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Toilet talk

I crossed a line last week and made the personal political.
Unintentionally. I was in a public restroom and a middle-aged woman
(now 60 is middle-aged) stopped washing her hands to comment on my
baby. While it’s always nice to hear that your child is “maja”
(attractive physically and/or demeanor), it’s really just something to
say and she had left the water running to tell me.

I smiled and looked down at the sink so she might follow my eyes. But
she continued. “Que espabilada.” (How animated.) I hear that one a lot,
but really that could just mean that she’s fussy. Something else to say
and her water was still running. I was starting to sweat. I averted my
eyes again, but I could tell she was one of those who wanted to chat.
So I made my move. I reached across her and shut off the water. That
stopped her.

Despite stereotypes – those that involve being warm and expressive
verbally and physically-, most of the Spanish I’ve met (predominantly
in Northern Spain) have a strong sense of personal space. And while
it’s okay to cross into that to comment on a baby (I definitely get
more comments, from all ages and both sexes, here in Spain than in the
U.S.), you don’t invade that space for environmental reasons.

If you want hippie-dippie feel good vibes, you need to go to those
ghettos like Plaza George Orwell in Barcelona aka “Plaza de Trippy”.
Though really there you’ll get more “perro flautas” – the direct
translation is “dog flute”, but it refers to the European homeless who
travel here with their dogs to play their flutes for money – than
“kumbas” (as in “kumbaya, my friend”, loose translation: crunchy,
granola type).

Perhaps I expect everyone to be like the
hi-neighbor-communal-working-together-openness of much of Northern
California and the Pacific Northwest. It’s not just found on Haight
Street with its eco-businesses like Magnolia “sustainable” Pub & Brewery, the original Body Shop- now called Body Time-, and funky, fashionable used clothing stores like Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads and Wasteland (Angelina Jolie just bought her secondhand
opening night gown for “A Mighty Heart” from the LA branch. It was just
$26), but now even preppier neighborhoods like Russian Hill have their
upscale green home stores, like A store called Spring and the Green Home Center.

This attitude extends up the coast through Humboldt, Eugene, Portland,
Seattle to Vancouver, where every other clothing designer seems to be
re-using castoff materials to join the “refashioned clothing” movement.
I talked to women making clothes from torn stockings, dryer sheets, and old sweaters.

“If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”

In the drought-plagued Northern California of my childhood (the
seventies), reaching across someone to shut off their water was
nothing. The limits were being set by those who responded to a
houseguest’s query for the bathroom location with “Down the hall on the
right. And if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”.

If you’re unfamiliar with this term visit the Urban Dictionary, where they define it as “a phrase used to determine the appropriate circumstances under which to flush a toilet. Urine was to be left unflushed in the toilet bowl while feces were to be flushed right after bowel evacuation.”

If this is the first time you’ve heard the phrase it might sound a bit, well, dirty hippie,
but back in 2005, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, suggested it as a
voluntary city policy for his water-hogging constituents (Londoners use 165 litres/day.
Berliners use 120 litres). “We are asking people to consider – and
obviously it is a matter of personal choice – that if all you have done
is take a pee, you don’t need to flush the toilet every time.”

For the flush-addicted uninitiated, this probably sounds unhygienic,
but as opposed to the “brown” alternative, human pee is actually quite
sterile. In fact, back in 100 AD, the Romans used urine as toothpaste
and mouthwash. Apparently, imported urine from Portugal was highly
regarded as the best whitener. According to Australian author and tv
analyst Dr. Stephan Juan, “urine remained a common ingredient in
toothpastes well into the 18th century. This was because early dentists
knew that urine is a ready source of ammonia – one of the most effective natural cleaning and disinfecting agents. Even today, ammonia can often be found in modern dental pastes.”

I won’t get into urophagia
or the controversial tv host Bear Grylls and his Discovery Channel show
Man vs. Wild where during the Australia episode, “Bear puts himself in
the position of a lost tourist to demonstrate how to prevent sunstroke,
find bush tucker and explain why drinking your own urine could save your life.”

