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. Mars Bonfire

    >OldGoat bleated:
    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.

    There's also no shortage of irrelevant, misleading arguments posted by people and goats. "Common sense" is not science, and though you may fancy yourself as being endowed with common sense, you're clearly not familiar with the scientific method. Less that 1% of the earth's fresh water is available for human consumption. If you don't think (and it's clear you don't) that human activity has and is impacting that available supply, do some research. I suspect you'd rather shoot off your mouth than actually do research, so just call any water engineer or utility manager and ask them if they think there's plenty of affordable, potable water. Finally, although it's not much, water vapor IS being lost to space.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. McGuffin

    So... correct me if I'm wrong, but... if they get rid of the sulfur smell by dumping bleach into the sewers, won't that just produce an awesomely horrible bleach odor across the city? It's like making the pain in your foot go away by shooting yourself in the arm. Also, I would imagine bleach would have catastrophic consequences for life in the Bay, which San Fransisco was apparently pumping their sewage directly into without treating it(?). They should probably just go back to the normal toilets...

    March 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bob Dole

    So... they saved a couple million gallons of a renewable resource which costs the end user pennies per gallon, and then charge the city to pay for these new systems, and then just paid 20 million for bleach to kill the smell that resulted from them saving a pitiful amount of water.
    Enjoy your retarded city.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      Hey viagra-boy, you might want to read the article. SF didn't save a "few million gallons" and didn't spend $20M on bleach. Your reading skills are up there with your IQ. Meanwhile, you are afraid to mention where you live. So enjoy your ignorance and lack of pride in your own hometown. Pathetic.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Richard

    An unbiased reporting of this story, which addresses the costs and benefits of low-flow toilets in San Francisco, would have mentioned the hugely relevant and not hard to discover fact that the savings in water from the low-flow toilets amounts to a miniscule eight hundredths of one percent, making it nothing but a valueless gesture.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Alice

    Toilets should not be flsuhed with fresh water. How did we ever get to such a point of throwing away gallons of good water with every flush? Gray water systems will be needed in the future...the future is now.
    Long-term...we need to reduce the population. That is the baseline issue.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Missingdata

    What, nobody's heard of "Fabreeze"
    Remember Government isn't the solution it's the problem. They always think they have to answer, then the problem "Backs-Up" pun intended, and then they have to deal with the resulting problems. End result, no money saved.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jack

    You all don't know me.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. conradshull

    As we all know, politicians make the best plumbers.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Burbank

    I hate low flow toilets! I lived in an apartment that had one, it didn't have enough water to flush the poo properly so you always had to flush twice and ended up using even more water than a regular toilet did.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. not surprised


    March 1, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Andrew.peter

    The solution is simple and should be welcomed in such a nanny state.
    The city should require that all facilities be equip with Rain-harvesting devices and store them in cisterns on the roof. Use this as supplemental water for flushing. And for residences, require that laundry waste water be stored as well for the same purpose. It's not a unique idea.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • razmataz

      IT's not a question of not enough water. The toilets are designed to only use a specific amount each flush. You can have all the cisterns you want, it's the toilets design that is the root of the problem.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Soulcatcher

      I have 3 low flow toilets in my house that leak more water than they were supposed to save. I've tried replacement.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • B

      this is a city...not podunkville. Where exactly are we going to put all these cisterns?

      March 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      Who's paying for this brilliant plan?

      March 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Hmmmm you said city (government) should REQUIRE you to do these things.... No No No No Stop with the gov requiring me to do things. Is there anything we do that for once we could stop and say the gov does not require this. That is why we can not do anything in this country without it costing more than it should or running over budget. Thats why businesses go over seas nobody requires them to do anything. Required healtth care required insurence required light bulbs required required required

