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."

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Filed under: California • Environment • San Francisco
soundoff (287 Responses)
  1. Willy

    Flush, wait until the tank fills and flush again. Still cheaper than buying chemicals.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Salop

      I totally agree...but with that in mind, what has the low-flow toilet accomplished, then? I don't know offhand how much less is flushed in a low-flow model, but say it is cut in half; by flushing twice to get the job done, you are no better off than simply staying with the standard toilet (which already worked) anyway. And what is its value if we now have to further contaminate the water that we use in them? Sometimes, I think our 'great minds' simply outthink themselves.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Thinking7

    Why don't government officials ever listen to the environmentalists? The politicians need to get over the idea of dumping that much bleach into the water. What a rejected thing to do. I hope they change their minds and put the bacteria instead. Of course, we could just leave San Francisco stinking – it's not like anyone wants to go there anyway. Sorry for the people who live there, but I think they like it.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Blake

      It's the environmentalists that got them into this problem in the first place by complaining about the water use of toilets.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Thinking7

      Blake – it is an unfortunate fact that we do need to conserve our water supply.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • John in NY

      Actually listening to the environmentalists is what gave them the low flow toilets in the first place, so now we supposed to listen to them their solution to the problem they caused?

      March 1, 2011 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • OldGoat

      Blake – it is an unfortunate fact that we do need to conserve our water supply.

      A fact? Where is your data, mister?

      This planet of ours has exactly as much water right now as it did yesterday and the day before. You think the water is flying out into space and being boiled by the sun? There's no shortage of water...only a shortage of common sense.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Thinking7

      Old Goat – I just wonder where you went to school.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Mars Bonfire

      Right, Blake... and environmentalists everywhere are nothing more than an organized bunch of malcontents out to horsewhip regular folks like you. They never have the bigger picture in mind, like saving energy, water, and other resources to help keep your utility bills affordable or make sure your brainy offspring have the resources they'll need in the future.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. David

    What a crappy situation.

    Seriously, it seems like many low flow toilets don't work well. Ours at home and work often clog or require multiple flushes to do their job (eliminating any water-savings or other environmental benefits). maybe an intermediate flow system that adds a bit more water but not as much as in the old-type systems is the solution.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • John in NY

      Yeah, low flow toilets don't work worth crap, no pun intended (okay maybe it was intended a little.)

      Seriously, how many times have enviromental nutjobs pushed their "solutions" on the country for them to be total failures?

      This is just like the whole plan on banning freon to save the ozone layer so freon was banned and everyone in the US was forced to switch to a more expensive alternate which not long after the switch was found to be more damaging to ozone then the freon it replaced.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  4. Joe

    How much water can you buy for $14 Million ??

    March 1, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • TryFocusing

      I'm hoping California secedes, before we're all 'flushed' with their bad ideas.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Rachel M

      SF charges 2 cents per gallon of water (including sewer fees). At that rate, the $14,000,000 their spending to treat this problem could buy 700,000,000 gallons of water. All to save 20,000,000 gallons of water.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ramdomact

    Just wait...the earthquake that will reduce the city to rubble is coming soon enough. Then the problem will be solved.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Jezmundberserker

      I think protecting the environment is a good idea, but fanaticism is wrong on both sides of the issue. How about getting your colons cleansed every other day. Wouldn't that help too? Less excrement in SF's sewer system.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
    • OldGoat

      How about getting your colons cleansed every other day. Wouldn't that help too?

      A certain segment of the San Francisco population already does that each day—just not with water.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  6. Emily

    Wait, this was a King of the Hill episode...

    March 1, 2011 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. David C

    Wow, first a failed "Mancation" and now this. Poor San Francisco.

    March 1, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
    • John in NY


      March 1, 2011 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
  8. chris

    HAHAHAHAHAHA stupid SF's

    March 1, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  9. Brad Ramsey

    There are lots of "country" remedies to sewage and septic problems. Yeast is popular. But if they need water to flush through the sewer, isn't there an entire ocean with free water only a block away?

    March 1, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  10. Ron Jeremy

    Febreeze for everyone.

    March 1, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ade

    there is another solution that will be easier but hard for the avergae american, EAT LESS LOL

    March 1, 2011 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
  12. George

    There is a lot more that stinks about San Francisco than just the sewers.

    March 1, 2011 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  13. Thinking7

    I know this isn't a funny situation, but you guys have totally made me laugh out loud this morning. Too funny! : )

    March 1, 2011 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |

    Egg-a-roni, the San Francisco treat.

    March 1, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  15. joel palmer

    Just pump the treated water back into the sewers in sufficient volume to move the sludge to the treatment plant; ie like a turbocharger on a car engine.

    Simple; elegant and cheap

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

      Pumps, pipes, and energy all cost money. While this does sound like a quick and easy method to improve the flow of sewage, the operations and capital costs will far exceed the plan to dose with sodium hypochlorite. UV is a great solution for disinfection without a required residual, which is why it is perfect for finishing sanitary sewer water.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • EastSide_Thomas

      Low flush toilets are a failure. This problem that SF is experiencing is common to other cities using less water. The article said that SF has already spent $14M trying to resolve the problem but it is still occurring. The extra water needed to properly process sewage is not "wasted", it is "required".

      The problem lies with the environmentalists who talk city engineers into such foolishness. The engineers should show them the facts about how things work and tell the enviro's that they are ignorant of the process. Ignorant as in uninformed which is not an insult, just the truth.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
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