Is the courtesy flush dead?

By Paul Michael on 11 December 2008 (Updated 22 February 2010) 40 comments

Nora’s recent article “Saving the planet - one drop at a time” rang a bell with me as I was sat in the men’s bathroom at work yesterday. All the stalls were occupied and every minute I heard flushing. It was constant. This once kind act of “courtesy flushing” may now be offensive considering the state of the planet…and the price of the water bill.

WiseGeek describes the act of courtesy flushing in some detail:

A courtesy flush can occur during or after the act of defecation, particularly when using public facilities. A courtesy flush is meant to be just that, a courtesy for others. If you know ahead of time you are about to pay the price for last night's overindulgences, you may want to consider flushing the toilet several times during your visit in order to minimize unpleasant odors. The common belief is that most unpleasant odors are generated between delivery and reception, if you get my drift. This type of courtesy flush is supposed to take the offenders out of the game as soon as possible, thus reducing the total exposure time for others.

There are others who suggest a courtesy flush should be coordinated with emanations of unknown origin. Trapped gases or explosive diarrhea can create embarrassing sounds, along with a vapor cloud banned as inhumane after World War I. A well-timed courtesy flush should cover up any unexpected developments both tangible and intangible. Arguments against a courtesy flush of this type generally involve the principles of flowing water and suction. Finally, and I for one cannot use that word quickly enough, there is the post-ceremonial courtesy flush. No one likes to leave a bad impression, and few things qualify as well as an unflushed or underflushed toilet. For some users, the paperwork may not be completely finished, which should prompt a courtesy flush in order to leave a clean bowl behind. Others may find a second or even third courtesy flush may be in order to deal with things which cannot seem to accept their fate with dignity.

I think that covers it. But look at the number of uses contained in that long write-up of the humble courtesy flush. There’s pre-flushing, mid-flushing, post-flushing, stubborn-stain flushing and strategic flushing to cover embarrassing sounds.

In the perfect storm of a bad stomach upset and a particularly embarrassed toilet user, there could be as many as six or seven flushes in one sitting. It could even get into double figures. Even with today’s low-flow toilets that use only 1.6 gallons per flush (toilets in the 50’s used SEVEN gallons), you’re looking at over 10 gallons of water for one toilet visit.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Even if you only do one courtesy flush, you’re still doubling the number of gallons that should be used in a “number two” scenario. Now consider that the average African family uses just five gallons of water per day, compared to the astonishing 176 gallons of the average American (not American family, just one American).

A courtesy flush here or there may seem like nothing, but you’re literally flushing away one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. We use it with reckless abandon while in third world countries, people are traveling for hours in the baking sun for water that we wouldn’t wash our dogs with. This is messed up.

I say the courtesy flush should be no more. Banish it. Forget it. I don’t care if you’re producing noxious aromas that would shame a flatulent elephant, it’s just not worth it. And as for the embarrassment factor, are you serious? Show me one person who doesn’t make sounds in the bathroom and I’ll show you a liar. We all do it. So what?

If the smells are really troubling to you, there are other solutions. You can invest in odor reduction toilets which release small amounts of deodorant during your toilet stay. You can also buy sprays like Courtesy Flush which banish odors with a simple squirt.

Some toilets in Europe have been fitted with two flushes, one heavy and one light, to deal with number one and number two. Makes sense, although some customers have been using the light flush as the courtesy flush. Not good enough.

Bottom line; the planet can’t afford the courtesy flush any more. If we’re down to saving the planet one drop at a time, we can certainly make a difference by eliminating the millions of gallons wasted every year due to politeness or shame. Do your part folks. 
 

Additional photo credit: Flickr / NNOVA
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Guest's picture
Guest

What's up with the automatic flushing toilets? Sometimes it goes off 3 or 4 times in one sitting. Nothing like wasting water AND electricity. Then there's the splashback....

Andrea Karim's picture

Agreed, Paul. Mind you, the women in my office building barely flush, much less courtesy-flush. I didn't realize that men were so diligent about it.

I hate auto-flush toilets! The public bathroom at the mall flush when I close the stall door, take off my coat, and sit down, then again when I sit up. And they flush quite violently, too, probably using more than two gallons per flush.

