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. DGH49

    The solution is simple, flush twice!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Drocks

      I flush twice every time i see a low flow toilet anyway, just for spite

      March 1, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy

      That's mature and productive, Drocks.

      Do you also break your own toys so that none of the other kids can play with them?

      March 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  2. No Flow

    Using low flow toilets, I never had a problem. One flush, and that's it. However, I did wonder if the amount of water used was enough to get everything through the pipes alright. And this confirms it.

    If you wanted to save water and the sewer systems, perhaps going to a composting system would be better. That would be difficult. You'd have to retrofit bathrooms. Building layouts might not be the best suited for it, especially those warehouse stores with no basements. (but hey, those have like 20 foot ceilings anyway.) It would require thinking, innovation, jobs for people building/modifying, and yes, someone would have to pay for it. Theoretically, you'd also need a service to take away all the solid waste

    March 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      Composting with human waste is not necessarily sanitary; remember all those diseases that were transported by improper disposal of waste (particularly during wars)? Composting like this would likely lead to the increase in such diseases.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JD

    What do you expect from a city who polices toys in happy meals but hands out free needles to heroin addicts?

    March 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      100% of San Francisco City and Coutny vehicles are powered by alternative fuels. 77% of waste is recycled or composted. Please, tell us what your city is doing for sustainability and ending oil wars that involve American soldiers.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Makoto Yogoku

      In terms of realpolitik, handing out free needles really is the best thing to do – When handing out free needles costs less than not handing out free needles, then you have to hand out free needles

      March 1, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seigell

      Wow, SF is using Propane instead of Gasoline (it's still a fossil fuel). And maybe running a few Electric Vehicles in the "feel-good" belief that the electricity really ISN'T coming from "dirty" Coal-Fired Power Plants such as those sued by the EPA for causing Smog in the Grand Canyon !!

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

      JD, handing out free needles cuts down on the rates of blood borne diseases among addicts (including HIV). I'd love to hear your suggestion. And no, free needles does not cause addiction.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      What kind of comment would one expect from a man who's obviously spent his life listening to the rantings of angry men on talk radio.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • JD

      Apparently SF has also banned the comprehension of irony.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary J

      Would you rather your tax money go to pay for clean needles for people who will use anyway or for HIV treatment for the rest of their lives?

      March 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin Carroll

    Better check their figures. 20,000,000 gallons/year can be used by a small factory. If that is all that SF is saving by using
    low flow toilets, the effort is a failure anyway.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seigell

      Since existing Federal Regs are for max 1.6 gal per flush, then Low-Flow toilets would have a hard time saving more than 1 gal per flush. That means the Low-Flow toilets are handling about 20M flushes per year (1.6M flushes per month or 55,000 flushes per day or 4500 flushes per hour for a 12-hr usage), which is actually reasonable for a moderate number of just 1000 toilets.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. adge

    The addition of Potassium Permanganate to the effliuent stream will ensure that the sewage does not become anerobic during the low flow or static condition. It will also not produce any nast chlorine compounds or cause problems at the treatment plan.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Robert

    Why not use dual flush toilets with two buttons. A small flush for number one and a larger flush for number two.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Denver Man

    If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down....twice

    March 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. kls817

    San Francisco:
    If you are so concerned about the environment, why did you build a dam in Yosemite National Park in what was once one of the prettiest canyons in the Sierras? And you still use the dam. Remove the dam if you really care...hypocrites.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. easter_bunny

    FIXED IN TWO WORDS: poop Weekly

    March 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Rachel M

    The solution to this problem is costing SF $0.75 per gallon of water saved? Is municipal water really that expensive there? It seems like a cheaper and easier solution is to flush the offending sewers with water.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Anon

    I don't give a d@mn about any of this cause I uses an outhouse.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jaydee

    flush the low flow twice. problem solved.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bill

    I have an idea – why don't we get rid of the low flow toilets!! More water will then flush through the system. We will actually still save water as we will not have to flush twice to get everything down!! And I don't even work for the government.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Evan

    Is it even safe to drink or bathe in tap water disinfected with bleach? Wouldn't that burn the stomach lining and skin?

    March 1, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Haha California

    Just another reason to NOT got to California.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
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