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Guest Column

Flushing away our freedom

My toilets are turning me into my father.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, there were few greater worries than the plumbing. This was mostly because plumbers were expensive and many families had only one income.

My father, always looking for a bargain, purchased the cheapest toilet he could find for the powder room he finished in the basement. It never did work right.

For starters, it was absurdly small - as though it had been designed for miniature people. It didn't take more than a few pieces of tissue to clog it. My father was soon spending much of his spare time unplugging it - and pleading with us not to use it.

Inevitably, however, somebody would use it, it would clog, my mother would rush to shut off the valve, and my father would grumble to her, "For godssakes, Betty, why can't they use the upstairs commodes?"

Still, that old toilet was lots better than the new toilets I have installed in a couple of rental units I own - and now, like my father before me, the plumbing is one of my greatest sources of worry.

That worry is caused by federal action taken in the early 1990s.

Back then, each state had its own toilet standards, which made toilet manufacturing more costly. So a toilet association lobbied Congress to create one national toilet standard, an idea that made sense.

But the move to standardize was seized upon by bureaucrats and environmentalists. They saw an opportunity to craft a federal law that would conserve the nation's water supply. Somebody arbitrarily decided that a 1.6-gallon toilet, rather than the 3.5- to 5-gallon toilets most Americans were then using, would do the trick, and some legislator slipped the requirement into the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1992.

For nearly 20 years now, the government has mandated that new U.S. toilets use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush, down from the robust 3.5 gallons per flush Americans had enjoyed since we perfected the art of indoor plumbing.

Scientifically speaking, 1.6 gallons of conventional gravity flushing isn't very powerful. It's barely powerful enough to flush a few errant strands of tissue - which is great for singer Sheryl Crow, who recommends that that is all we use.

Here's the kicker: Unless you get a top model at top dollar, which can be somewhat functional, the new toilets aren't necessarily conserving much water at all. A plumbing expert I talked with told me that to prevent clogs, people are flushing two or three times to get the job done.

And so I worry. I've warned my tenants about the problem. I've urged them to embrace the Sheryl Crow philosophy, but clogs are common and a massive overflow into the rental units below me is just a matter of time.

It's no wonder, then, that such federal laws are turning law-abiding Americans into criminals. It is now illegal to "procure" a 3.5-gallon toilet, but that hasn't stopped desperate fathers and landlords from driving to Canada, where the larger-flow models are still available.

If you get caught with one, though, the feds will slap you with a $2,500 fine and prosecute you for transporting porcelain over federal lines for illegal flushes.

This infringement on our freedoms is an outrage, yet the ACLU is nowhere to be found. Hey, ACLU, government bureaucrats have no right butting into our bathrooms!

What will they take away next? Our Reader's Digests?

- Tom Purcell is a freelance writer, and is nationally syndicated

by Cagle Catoons

(Purcell@caglecartoons.com).

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