Guest's picture
Wilson

Water is a renewable resource. And how does flushing a toilet in North America diminish the supply in Africa? Butterfly Effect? Antimatter toilets?

Guest's picture
asithi

It is a requirement to treat the water before it can be release back into the river or ocean. When you double flush, there is the extra chemicals, bacteria, and energy it cost to treat the extra flushed water. So the less you use, the less you have to treat. There is the environment cost of producing chemical, bacteria, and energy used in the treatment process.

Though water is a renewable resource, because of people moving into areas like the Las Vegas or New Mexico, where there is naturally little water, you still have to get the water to those places (energy used to transport the water), etc.

So no matter how renewable the resource there is still an environmental component to it.

Guest's picture
na0

well, apparently washing your hands when you are done in the stall is also a no-no now at my work place.

i was in the ladies room at work today and i saw one of my co-workers exit the bathroom stall and leave the bathroom without washing her hands. probably the grossest thing i've witnessed all week.

Paul Michael's picture

We have watering restrictions and fines, Wilson. Where do you live?

Linsey Knerl's picture

We use rain barrels for most all of our outside watering needs (including some of the livestock) and we are very careful to conserve.  The way I see it, I've done my part, and a "courtesy flush" or two -- whatever is needed -- is in no way over the top.  We also have a septic system, and with 4 boys in the house, we need to baby our waste plumbing a bit.  This may involve a few practice flushes to be sure we don't end up with a backup.

You have to do what you have to do, in my opinion.

Linsey Knerl

Nora Dunn's picture

In Japan (although I haven't seen it), apparently some toilets come with a complicated panel, one of the features of which is a button you can press that makes a flushing sound to mask the sounds of those explosive or gas-promted moments...better than a flush any day in my books! (Too bad about the power consumption though...)

Guest's picture
Guest

When I courtesy flush, it's not because I'm concerned with smells or noises or anything along those lines, it's simply because I don't want the toilet to stop up. I would much rather "waste" a gallon of water than deal with an overflowing toilet.

Guest's picture
Beth

Agreeing with number 8. Thanks to low-flow toilets we have taken to telling young family members to "send things down in batches".

Yes, we are monitoring and moderating toilet paper use in case that is causing the problem. But that doesn't seem to be the issue, so for now the double-flush will continue at our house.

Guest's picture
Guest

for those with shy hinnys, picking a time to go when there is less traffic always makes me feel better, you can make all the noise you want and no one knows

Guest's picture
Guest

In our house, if we have a major poop that also requires major wiping, we flush the poop first, then wipe and flush the tp. Much better than a clogged toilet that requires a plunger and several flushes to clear.

Guest's picture
Guest

Where I live in Australia is still in the grips of a drought and water restrictions, which look to get tougher with summer approaching, and so we are very careful about the water we use.

Like the European toilets discussed, we have a dual flush system and I have never had any problems with blockages with only one flush, no matter what the, for the want of a better word, load is. I do worry just how much toilet paper you guys are sending down there if this is an issue for you, and if maybe we should be more worried about the trees used than the water wasted.

The idea of flushing continually or in batches seems very strange to me. But then when I was in the US I couldn't get over the vast amounts of water your toilets seemed to use anyway.

Considering how obsessive some of you seem about the matter I feel that telling you what my niece was taught at school about flushing could send you all into shock, you have been warned.

"If its yellow, let it mellow (ie don't flush)
If its brown flush it down"

Guest's picture
Guest

I don't know about anyone else, but I try to have those number 2 type bathroom visits at home, where we all know what poop and gas smells and sounds like. If I'm stuck away from home and just have to go, I do the courtesy flush thing. Living green is good, but not when it causes others to feel green around the gills. Moderation in all things, as my mama always said.

Guest's picture
Guest

Seriously? Who cares if it smells, if you make noise, or whatever! It's a natural process people! I've never understood why so many people are squeamish about how their bodies are meant to function. In the grand scheme of things, it's really not important.

I'd never heard of a courtesy flush until now. It sounds like an incredible waste.

