room for this standard to save even more in the future. Water use by businesses, industries, and institutions has also been dropping, according to a study of water use in the city of Phoenix, and for some of the same reasons.
Besides putting money back into consumers’ pockets, slashing water use also saves important resources for state and local authorities. The widespread use of highly efficient water fixtures saves billions of dollars in investment in expensive water infrastructure, including tanks, pumps, pipes, and reservoirs, the size and cost of which are partly determined by the volume or flow they must accommodate. And as our water consumption decreases, so does the rationale for damming more rivers and withdrawing more fresh water from vulnerable ecosystems.
Thanks to state and federal water efficiency standards, Los Angeles used less water in 2015 than it did in 1970, despite serving a million more people. But you don't have to go the left coast to find examples of growing communities using less water these days. Columbus, Ohio, Madison Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, among others, have all seen water use drop, even without the major water conservation campaigns that are more common in the West. And New York City has achieved dramatic reductions in both water use and sanitary sewer discharges, through a combination of water efficiency standards and municipally-supported retrofit programs.
More Can Be Done
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about water efficiency is that even after 25 years of steady improvement, there is still much more it can do. Researchers have estimated that if every household were fully equipped with today's higher efficiency devices, average indoor household water use could drop an additional 35 percent or more. And there’s plenty of room for improvement in outdoor water use too, particularly in California, where a proposed state standard for ubiquitous lawn spray sprinklers could reduce sprinkler water use by 20 percent, saving California consumers more than $5 billion.
There’s no doubt that the libertarian urge that drives some of us to satirize government regulations is alive and well in America. But consumers aren’t craving a specific volume of water to flush their toilet the way some might want a quart of ice cream rather than a pint. What user really cares that there is a regulation that limits a flush to 1.6 gallons of water, rather than some other number? Federal regulations have not limited the choice of styles, colors, or finishes of plumbing products, nor have they pushed up retail prices for consumers or forced us to accept substandard performance. On the contrary, efficient plumbing products are available that work well, save consumers and communities money, and leave a bit more fresh water in our rivers, lakes, and estuaries.
At a time when federal efficiency standards are under attack, and even the Environmental Protection Agency’s voluntary WaterSense program is proposed for elimination under President Trump’s initial budget, it’s helpful to remember what water efficiency is really about—supporting U.S. industry and innovation, protecting our natural resources, saving money for American consumers, and helping communities become more resilient in the face of climate change.