Peeing in our drinking water

Now to go back a step, I’m not suggesting anyone actually drink this
stuff, or whiten their teeth with it, but perhaps we need to get things
a bit more in perspective. As explained by the very preppy-looking
water consultant Dylan Coleman- who seems better-suited to advise
wealthy industrialists on more efficient drip irrigation systems than
to engage in toilet talk-, “Mellow yellow. No reason to flush when you
pee once. 1.6 gallons of water for a half a cup of pee is a little extreme in my opinion” (* 1.6 gallons is the low-flow amount. The older, low efficiency bowls use 3-7 gallons per flush).

The idea that we’re peeing into our drinking water is really quite
outrageous. After all, water is becoming increasingly scarce as
worldwide water consumption is now doubling at twice the rate of
population growth. Currently, 1 in every six people (over 1 billion) lacks access to safe drinking water. And it’s not just a problem for developing nations.

Last month, the NRDC released a report warning those in the American
West to get used to drought. Barry Nelson, the study’s co-author, put
it bluntly, “Global warming will make it harder for farms and cities to find water.” Already, the effects on the water supply are evident (as compiled by the NRDC):

  • The
    Colorado River, supplying water to parts of Arizona, California,
    Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, has received just over
    half its average flow over the past 8 years.
  • Southern California is experiencing its driest year on record this year.
  • The
    Department of Water Resources is predicting that every river in the
    southern Sierra Nevada will receive less than half of normal runoff
    this year.

That’s their bad news. The good news, as they tell it, is that
conservation works. “For example, water use in the City of Los Angeles
has remained steady for 30 years despite dramatic population growth
thanks to investments such as low flow showerheads and toilets.”

Beyond low flow toilets: the frugal flush flapper 

Toilets consume about 40% of domestic water so I’m going to stick with
the latrine talk for a bit. A very easy way to make sure you aren’t
just leaking water is to perform a fun little experiment. Squirt some
food coloring into your tank and wait 15 minutes to see if any color
appears in the bowl. If you see color, you have a leak (You can also
buy leak detection dye tablets, but food coloring works just as well).

While most of us with newer homes have low-flow toilets (in the U.S.,
federal law in 1994 limited the flush to 1.6 gallons), many of the
older 3-7 gallon toilets have been grandfathered in.

If you’re waiting
to replace it due to budget constraints or rental status (though
oftentimes you or your landlord can get an upgrade for free through a
state/regional program, like in Southern Nevada), there are a lot of toilet tank displacement devices on the market (toilet tummy, toilet tank dam, a tank displacement bag and the toilet tank bank),
but you can put just about anything back there to displace the water,
like wine bottles or milk jugs filled with water or sand and sealed

The marketplace of efficiency devices doesn’t end with tank displacers.
There are actually a surprising variety of very affordable gadgets for
sale to make both large tank, and low flow, toilets more efficient. 

The toilet fill-cycle diverter
sounds high tech, but it’s actually a 99-cent piece of plastic that
fastens to the fill hose of a toilet’s tank to conserve 1/2 to
1-and-1/2 gallons per flush. How it works: with a normal flush the tank
fills slower than the bowl so even once the bowl has filled, water
continues to flow into until the tank is filled. With the diverter,
water from the bowl is diverted back to fill the tank faster. 

The 5 dollar Frugal Flush flapper,
or any other early-close flapper, is designed to shut sooner than the
standard flapper valve (which it replaces) to achieve a full flush
without allowing all the water from the toilet tank to flow into the
bowl. Some of these are adjustable to allow you to balance saving water
and clearing the bowl.