To posts #8, 9, and 11, if you let it soak a bit, it'll soften and go down just fine. You don't have to send it down "in batches" to keep your toilet from over flowing.

Guest's picture
Kelly

Why don't we just stop saying "excuse me" when we bump into someone, too? That extra breath is using up valuable air.

Sorry to wait until I disagree to leave a comment. I enjoy all the Wise Bread bloggers tremendously. :)

Guest's picture

with the Anonymous person who asks why we are all so squeamish. Everyone poops, everyone farts. Big deal.

While I've very occasionally flushed a second time to make sure everything went down, I'm proud to say I've never courtesy flushed just for the sake of covering a sound or a smell. What a waste of water.

Guest's picture

I'd be happy if people in toilets had the courtesy to flush, period.

I've been into a public toilet at a restaurant. Where out of about a dozen toilets 8 still had crap in them. It may have been more, but I gave up after that.

Now mind you that was an extreme case. And may have been a deliberate act by some group (that many at the same time, it had to be a conspiracy.)

But still all too often I enter a stall, and find unfinished business.

Guest's picture
Linda

I live in the UK and this is the first time I've heard of a Courtesy Flush

Can't say I've ever noticed it being practiced here.

Many establishments now have half flush toilets depending on the need - to cut down on water consumption.

But as we have so much rain here - I doubt whether we will ever run out!

Guest's picture
Kane

I come to Wisebread because historically it's been a good source of information on saving a buck. I've even recommended it to a few friends.

This article, however, is nothing short of imbecilic; and for the life of me I can't see how this helps me save money. There is indeed a mention of the price of water, however don't courtesy flushes usually happen in public locations? That's "no cost" water!

Secondly, why the mention of Africa? People in Africa probably don't have Dunkin' Donuts on every other corner, does this mean we should stop getting doughnuts and coffee? There's ZERO relation between my flushing and Africa's water supply.

To the editors of wisebread: please keep this site focused on what your readers are here for: living large on a small budget.

Guest's picture
EN

"I don’t care if you’re producing noxious aromas that would shame a flatulent elephant, it’s just not worth it."

LOL.:D

Paul Michael's picture

I've been called many things in my time but "imbecilic" is a first. As we have said numerous times, the WB writers have to be allowed a little creative freedom to keep the blog interesting. This is on topic, saving water is saving money and it's better for everyone. The Africa reference was to point out how wasteful we are with water in this country, it wasn't an attempt to have you ship the saved water to Africa. Now that would be imbecilic. The post I reference in the beginning of the article was, by your logic, also off-topic. So is a post on answering interview questions. That doesn't save money. If you want coupons or deals, there are dedicated sites for that Kane. If you want a little more depth and perhaps some insight or talking points, that's what WB is here for.

Guest's picture
Kane

As I don't wish to start a flame war I'll reply once, read any reply you post (if you wish to post one), and leave it at that.

First off, calling an article imbecilic is not the same as calling the author of said article imbecilic. I don't consider myself to be an imbecile but am guilty of more than a handful of imbecilic acts. :)

Second, my point of courtesy flushes being largely an action done in public restrooms and therefore doesn't save the bathroom goer any money is still valid. Hence, I argue that this isn't really saving the reader any money.

Thirdly (and I don't mean to offend but...) I can only assume that you are joking when you present this particular article as an article with "a little more depth and perhaps some insight."

Now as for your insinuation that my disagreement with your articles content leads me to be simply looking for "coupons or deals," that came across as merely immature. Not only is it false, but it also attempts to simplify my point of view and thereby disregard my comment as whole.

Guest's picture
Guest

"To posts #8, 9, and 11, if you let it soak a bit, it'll soften and go down just fine."

This would be fine if one lives alone. But our household of five has one bathroom/toilet. We cannot 'let it soak a bit' when there's a line waiting to use the toilet. It also doesn't work well if one has guests visiting.

Paul Michael's picture

I will sat that any action we take as a nation to cut down waste will ultimately affect us all. When gas prices were high, people started using less, and prices started coming down. Supply and demand. Of course, the bottom fell out of the stock market after that and people are now consuming at the old levels, but still, less use meant less demand, and that meant less cost. If you can't see how, as a collective, using less will also affect your bottom line, then I'm not sure what else to say.

