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July 2017

Peter Curtain, Director, Allerton Communications

  Peter is Director of Allerton Communications, a PR adviser to clean-technology and alternative energy companies. 

"It’s something we all use but seldom discuss or even think about. Yet the toilet is the subject of an ongoing revolution aimed at boosting performance, conservation and even luxury" - Peter Curtain reports

Visiting a farm as a boy in Australia, I had a memorable moment walking back to the house in pitch darkness after nature called. I got lost in a crop field then saw the veranda light. In those few minutes I felt helpless, fearless and relieved (in more than one sense). Housed in a wooden shed with a tin roof, the water-free loo was a home-made rusty vertical cylinder with a wooden seat, a long drop and a pungent smell , and provided a brisk walk in all weathers.  As with everything at the farm - the kitchen cooker was wood-fired and the junction box of my uncle’s hearing aid was an empty boot polish tin - the technology entirely suited requirements.

Back in town, it felt good to use a ‘proper’ loo with a 12-litre-plus flush. But the long drop at the farm was high-tech compared to what went before. For thousands of years until the third millennium BC, people ‘went’ where they stood, or squatted. Then came the bathroom innovators.

An archaeological site in modern Pakistan, dating to 2,500 BC, features advanced toilets built into the outer walls of homes, with chutes from which water flushed human waste into drains. The Romans were famously adept at sewerage while both they and the ancient Greeks used chamber pots that were brought to meals and drinking sessions, their contents collected for use in textile manufacture. Fast forward many centuries to 19th Century Britain where by now flush toilets have become widely used amid growing levels of urbanisation and industrial prosperity coinciding with the dramatic growth in the sewerage system. But that was in rich households. Building codes in London, then the world's largest city, did not require indoor toilets until after the First World War. Thus in living memory an ‘indoor loo’ was considered an indicator of prestige.

For a century or more there was little innovation in the toilet itself until the arrival of dual-flush units allowed users to choose between a button or lever action for urine and another for faeces, saving water over conventional loos. Then, from 2001 a major shake-up of regulations in the UK allowed valve operated dual-flush toilets and set a maximum six litres of water per flush and four for the lesser volume. Introduced to protect health, safeguard water supply and harmonise with Europe, the Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations and Scottish Water Byelaws, also permitted mechanical valve-based flushing from the mains supply.

WC flush valves were a change from the traditional valve-less syphon design invented by Thomas Crapper in 1880 – which were still used by almost all UK households more than a century on. The lever action requires effort to lift water over a ‘spillover’ and back into the pan – but is very effective at preventing leaks due to the air pocket between the bowl and cistern. In valve toilets, water pressure holds a plastic or rubber flapper against the bottom of the cistern until a push-button action lifts the valve, emptying the tank into the bowl. As the water level drops, the floating valve descends to the bottom of the tank and covers the outlet pipe again.

Though dual flushing can work with either style, valve toilets, long popular in Europe and the US, have, in the 16 years since their introduction, overtaken syphon loos in the UK. They have two buttons, one for solids and one for liquid waste – with syphons, you press and hold for a reduced flush. “It was really a backward step as the valve toilet is an inferior product to the syphon,” says Joshua Bennett, Product Manager at the UK cistern manufacturer Thomas Dudley. “Customers complain they cannot source spares for imported valves, necessitating dismantling the cistern to replace the complete valve – a time-consuming and often messy job. But people prefer the look and style of buttons.”

Valve toilets tend to leak due to inherent complexity – the connection to the pan is below the waterline. But performance could be better were it not for inferior components in some models, incorrect use and poor maintenance. Despite these problems, dual flushing has had a huge impact, reducing toilet water consumption by an average 27% in a Southern Water trial, equivalent to 2.6 litres per flush. Yet much remains to be done.