From dual flush to power assist tanks

Moving to Spain, I was introduced to a whole new way to flush: the dual
flush or the adjustable flush (you-set-your-flush-amount) style
toilets. While dual flush are common in Europe and Australia and are
becoming more popular in the US (as demonstrated by ecobroker Chris Bartle and a toilet saleswoman at West Coast Green), they’re not the only HET (High Efficiency Toilet) on the market. If you do have the option to buy new, here are a few of the HET offerings:

  • Dual
    flush: a two button system- one button for “yellow” (.8-1.1 gpf –
    gallons per flush-) and another button for “brown” (1.3-1.6 gpf).
  • Gravity fed single flush: 1.1 and 1.28 gpf.
  • Pressure
    assist: use either water line pressure or a device in the tank to
    create additional force from air pressure to flush the toilet. Average
    1.1 to 1.2 gpf.
  • Power assist: use a pump to force water
    down at a higher velocity than gravity toilets. Require a 120V power
    source to operate the small fractional horsepower pump. Between 1 and
    1.3 gpf. Dual-flush models also available.

If you’re having trouble evaluating the options, plumber Terry Love provides a consumer review of the top low flow brands. His top pick is the “Ultramax” by Toto which has a 1.6 gpf and uses power gravity for “what appears to be a 3 second flush”.

Greywater guerrillas

Short of investing in a waterless urinal (in a video from Solar One eco building or a Spanish urinal salesman
– good visuals even if you don’t speak the language- ), there is
another way to achieve an extremely low-impact flush: greywater. This
involves replumbing your bathroom and/or kitchen so that the relatively
clean water from the sinks, shower, dishwasher and/or washing machine
can be given a second life to flush the toilet or water the plants
(using biodegradable soap).

You can do this officially (as Solar Living
Institute’s Doran Amiran demonstrates their kitchen greywater system) or guerrilla style.

The Greywater Guerrillas constructed their first unofficial greywater
system in 1999 and since then, as the New York Times reported in their
story The Dirty Water Underground, they have been “installing systems
from Seattle to Los Angeles for friends and like-minded people, and
occasionally for hire, and connecting interested homeowners with plumbers willing to do illegal work.”

Four years ago, they built a hybrid wetland/greywater system
for Berkeley’s ecohouse that passed inspection to become the first of
its type in California to pass code and gain a permit. But despite this
approval by the state, they are still underground.

If you go to their
site, you can see photos and schematics of homegrown greywater systems, as well as a DIY guide for installing your own, even in a rented apartment
(this basically involves opening up the pipe under your sink and
letting the water collect in a bucket which you use to flush the toilet
or water plants).

It can be very cheap to join the dirty water underground. As Santa
Barbara ecological systems designer Art Ludwig told the New York Times,
most systems “cost less than a hundred bucks — it can be just a hose.”
To learn how to connect a hose from your sink to your toilet tank, Art
offers do-it-yourself instructions to work “in or around building codes” on his website.

Navy showers and their Hollywood cousins

After all this toilet talk, I’d like to wrap up my blog with something a bit cleaner: shower protocol.

There are some people, like my husband, who just love to sit in the
shower. It’s an event: a time to relax, warm-up, brush their teeth…
to be honest I can’t elaborate because I don’t indulge. I get in and
get out. I get wet, turn off the shower, wash my hair and soap up, turn
the shower back on to rinse and am out.

I had no idea there were 340,000 others doing exactly the same thing,
not out of choice, but protocol. The U.S. navy has formalized my
process. Called the “navy shower”, personnel are instructed to use 30 seconds of water for the washdown and 60 seconds for the rinse off, in line with the following procedure (according to the SSC San Diego guide):

  • After initially wetting down, shut off the water.
  • Lather up with the water OFF.
  • Turn the water back on to rinse only.

While they don’t mention a shower monitor armed with a stop watch,
there is specific slang to haze anyone who over-showers: “a shower
lasting over five minutes is a ‘Hollywood Shower'”.