If you don't think the article has depth, that's fine. I was saying it had more depth than a regular coupon or deal post. Did it make anyone think, even a little? I would say so, looking at all of the replies.

And if you'd like an immature comparison, try your own Dunkin' Donuts reference. It clearly isn't the same as how we waste water on this plant. But at the end of the day, no-one is forcing you to read anything Kane. If you don't like an article, you don't have to keep reading. Just because you don't like it, there's no reason not to post it. I'm sure many people think you're fabulously witty and a great person, but I guarantee not everyone you meet does. By all means, stop reading my posts, but continue to subscribe to WB for the other writers.

 

 

Guest's picture
Rose

"Second, my point of courtesy flushes being largely an action done in public restrooms and therefore doesn't save the bathroom goer any money is still valid. Hence, I argue that this isn't really saving the reader any money."

I am astounded at this mentality. You believe that because the bill does not immediately come out of your own pocket, you are not paying for it and therefore need not concern yourself with cutting down on wastefulness?

'Public' water costs all of us through higher taxes and/or increased overhead costs passed on to the consumer. One way or another, at some point in time, perhaps after many hidden costs, you will be paying for it, and so will many other people.

Maybe this kind of cavalier attitude towards consumption - 'If I'm not paying for it, why should I care?' - and the extraordinary wastefulness it engenders should be the topic of an entirely new post. Paul, Philip, anyone?

Paul Michael's picture

There is definitely an attitude out there of "if I don't get the bill, there is no bill." But we all know different. If the roads are damaged, we all pay. We may not pay directly, but we pay. Kane's attitude seemed somewhat aloof, or cavalier as you so rightly said. We all share the world, or our part of it at least, and we all put money into the pot to keep things like street lights bruning brightly and sewerage systems from backing up. Flushing more costs us all more, whether in your own home with a water bill, or increased taxes due to more public consumption.

Guest's picture

I just bought a new 1.2 gallon flush toilet. Flushes better than any other 1.6 gallon toilet I've ever had.

Guest's picture
Guest

In South Korea, they have what they call flush bells in some of the public toilets. I encountered them in the international airport. They look like a smoke detector in size and shape and are mounted above the toilet paper dispenser.

In one department store I visited, the "toilet" was simply a trough in the floor--- squat and pee was not for me! Thankfully they had a very civilized toilet in one of the stalls.

If you are a man, get a messanger bag and carry a can of Lysol or Oust. If you are a woman, well, you probably have a handbag large enough to haul around that, the feminine hygiene products, spare tissue and a makeup bag.

For God sakes, everyone flush upon leaving, make sure you wrap up your used feminine items and dispose of them, clean up after yourself and WASH YOUR HANDS! My husband says the men's rooms are all filthy and nasty. I vouch the same for the women's. I've gotten where I don't shake hands with anyone because most people just won't wash their hands with soap and water. I don't want your germs.

When you do wash your hands, take your paper towel and wipe up your water drips too. Do you really live like a pig at home? If so, make sure you do not invite me over.

When you come to my house, you'll find sprays, wipes, cleaner, plunger and anything else you need. PLEASE do not leave your mess for me to clean up. There is a fan for you to turn on and if you need to flush more than once, do that too.

I'd rather turn off the water while brushing my teeth or shorten my shower time than give up my courtsey flushing!!!!!

Guest's picture
Debora

"The Africa reference was to point out how wasteful we are with water in this country"
It would seem to me this is only true if one assumes people in Africa choose to use that little water and are not confined by a lack of water. Is that really so? If you wish to prove the US is wasteful in water useage, you should compare it to a similar society with similar access to water.

Furthermore, I agree that flushing less saves money, but I am at a loss why "the planet can’t afford the courtesy flush any more". Okay, so cleaning the water is a cost to the environment. But is is really that much? Numbers, anyone?

Guest's picture
MadJayhawk

The two flush toilets are great. My next one will be one of those. No need for a full bore flush to take care of a little tinkle. Save the heavy artillery type flush for the really big sewer system blockers.

