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Royal flush

James Dechant | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Chinese government is certainly a busy agency. It undoubtedly has trouble finding time to rest in between squashing Tibetan dissenters (led by the savage, incendiary Dalai Lama), blocking YouTube from all Internet traffic, and suing Guns N’ Roses for their use of “Chinese Democracy” as the band’s 13-years-in-the-making album title. But when the government does have a few spare moments, it turns its attention to the upcoming Olympic games scheduled for this August in Beijing.

Olympic officials recently faced a challenge when they realized that many of the half-million expected foreign visitors will not be accustomed to China’s squat toilets, little loos built into the ground that require no skin-to-porcelain contact. The organizers therefore decided to switch many of their squat commodes to Western-style sit-down toilets. This will relieve American visitors accustomed to relaxing on their porcelain thrones, but the switch to sitters also sacrifices some potential water use efficiency.

We here in the West are not lacking in efficient toilet options – we just fail to explore the full range of lavatory alternatives. For example, I attended John Cabot University in Rome last spring and I was much impressed by their dual-flush toilets in the bathrooms there. These rising stars in the toilet industry have two flush options: a low-flow flush for liquid waste and a high-flow option for solid waste disposal. (Apologies to those of you reading this in the dining hall.) Giving the user the option of two flushes offers huge potential for water conservation.

The American industry standard for toilet water consumption is 1.6 gallons per flush on all toilets since 1992. Older toilets gulp 3.5 or even 4.5 gallons of water every flush. The dual-flush toilet, in contrast to these water hogs, uses between .8 and 1.1 gallons for low-flow flushes and from 1.3 to 1.6 gallons for high-flow flushes, yielding an average of about 1.2 gallons per flush. That gives a 25 percent savings each and every time you plop down to read the newspaper.

The prospective water conservation on campus that a move to dual-flush toilets would bring is staggering. If the University wants to appear serious in its environmental efforts, it should – after chopping off the power plant smokestack – make a commitment to dual-flush toilets. (It could be the “No. 2” priority. Pardon the pun.) Allow me to – forgive me – dump some figures on you.

The Notre Dame Facilities Operations Web site tells us there are over 2,000 campus toilets cleaned by Building Services every day. Now, I realize that some of those toilets are male-use urinals. In my section’s bathrooms in Siegfried Hall, we have two urinals and five toilets, or two urinals for every seven working toilets. Assuming that campus toilet facilities are evenly split between genders, we have 1,000 toilets for use by males. Applying the urinal:toilet ratio of 2:7 to this number, we find that roughly 300 (or 286 for you fraction sticklers) of the male toilets are urinals. That does not even take into account the urinal troughs of the Stadium, quite active during football weekends. Subtracting this from the overall 2,000 potties gives us a working figure of roughly 1,700 sitter toilets with the potential for a dual-flush overhaul.

The average person flushes about six times per day. Returning to my case study of Siegfried: The residence hall has about 50 toilets (five toilets and two urinals for six sections, plus AR, rector, and first-floor bathrooms). If the dorm’s 240 residents each flush six times daily, the collective 1,440 flushes spread out over 50 toilets yields 28.8 flushes per toilet per day. Taking into account high-traffic latrines in classroom buildings, we can allow for a conservative estimate of 30 uses of a toilet throughout the day. Multiplying the 30 by the 1,700 campus sitters gives us 51,000 flushes of the john every single day.

Using conventional water closets, we go through roughly 81,600 gallons of water to dispose of our waste every day (51,000 flushes times 1.6 gallons per flush.) Now if we return to our earlier figure of a twenty-five percent savings gained from dual-flush toilets, we find we can potentially save over 20,000 gallons of water per day. That means over seven million gallons of water saved annually.

I realize, of course, that not all wastewater is irretrievably lost. Sewage treatment facilities can reclaim a great deal of the water we bid adieu, but the figure of seven million gallons nevertheless demands attention. Many bodies of water contain less. I would guess, based on no scientific calculations whatsoever, that you could empty one of the campus lakes and fill it up again with the 7 million gallons we can save every year.

Here at Notre Dame, we don’t have to worry about Olympic preparations or Tibetan protesters or YouTube censorship, and Guns N’ Roses only occasionally wreaks havoc. With all the time we have, we ought to explore installing a sophisticated network of dual-flush toilets, saving the precious natural resource of water. The Dalai Lama would approve.

James Dechant is a senior English and Theology major. Toilet humor or corrections to his math can be sent to him at jdechant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.