Mayor Bloomberg’s shower advice & showering with a friend

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is no friend of the Hollywood
shower. Back in 2002 when upstate New York dams were at 40% capacity
and a drought was forecast, he suggested Navy shower protocol: “Get in,
turn it on, get it the right temperature, lather up, get rid of the stuff — of the soap — and get out.”
(For shaving: “turn on the faucet, lather up, turn it off while you’re
shaving, turn it back on, just a twist of the faucet to rinse off the

To buy yourself a bit more time under the nozzle, Bloomberg said that
ex-mayor Ed Koch suggested showering with a friend. Bloomberg admitted
it would save money, but “whether it’s a good idea or not, or the
morality of that, I suggest you call former Mayor Koch. I’m sure he’d
be very happy to discuss his views there.”

Until writing this post, I hadn’t realized just how many politicians
have tried to get into our bathroom, at least in New York and London.
In Spain, recently anyway, there seems to be less toilet talk and more
attempts to affect change by targeting the pocketbook.

Penalizing Spanish hygiene

This fall, the environment minister proposed different cost structures
depending on water use, with a tax increase for the use of more than 60
liters/person/day (less than 16 gallons). To put this into context, the
EU average is 150 liters/person/day and in the US, over 300 (The Peace
Corps World Wise Schools project estimates usage in the US at 176 gallons (or 666 liters) per day).

For a bit more perspective, I calculated just how far 60 liters/day would get you with U.S. fixtures:

  • 2 & 1/2 minute shower with a conventional showerhead (7 gallons/minute).
  • 6 & 1/2 minute shower with a low flow showerhead (2.5 gallons/minute).
  • less than 3 flushes with a 6 gallon tank.
  • 9.9 flushes with a low flow toilet (1.6 gallons).

Cleaning clothes would have to wait a bit longer, at least looking at the U.S. average of 16 gallons/day (61 liters) used for laundry
and given that conventional American machines use 40-55 gallons/load
(151-208 liters/load) and water-saving machines 18-25 gallons/load
(68-95 liters/load)]. And forget about having a typical American lawn, average daily use for lawns and shrubs in the U.S. is 68 gallons (257 liters). 

While the average Spaniard may have better water consumption habits
than the average American (they, and other Europeans, also have more
efficient washing machines), they still use on average 171
liters/day/person so the idea of dropping to 60 wasn’t universally

  • The mayor of Valencia accused the environment minister of trying to “penalize the hygiene of all Spaniards”.
  • The First Vice President of Madrid claimed the proposal would “promote infrequent cleaning and bathing”.
  • The manager of Waters of Valladolid called this 60 liters “sufficient for drinking and little else”.

Considering what most of us are accustomed to, 60 liters would involve
sacrifice for most, at least at first. (Here is where it would be easy
to say “look at what they use in Africa”. But even though the African
average is just 10 gallons/day/person (38 liters), the continent
differs by country. For example, while the average Mozambican uses 3
gallons/day (11 liters), the average Egyptian users 40 gallons (151
liters), about the EU average).

Showers on auto pilot

Still, unlike Americans, I think Spaniards (like most Europeans) are
more accepting of guidance, and laws, that govern their behavior.

Going back to that Spanish restroom last week. It turns out the woman
who had left the water running to coo at my child was not ignoring her
water waste. After recovering from my overreach, she explained that she
had thought she was using the type of faucet that automatically shuts

To her credit, nearly all public restrooms in Spain use this automated
type. In fact, many have lights that work on this system as well. You
hit a button when you enter the stall and you have a couple minutes
before it automatically shuts off. If you need a bit more time for a
particular visit, usually the light switch is within reach of the

Maybe we- Americans, Spaniards and other Europeans- are not yet ready
to accept our water automatically shutting off at home- neither
literally (as water goes private in some countries) nor due to price
restrictions-, but perhaps we can stand to think just a bit more about
our bathroom habits.

Whether we choose to become a greywater guerrilla, an infrequent
flusher or a Navy showerer, the plumbing technology exists to make it
easy for us. What about home showers that work on a timer? We have them
at my gym here in Barcelona. You hit the button and you have about 30
seconds of water: just enough time for a Navy washdown.