Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Low-flow, low-tech

Way back when, when toilets had five to ten gallons of water, there was no reason to engineer them that well. Five gallons of water can wash away just about anything you like with brute force alone. And anything it can't wash away shouldn't've been there in the first place.

When people started realizing we needed to not waste water like that, and the tanks got dramatically smaller (today's tanks are around a gallon and a half), at first, they didn't change the engineering. They just used less water the same way. The result of course was toilets that barely worked and which people hated. Often, it meant they flushed repeatedly to avoid a clog and maybe used up even more water. (Or so it was argued. If you think of how often you use the toilet for liquid wastes instead of solid, even if you flushed five times in the latter case, a low-flow toilet still uses less water overall.)

After a while, someone realized, hey, we can probably make up the vast decrease in water pressure by engineering a better-built, better-designed toilet. Sure enough, even a fairly simple change is able to get most of the effectiveness of the old five-gallon monsters. And more advanced toilets like assisted-flush ones are far more effective, and clog less, while still using a fraction of the water.

But by then, so many people had convinced themselves that "low-flow toilets are awful" that there's no recapturing that bad first impression. There's still a black market in old-style toilets -- people actually pay more for them, in some cases, than they would have to pay for an assisted-flush toilet that works better. More often, though, people just buy the cheapest toilet (i.e., one engineered precisely as they were done in the 1950s), like my office just did; then complain that it doesn't work well, and place the blame not on their choice of toilet but on the environmental movement.

So often when technology advances, people carry a grudge about the first not-very-good implementation long past when the problems in it have been resolved. I think the one thing that sets neophiles apart from neo-Luddites is that neophiles look at a bleeding-edge technology and see what it could become; neo-Luddites only see what it isn't, today.

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