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. voiceofreason1

    Typical left coast. Come up with a solution that probably has not been thought out and will further their $ woes. there are so many simpler, cost effective and non-intrusive solutions and let's just flood the sewers with bleach. Amazing Frisco!!

    March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
  2. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    The 1776 patriots were aware of the concept of toilets and sewers. They read about them in the Latin texts they all had to struggle through at Harvard, Yale, Columbia (King's College), Prince Town and William and Mary. The problem was that after the Romans left Britain almost 1300 years earlier, those who remained didn't know how to keep them working!

    From reports I have heard from people who have visited both cities, San Francisco smell something like Paris does in August, when all the city's sanitation and sewage workers are away on vacation. In their attempts to be eco-friendly even if it kills them, San Franciscans have brought this stench on themselves. Most homes built before 1980 had their plumbing systems designed to work off the old-fashioned 2.5 to 3 gpf (gallons per flush) toilets, bring their wastes into the sewage system on a more forced flow. The current 1.5 gpf units just cannot provide the force needed to clear the lines efficiently.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
  3. N

    Hey Billy G! Yes, there is actually an ocean near San Fran, you are right. However, there is a big difference between potable and non-potable water. You cannot drink sea water. Ocean/sea water cannot be used for many other things as well. Plus, why pollute the oceans? They have done nothing to us. Tourism would be affected, as nobody wants to swim or play in the polluted, stinky ocean. Tourism is BIG money in California. The fishermen will love you for polluting the oceans and killing all the life there, so they can't fish and you can't eat what they catch. Then it works up the food chain... But you will probably be dead by then, so what do you care, right?

    March 1, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • DB

      Let"s look at the downside of sea water from an even more practical perspective. Sea water corrodes even concrete, not to mention metal and PVC. You'd need to replace the entire sewer system so it could deal with it. What city could possibly afford that?

      March 1, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. hypocritlibs

    The Clean Water act of 1978 does not STOP in anyway where the sewage ends up. It still is being dumped into the San Fran Bay!! Read the article people. Now if an idiot tree hugger uses LESS water to flush, thus causing the STENCH......MORE money will be REQUIRED to take care of the problem, of flushing the BUILD UP of sewage to the treatment facility and MORE MONEY will be required to eliminate the STENCH!

    Just repeal the IDIOTIC LAW that requires less water and ALL OF THE PROBLEMS will be solved!

    Don't ask a politician.....ASK A PLUMBER!

    March 1, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  5. termlimits

    I thought their s hit didn't stink.!

    March 1, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  6. SM

    I'm in construction and I run across problems with low flush toilets all the time. I think that the concept of saving water is good but the reality is that people often end up flushing twice and systems get clogged. I also don't believe that you can determine if savings in water usage is from the toilets or from a general increase in conservation awareness.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Wally Balloo

      Have you done any gray-water re-use installs?

      March 1, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  7. Josh

    Typical politically correct SF bull... there is plenty of water in SF to flush toilets properly... again the democrat make their city smell as well as dribble out shower heads in the name of ...well of... well... who knows?... a good toilet and strong shower is anathema to the looney left...

    March 1, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  8. Billy

    save 20 millions galons of water but now spend 14 million dollars of tax money to buy bleach. GREAT JOB!

    March 1, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  9. Zack

    But I thought that in California everyone's poop smelled like roses! I am so disappointed.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. fidgetwidget

    Last time I checked this planet is 3/4ths water. Seems to me that the problem is not enough water flowing through the pipes to clear the sludge. Simple solution: more water flow = less sludge + better filtration and reclaiming = no more smell, less contamination and problem solved.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • DB

      What is the difference between fresh water and sea water? Why would you think a sewage system designed specifically to handle freshwater waste would also be able to handle a regular flow of sea water? I don't like low flow toilets myself, but no one can afford to solve this problem with sea water in a fresh water system.

      March 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. skrilla gorilla

    God, living in cities is so baaaad for you!

    March 1, 2011 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  12. Steve

    The obvious solution is for everyone to just flush their toilets twice or more. That would return the sewers to their original water flow levels and will flush waste more efficiently.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  13. Brickell Princess

    HA HA! The snobs are getting a woof of their own stupidity.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  14. Joe

    The problem with low flow toilets is that many of them are "no flow."
    How are you saving water if it takes you five flushes to get everything down?

    March 1, 2011 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  15. Itsall Tuna

    The real problem is the "combined sewer", i.e. septic and storm. The sewage goes into the storm water drains and flows to the treatment plants. We typically no longer build that kind of system because of the problems that have been highlighted in the comments to this article. Separate sewers cost more, but who wants to use ancient technology to solve modern problems, unless of course you do don't want to pay the construction costs. Then just hold your nose.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
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