Low-flow toilets cause stink in San Francisco
Rain drenches San Francisco last month, but it's during summer when sewers emit a rotten-egg smell.
March 1st, 2011
07:21 AM ET

Low-flow toilets cause stink in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco's push for low-flow toilets is saving water - at a smelly price.

Use of the low-flow toilets has cut city water consumption by 20 million gallons a year, Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue told the San Francisco Chronicle.

But the cost is both monetary and olfactory.

Because water flow isn't pushing the waste through the system fast enough, a stinky sludge is building up in the sewers, the Chronicle reports. It's blamed for a rotten-egg smell wafting through areas of the city, especially during summer, according to the report.

So the city is spending $14 million to buy a three-year supply of concentrated bleach to combat the sewer odor, disinfect treated water before it's pumped into San Francisco Bay and sanitize tap water.

The plan is drawing criticism from environmental advocates.

"Using sodium hypochlorite, commonly known as bleach, is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack an egg; it's the wrong tool, and it will cause irreversible collateral damage," San Francisco chemical engineer Adam Lowry and German chemist Michael Braungart wrote in a Chronicle op-ed.

Their solution to the stink: either dumping hydrogen peroxide into the sewers or "a pro-biotic solution, that is, enzymes or bacteria that would simply 'eat' the smell then degrade harmlessly."

Post by:
Filed under: California • Environment • San Francisco
soundoff (287 Responses)
  1. Jon

    Will just help the microbes (all of them) become resistant to bleach! Then what can we rely on? Dumb move....go with the biological answer...enzymes or bacteria, which has been proven to work.
    That, or have everyone flush every toilet in town at noon on every Monday!

    March 1, 2011 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
    • EastSide_Thomas

      Will just help the microbes (all of them) become resistant to bleach!

      Do you know anything about bleach there Jonny Boy? That ain't gonna happen.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
    • RabiaDiluvio


      March 1, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • wjmknight

      The microbes aren't to be eating the belach retard, just the waste to cut down the smell.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • CaEd

      I like the great Monday Noon flush idea, it is simple and doesn't really involve added chemicals/bugs/enzymes.

      The only problem I see is that all of that water at the same time will stress, and break, any weak pipes causing a sewage break and spill.

      Still a good idea though.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • bailoutsos

      "Skyrocketing water bills mystify, anger residents" CNN

      March 1, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • arthurrrrrrr

      there is no water shortage. no water has ever left this planet.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • McGuffin

      Nothing is going to become resistant to bleach.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mrs Marvel

      Low flow toilets are the worst possible thing to have hit bathrooms since the low flow faucet. You have to flush twice, three times, sometimes four to get everything flushed and you use just as much or more as a standard size toilet. You can't even buy a standard size toilet in California anymore. Know what people are doing? Buying the toilets from old homes! SFO needs to allow people to use an appropriate amount of water per flush and they won't have their stink problem.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ruth


      First of all water molecules break down and reform all the time so the net number of water molecules is constantly changing.

      Second of all not all water is equal. We can desalinize sea water but at a huge price. Do you want to be paying more for water than you do gasoline?

      Water wars are not going to happen in the future, they are happening now. Water is life. Don't waste it.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. prius

    ::toot toot::


    Smug Alert! Smug Alert!

    March 1, 2011 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  3. tt

    Clearly CNN prefers to publish news that does not require a lot of research. They probably picked up these two guys with the alternative solution in a Google search or something, and there's an article. Slackers.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
    • JD

      If you don't like CNN news, don't read it. Problem solved.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Luke

      The article seemed to influence you so much you had to comment on it. Looks like they did their job well.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
    • wiske57

      You did read it... D'uh

      March 1, 2011 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
    • McGuffin

      CNN used to be worth something. Now it's all pop culture, facebook, and Twitter. Ted Turner even said it had become the "pervert of the day" network. They don't know how to choose or handle hard-hitting news anymore, it would seem, and since the alternatives are the psychos at Fox News and MSNBC, I think people, yes, have a right to complain about CNN sucking even after reading an article.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Sagebrush Shorty

    Go get a Happy Meal and don't worry about a thing.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Wally Balloo

      Best comment so far!

      March 1, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
  5. TonyGa

    The folks in Frisco are always out smarting themselves. That aroma does turn on a large portion on the populace out there.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Assisi

      FYI, it's not "Frisco" or "San Fran" – if you are going to criticize, at least get it right!

      March 1, 2011 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      A little advice, tonyga... better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      It may not be the sewer at all thats causing that smell. This may be a life style thing you know. It's not happening in Peoria! Im just saying.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  6. RM

    Smells like...Hong Kong!

    March 1, 2011 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  7. impossible

    lean a little bit closer see the roses really smell like POO POO POO POO

    March 1, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      Man... the three-year-olds are out in force on this topic.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • anon


      March 1, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Old School

    What about an old school solution... using water to flush toilets? Older toilets never had that problem. Use about 2-3 gallons of water to flush the waste down the drain... it worked before all those environmentalists started complaining.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Luke

      But do you want to pay millions or billions to upgrade the sanitary systems capacity and annual maintenance cost? That water you pour down the sewer goes somewhere you know. It does not magically disappear. Concentrated sewage is much more cost effective to treat than watered down sewage. Your solution is a solution to the odor, but causes bigger and more expensive problems down the system.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      All those environmentalists aren't complaining because of the use of water to flush toilets, old foo.., er, old school... they're complaining because it's insane to use 2-3 gallons of highly treated, high-energy embedded drinking water to flush a cup of urine. They're complaining because we're all running out of water and it's moronic to use drinking water to remove waste when we're running out of water.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
    • MP. In Mich.