      March 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      odd how a man who decries 'the nanny state' then goes on about a plan to make everyone collect rain water. Classic teabagger who likely also wants to keep government from ruining his Medicare.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Eric I want the Government to stay out of my business all together. When they get involved it almost always cost me money. If I want to research goat farts or how many crickets are being destroyed by a new road way and there impact on the atmosphere I will help fund the research for it but I am offended when dollars that I spend on taxes go to studpid stuff like that. Not a teabagger just someone who has worked for what he has paid for his own school spent 20 years in the military fighting for the right for you to be an idiot. If you want to keep on with the governement hand outs at least make someone work for them. Every paycheck received should be after a drug test and 20 hours of work cleaning the city streets or community service of some kind

      March 1, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • howmuch

      The solution is to install one rain catch basin at the high dead end of every sanitary run. Every time it rains, the system will be flushed out with a minimal amount of storm water being sent and processed at the waste water treatment plant. After the system is installed, there are no re-occurring costs as with bleach or enzymes and no labor that would be required if a maintenance crew was dispatched to jet the system.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • RoseMcB

      I am not the least surprised by this article. Low-flow toilets are one of the worst innovations I can think of and one of the most annoying. Useless! They were installed in our former residence (which we thankfully did not own). They were so inadequate to the task of waste disposal, we would have to flush them two or three times. They accomplished exactly the opposite of what they were intended to do. Thank god, we moved!

      March 1, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • usarnaem

      I love how a military welfare queen is here decrying others for taking "government handouts". The military hasn't defended the U.S. from a credible threat in over 60 years, and most people in the military signed up for the lifetime benefits they get once they cycle back into civilian life. A small percentage actually does the fighting, while the rest sit back on base safely driving around supplies and finding other busywork to justify wasting our tax money. Hope you're enjoying your free, taxpayer funded VA benefits Mike!

      March 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polly Anna

      Before you collect the rainwater, you'd better make double-darn sure you own it. Just because the rain falls on your land doesn't mean that it is yours. Ask anybody who lives in Utah and has tried to install a rain collection system. Or Colorado. Or Washington. California may be one of those states too.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • blake

      Rainwater would make sense there. A more reliable nationwide strategy would be:

      Purple pipe for toilet flushing!

      Polly Ana: I see where your'e coming from, but urban coastal areas just aren't the same issue. Stormwater flow out of SF is direct to the ocean. You wouldn't want this water anyway. It is filthy.

      Seriously, talking about this same old "gov't blah blah blah" stuff again? Stop clogging up the airwaves with your uninformed opinions. If you left the commentary space for industry professionals, you might learn something.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      USARNAEM you will be very happy to know that the Governement is doing the same thing it always does. Breaking its contract with vets as well as everyone else. I was a 20 year Bomb guy so no your wrong it wasn't about driving around supplies it was building weapons systems. And by the way your right the military waste more money than I have every seen any organization I have ever worked for waste. However all those wonderful benefits you say I signed up to get and live on for life, well its obivous you never served in the military because I know walfare receipents who get more per year than I do in a retirement check. That wonderful healthcare for life cost me money as well and because we are going to our wonderful preisdents healthcare for all that won't cost anybody anything my healthcare cost are getting ready to go up three fold. So thanks for proving for me how little you know about those who served. I am gettingnothing for free pay for it all. I would have been much better off setting at home collecting unemployment and walfare and food stamps and working under the table like all the illeagls we allow in the country. well the illegals and possibly You. What are you going to do when there is no more money to hand out to every cause and need. our politicians are a joke and look after no-one but themselves and those that do nothing for themselves

      March 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • rahul

      As california just changed its building code to basically adopt many of the points that the LEED certification process uses in its classification of a building's sustainability, onsite rainwater management is definitely addressed in any new construction that will be going up starting from january this year (it all depends on when the permit was applied for).

      The solution would be as simple as you say, Andrew, but the problem is that there is little to no rain in san francisco during the summer months (before you ask, im an architect and i live and work in SF). The reason the smell doesn't exist so much during winter is because of the near constant rain we get here in between november and april.

      Onsite water storage only can be held onsite for 72 hours before it either must be used or percolated back into the soil. To hold it for any longer promotes bacterial growth and makes a great place for mosquitos to hang out.