Dual-flush has been a big win for reducing water use, but the valve mechanisms have introduced a new challenge.  One in 20 homes has a constantly flowing WC, wasting an average 400 litres daily and doubling average daily water use. Between 80% and 90% of leaky loos are valve dual-flush, show figures from Thames Water. Too few people act on leakage because the problem is more serious than it looks, according to Andrew Tucker, Water Efficiency & Affordability Manager at Thames Water. “Those little ripples on the surface in the pan can indicate serious water loss and inevitably this adds up,” he said. His company reduced water use by 50% at its Reading HQ and 66% in a Swindon call centre, each employing 1,200 people, by installing advanced toilets by the British manufacturer Propelair and Cistermiser sensors on urinal flushes and taps. Tucker believes replacing valve toilets with dual-flush syphon ones would help due to their simple action and inherent air-gap is nearly leak proof. But addressing constant internal leakage will require changed attitudes as much as improved technology, such as manufacturers using clearer signage to indicate the lower-flush button. “More than 50% of people don’t know which one to push,” he said.

Meanwhile, innovation is held up by some difficult obstacles. Technicians have been working on a syphon flush controlled by a button at Thomas Dudley, a family-owned business established as a foundry in 1920, now with 300 employees and £40m turnover. But Britain’s water prices make the necessary substantial six figure investment hard to justify.

If we use Thames Water’s average leakage of 400 litres a day, this adds up to 146m3 of water a year, which would cost customers between £290 to £800 a year depending on where in the UK they live, which is a substantial cost.1  But, as Josh Bennet explains, “the lack of knowledge of how much water a leaky loo can waste, combined with the 1 in 20 likelihood of the leak, reduces a homeowner’s call to action.” 

One of the biggest shake-ups in bathroom technology in the past century is the Propelair toilet, which uses displaced air and water to produce a high-performance flush requiring only 1.5 litres of water.  Invented by the Essex company’s CEO Garry Moore, Propelair has a two-section cistern – one each for air and water. Before flushing the lid is closed to form a seal. Pressing the flush button sends water into the pan to wash it, followed by air from a patented pump which cannot escape due to the seal. This pushes out the entire contents of the pan to give a powerful, fast, reliable flush, with the toilet ready for re-flushing in 20 seconds. This makes Propelair not only very environment-friendly, but also very hygienic.

Not all innovation is related to conservation. We are in the age of the smart toilet, with auto-flush, water jets for nether regions, blow dryers and artificial sounds to mask noises, even stool analysis for medical monitoring. Japanese manufacturers have led many of the innovations. Here is how some of the players line up. Colin Clarke of EC1 Bathrooms is riding the wave of the toilet revolution. The bathroom entrepreneur has seen a huge rise in demand from upmarket householders and business customers. “Basically, people don’t want to wipe themselves any more and they certainly don’t want to poke through paper,” said Colin. “Modern toilets take all that away. It’s more hygienic and quite a pleasant experience.” According to Colin, who tweets from the comfort of the smallest room, the trend started with Japanese restaurants and was picked up by customers then rival establishments. There’s a degree of one-upmanship. “My customers see toilets as a luxury item and are more interested in style and comfort than sustainability. I always check the brand names in the bathroom when I visit a home.” But the smart loo experience doesn’t come cheap – prices for the Japanese manufacture Toto can be £9,000 says Colin, although other brands that he stocks such as Geberit and Grohe are cheaper. “Our prices start at £3,000 to £4,000, which is pretty reasonable when you’re buying a £1m flat.”

We should remember the 1 billion people with no toilets in their homes who have no choice but to resort to open defecation. The UN’s Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation aims to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Also pushing for adequate sanitation is the World Toilet Organisation which marks the UN's International World Toilet Day on 19 November.

We take sanitation for granted and we should appreciate the true cost. The average seven litres we use to flush is not just a waste of water, it means more sewage treatment, adding to carbon emissions. And do we really need drinking water to flush our loos? Maybe a question for another blog!


m3 charges for water and sewerage  in the UK range from £2.06 in Thames Water area to £5.50 in South West Water area

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