      Amen to that, Old School!.. If there isn't enough water to flush urine and a little paper, how can it flush more "solid" waste?.. The last time I threw up, it took 4 flushes.. Absolutely ridiculous!..

      March 1, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rachel M

      "Your solution is a solution to the odor, but causes bigger and more expensive problems down the system."

      Luke, the current bleaching solution the city is using is costing 75 cents for every gallon of water saved by the low flow toilets ($14,000,000 for 20,000,000 gallons saved). Would flushing the sewers with more water really cost 75 cents per gallon of water used?

      March 1, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Max Johnson

    The solution is simple. Flush twice 😉

    March 1, 2011 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
    • OldGoat

      Yeah, because it's a long way to City Hall where much of the stink is being generated.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      You're simple, Max.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
  10. JC

    The irony here is too thick to even begin to wrap one's hands around.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
  11. joan

    bleach? BLEACH???? are they kidding? solving one problem and creating an even bigger one? that is so stupid! dumping bleach into the water system is NO solution for ANYTHING!!!

    March 1, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
    • EastSide_Thomas

      Well Joan, water treatment plants usually use chlorine to treat water so it's not like they would using a foreign substance. Chlorine is our friend Joan, it kills bacteria very effectively. If you like untreated feces floating around in the ocean then hold your ground or start using a pit latrine.

      The problem with environmentalist and their demands, like reduced water toilets, is that they never consider the impact of their ill-conceived ideas.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Blake

      That's the San Francisco way.

      P.S. it's not the sewers making that smell.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Luke

      Not so. I design wastewater treatment plants for a living. Most if not all of the plants I have worked on for the last 10+ years have gotten away from "bleach". I have retrofitted countless chlorine contact chambers with ultraviolet disinfection. This has substantially cut down operating costs and the need to add chlorine then in turn dechlorinate before discharge. UV does not kill bacteria it just stops the ability for them to reproduce and obviously the lights do not leave any chemical residue in the water. They are essentially bulbs just like tanning beds submerged in the stream of water.

      Contrary to what people think, concentrated waste is much more cost effective to treat that diluted waste. Flushing out the sewers is an answer, but probably not the best. Even if you are against doing it because you think being an environmentalist is somehow wrong, then think of it for monetary reasons. The water that is used costs money to get from wells or rivers, costs money to treat, costs money to pump to every toilet, and then costs money to treat in the end.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • pipefighter8

      Luke, go to the Dagobah System. There you will meet a master Jedi, Yoda.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  12. ralph

    Can't any one read.... They are dumping bleach into the sewers not the water system.......

    March 1, 2011 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
    • shawn

      Can't you read or think down the line. It also clearly states that the waist water is then treated before it gets "flushed" into the bay. It all has to go somewhere.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Luke

      Residual chlorine levels are tested prior to discharge. The organics in the waste stream "consume" the chlorine. Think of the chlorine in a pool. You don't just add it once, it has to be continually maintained because it quickly deteriorates.

      I design wastewater treatment plants and there is much more think about that just what some people on here think is obvious.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Water Supply Worker

      Umm... FYI, when chlorine is added to drinking water we're very careful about how long it takes to get to your mouth–too soon and you wind up over-dosing on the chlorine, too late and the bacteria may be back. But that's not the only concern about chlorine–when it degrades the natural byproducts are known carcinogens. Do we really need more of those in our water systems? Just because it winds up in the bay doesn't mean it doesn't get back to us eventually. There is a limited amount of water on the planet.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Rachel M

      "There is a limited amount of water on the planet."

      And that same limited amount keeps moving through the hydrological cycle. The glass of water you pour out of the faucet today has cycled through the digestive systems of countless animals (including humans) before you drink it, and will cycle through countless more after it passes through yours.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. deanosity

    Wouldn't this be like leaving the bathroom fan running all the time because one decides not to pay for bathroom cleaning supplies? Perhaps the savings of drinking water (used to flush toilets) being a bit extreme could be augmented by a city installed grey water system to flush the sewers. The idea being the toilet only needs to flush to the street, and the city grey water system flushes the sewer.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Brandon

      That's actually a really good idea...

      March 1, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      It certainly is good thinking (esp. compared to most of the 5 year-old yuk-yuks responding to this article), but consider this: gray water normally enters the sewer anyway, yet the problem persists. The grade (pitch) of the sewers was designed for a higher flow rate, so solids that would normally keep moving along at higher flow settle out and begin causing odor problems. A better idea IMHO is for city engineers to identify locations were storm water can be held back and then used to flush the sewers from time to time during drier weather. Sewage degrading bacteria could be injected with the storm water flush water.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  14. Eddie

    What they'll end up paying for either the bleach or the pro-biotic solution will probably cost more than what they saved in water costs.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
  15. Maryland, USA

    San Franciscans should switch to low-flow power-flush toilets, like the kind you find at rest stops and classy hotels. They'll pay for themselves in lower repair bills.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      This is good advice for anywhere, not just for San Franciscoans. But- the power flush is useful only at the bowl, to help remove solids with less potable water. Once at the street-level in the sewer which is gravity flow and at atmospheric pressure, the problem will still exist.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10