How a potato persuaded San Antonio to use high-efficiency toilets
By Allen Best
High-end hotels along San Antonio’s famed canal bought into water efficiency programs quickly. To sell the general public, however, San Antonio Water System needed potatoes—yes, the spuds you buy at grocery stores.
The agency serves a fast-growing metropolitan area of now 1.7 million. San Antonio gets 32 inches of precipitation a year, but not in convenient doses. The local joke is that a third of it comes each year on just one weekend.
That’s a lot of water compared to many places, but the city still needs to draw on an underground source, the Edwards Aquifer, for its water. To expand supplies would cost up to $800 an acre-foot. Improving efficiency costs half that much.
Sixteen years ago, the public utility began offering rebates to customers who installed low-flush, high-efficiency toilets. The city later began purchasing toilets in bulk for distribution to customers after negotiating with manufacturers.
Karen Guz, director of water conservation for San Antonio Water, says hotels were an attractive target because they have high occupancy and hence high use. “There’s always somebody in those rooms.”
With that in mind, the agency offered free toilets—and, in some cases—installation to the Hyatt, Holiday Inn, along with other brand-name hotels. At the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, the first hotel retrofitted, indoor water use immediately dropped 30 percent. Was the meter broken? No. It was the new normal.
An unexpected benefit for the hotels was improved performance. The worry was that the new toilets would plug up. In fact, they work better.
“They were concerned about making sure that it didn’t cause them other problems, to have the toilet back up and the room be out of service,” explains Guz. In fact, she adds, the hotels found that they had fewer rooms out of service. “They were really pleased.”
The test for one hotel manager was whether a wash cloth could be flushed down the new toilets. In that case, it did go down.
“I am not saying every high-efficiency toilet can flush a wash cloth, but it’s more likely to go down (than an older higher-volume toilet).”
The general public was perhaps a harder sell, which brings us back to spuds, ones capable of making it into a bin at Costco—which is to say large. The larger potatoes were used in demonstrations of the efficacy of the high-efficiency toilets, all of it shown on television.
“Overnight, we had a bunch of applications,” says Guz. Gone were the perceptions of high-efficiency toilets tainted by those first produced several decades ago.
This reduced indoor use has helped San Antonio reduce needs for new water, but also for wastewater treatment, possibly saving the utility up to $1 billion.
The standard residential toilet replacement has ended, but low-income and commercial toilet replacement options remain. After replacing toilets in 200,000 homes and more in businesses, not many bathrooms were left.
Now, the city has moved on to focus on industrial applications and also outdoor irrigation. Lawn watering is needed, when daily temperatures in summer hit 95 degrees. San Antonio gets 32 inches of precipitation, but in spurts, not like the drizzle of Seattle. Outdoor spigots now constitute the low-hanging fruit of water efficiency in San Antonio.
If San Antonio were to do a toilet program today, says Guz, it would be much easier, because it would be possible to piggyback on the WaterSense program established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006.
Texas several years ago adopted WaterSense standards, focusing more narrowly on toilet fixtures. In its state-wide water planning, Texas expects 20 percent of the water needed for population growth to come from conservation.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which services Las Vegas and Henderson, says that toilets consume about 27 percent of water used inside a home.