      As for the case of low-flow toilets, it makes sense in a state with ongoing water resource problems – its better than the alternative of having to ration water flow throughout the city as is currently the case in some parts of the southwest. This isn't an issue of environmentalism gone wrong, but resource management. You simply cannot spend more than you should when you have a low supply to begin with (a concept any libertarian should be able to grasp).

      March 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      More proof that the environmentalist create more problems than they solve. Low flush toilets that you have to keep flushing to do its job, then clog the sewer lines because it can't keep the flow going down line. Lets not forget ethanol, turns out it burns more energy and pollutes more than gas. This after our government spent billions forcing it on us. Stop the logging, stop the logging! is all you can do to help the forest, yet every year millions of acres are lost to fire because of the over growth. I think the best way an environmentalist can help our earth, stop breathing. That should drop the temperature a few degrees without all the hot air causing global warming.

      March 1, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Good grief Mike, can you do anything other than parrot the talking heads like Rush, Fox news and Beck? Do you have a real thought in head or can you only parrot? You are wrong in so many ways, but to argue you would be a waste of time as your mind is more closed than a locked bank vault. Good luck with that extreme anger boiling inside you. Take a break and relax, enjoy the world instead of living here on CNN posting dribble. Before you say it, I don't post here but maybe twice a month, I don't live on the comment page.

      March 1, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ACE

    Has Gingrich visited San Francisco lately, because that would account for that smell.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      So in order to save some water, they are now introducing bleach into the environment. Brilliant.

      People don't realize that the flow of toilets was formulated in the 1930's when people actually knew what they were doing with plumbing systems (that have lasted us since). Leave it alone; toilets need water to flush.

      The problem isn't too much water, it's too many people.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • qanerd

      Actually coming from Nancy and Barbara

      March 1, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • ohsnap

      Joe, isn't it amazing that sometimes older things work better than new ones? Not everything, but some old things (like homes) were better built.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rick

    This is a bit of a "Stinky" Situation ! LOL

    March 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. citizen111

    Flushing with seawater corrodes pipes, fixtures, and fittings, besides many other problems (such as pumping energy).

    March 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rep

    Hasn't anyone else traveled much in Europe? They (generally) have the two flush modes: low and high. Press the high when needed for solid waste & low when needed for most anything less. Problem solved. I've never understood why this never caught on in the U.S.....especially in "smuggie" San Francisco. (And, yes, I live here...and like it. 🙂

    March 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Agreed. The "two-mode" flush is by far the best solution. Press "1" for "number one," press "2" for "number two." I don't understand why this isn't available in the US.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      It's not a problem with the toilets themselves, but the grading of the sewer systems. Less water into the sewers mean that less water to flush them. As the amount of solid waste to liquid waste increases, many cities may start to see such problem.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • kake79

      I'm with you on this one. I had never seen a two flush toilet until I visited Ireland a few years ago. I thought it was so brilliant and couldn't understand why we don't have these kinds of toilets. Then again, while in Ireland, I also drove a diesel vehicle that got 50+ miles to the gallon and could not, for the life of me, figure out why we don't have more of those in the States, either.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Low flow toilets already have this feature–people just don't know how to use it!! Here's how: for #1, you push down the handle and let it up. Just like older toilets. Now here's the secret: for #2, you push down the handle and HOLD IT for a couple of seconds, which adds extra water so that the waste is cleared.

      I'll take my thanks in karma points, please.

      March 2, 2011 at 5:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      My sister lives in LA and her house has two-mode toilets that are very intuitive to use. Press the little button on top of the tank for a little water, and the big button that surrounds it for a lot of water. They got them at Lowe's. It beats having to remember to flush twice, which I recall being advised to do by a sign in the restroom of an office building SF. Sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

      March 2, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
    • JKR

      It never caught on because it isn't legal here. There is a specific requirement of 1.6 gallon max, not an average between flushes. So the 'more powerful flush' is regulated out of existence. So people flush five or six times....

      March 12, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
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