Another thing, when replacing a toilet look in Home Depot and you will find that not all toilets are created equal. They are now rated according to their ability to get rid of things like a bucket of golf balls. Ever seen white, dimpled poo? Get one rated a 10 and your problems will vanish.

I will run for President in 2012 on the promise to equip every toilet with a bidet. There are things that really need some kind of bailout.

Guest's picture
Leslie

This is one of the most moronic blog entries I've read, anywhere. For heaven's sake...

Guest's picture
MACscr

I agree leslie as well, but my comment got deleted. As mentioned, water is a renewable resource. What if solar energy was used to treat the water, would you be ok with it then? What about people that use well water and dont treat their water at all for their plumbing?

Guest's picture
asithi

Solar energy requires a large footprint. For existing treatment plants in urban areas, it is impossible to get the amount of land require for the generation of the solar energy. Also, don't forget that there are chemicals involved in the treatment process that requires manufacturing. The production of those chemicals are not going to be run on solar energy either.

For people using well water, don't forget that there is often a pump involve that uses energy to get the water out of the ground and into the house. Then once they flush, well, then your local municipal have to treat the sewage.

Sure, water is a renewal resource, but are you willing to haul water from a well and carry it home? That is the only way to not use any energy to transport the water over vast distances to your house so that you only need to turn on a tap.

And are you ready to empty it into a hole in your yard after your business? That is the only way to not use energy and chemicals to treat the sewage before it can be release back into the river and ocean so we can use it again once it goes through nature's filtration.

Guest's picture
Cinder

but it's really quite important. There are many who think this is a ridiculous and/or disgusting topic, but it's a fact of life. If you live in a city, you simply flush away your effluvia (and all your worries apparently), and you don't have to deal with the reality of your body and your lifestyle and your waste.

I was intrigued by this post because I am in the design process of building a new home. I am designing a home that will not require a septic tank and where all the greywater is recycled into a flower garden. That means I'll have to have some sort of composting toilet and (brace yourselves, potty-talk-haters) deal with my own waste!

It's not as awful as it may sound. There are some extraordinary composting toilets available and they're in use all over the world. Vancouver even has an entire office building that uses composting toilets and everything works fine. They are saving the city water and they've eliminated their impact on the sewage system. (The building also uses its greywater onsite.)

So, the bottom line is saving water and reducing your impact on your city's sewage system is good for everyone.

Guest's picture
Guest

Wow! None of this would be open to debate in Australia where we value water as a resource we have to take care of. I don't think any Australian has heard of a "courtesy flush". I would have thought that all of the saving water ideas would just go without saying - but judging by the comments here I'm totally wrong. Truly amazing!

Guest's picture
lol

Okay, what is this? Tree huggers commenting on a tree hugger's blog? Look, I don't know how you people live, but I guess you're used to the "what a wierdo!" looks on people's faces when you exit the stall after making splashing noises, butt-perfuming the stall and leaving a brown paste on the seats so that the next guy can puke in the bowl. Now why should he flush too? It's just waste, somebody else will ultimately take a crap in it too. The next thing you'll be saying is to flush only when the contents of the bowl might spill out of the bowl if it is crapped in unflushed. Come on, courtesy flushes are cool. Stop hugging those trees, tree huggers!

Guest's picture

I'm interested in converting to a dual flush toilet, but I don't want to buy a whole new toilet, any suggestions? I've seen this site, http://www.dualflushtoilet.ca and it looks pretty good. What do you think?

Guest's picture
Guest

This could all be solved by creating stalls that give you some real privacy. I love visiting Japan because the stalls go down to the floor and often all the way to the ceiling. I'm in my on little room and I can make all the noise I want. The ventilation is awesome and some toilets even have an ionic smell catcher for #2 or button that make rain or ocean wave sounds. LOL I call for no more 2 inch gapes in the stall door for that awkward glance from a passer-by, or stall walls are so inexplicably high I can't really lower my pants with out sharing the color of my underwear with the person in the next stall. Down with tissue dispensers installed so low you have to skin your knuckles to pull out enough to wipe.

Guest's picture
Guest

How about having closed public toilets and a fan in it, so you are the only one eating completely the smell, that would be better.