By Kurtis Alexander
If it’s yellow, let it mellow.
That’s been the go-to rule of water conservation for decades (well, half of the rule), a simple euphonic catchphrase whose origins are tough to trace but appears to have been popularized by the likes of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and two-time California Gov. Jerry Brown in times of drought.
With California in its third consecutive dry year, and residents statewide asked to conserve, the easy-to-remember adage speaks of a common-sense sacrifice made for the common good: selective flushing.
If only it were so simple.
While some see the tactic as perfectly reasonable, and feel proud to embrace it even during wet years, others are mortified.
“I live at home and my mother doesn’t want to see my pee in the toilet,” said Kristen Richina, 27, of Fresno, as she walked through downtown San Francisco last week. She said she was unwilling to abandon a lifelong act of personal hygiene.
But San Francisco resident Kurtis Wu, 27, boasted that he had started limiting his flushing in the state’s time of need.
“It’s not that bad,” he said. “My friend was doing it and I was a little grossed out when I went to his place, but when he told me what he was doing, it made sense.”
The debate — now playing out in homes, workplaces and social media — speaks to something larger, say both water experts and psychiatrists.
Strong feelings tend to surround not just toilet use but conservation in general. Such matters, they say, touch on coveted and personal moments: showering, grooming, going to the bathroom.
The ‘ick’ factor
Even maintaining a green lawn or keeping the car clean — or not — can play into someone’s sense of self-worth.
“We’re not really aware that we have all these routines that make us feel comfortable and in control until someone tells you that you can’t do those things anymore,” said Tracy Foose, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF. “We’re used to these very orderly and predictable rituals. To give those up, you feel like you’ll be missing out on something.”
When it comes to doing things differently in the bathroom, Foose noted, “The majority of people have a moderate ‘ick’ reaction to toilets in general anyway.” Change there, she said, may be too much to expect, drought or not.
There’s little disagreement, though, on whether the “let it mellow” rule is a good one. Experts agree that waiting judiciously to flush a toilet — “If it’s brown, flush it down” — is one of the best ways to reduce water use in the home.
Consider this: The average person flushes 5.5 times in their home each day, and the average toilet puts down 2.6 gallons of water per flush, according to nationwide figures from engineering firm Aquacraft Inc. in Boulder, Colo.
‘Opportunity to save’
That means California households flush away about 33 gallons of water each day, and California as a whole about 414 million gallons — the equivalent of roughly two Taj Mahals full of water.
“If every person flushes less, there’s a lot of opportunity to save,” said Tracy Quinn, a Santa Monica water policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council.
She said the toilet, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of all indoor residential water use, tops the washing machine as the home’s foremost water-guzzler.
Brown was well aware of this when he declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17 and asked residents to voluntarily reduce water use by 20 percent. He even suggested during a recent speech that people “let it mellow.”
Californians have generally been good about conserving in the bathroom, and elsewhere, when called upon during past droughts, Quinn said.
But she said conservation efforts in California have paled historically in comparison to measures taken elsewhere in the world, such as Australia and the Caribbean. In the islands, a common saying holds, “In the land of sun and fun, we do not flush for number one.”
In Brazil a few years ago, an environmental group went as far as to launch an ad campaign requesting that people urinate in the shower.
However, it must be mentioned that there are, ahem, drawbacks to not flushing.
Tadd Truscott, a Brigham Young University assistant engineering professor who has performed research on high-speed projectiles for the Navy, said urinating in an un-flushed toilet can generate unhealthy “splash-back.”
“Although urine is sterile, a lot of times the stuff that’s in the toilet is not,” Truscott said. “With splash-back, you get a little on your hands from time to time … definitely enough that germs can be spread.”
Truscott has simulated the male urine stream with dyed water and toilet walls in his fluid dynamics lab and found that falling pee turns to droplets before hitting the water, intensifying the splash.
To avoid splash-back, he recommends men get as close as possible to the toilet — or sit down.
“While a lot of people don’t feel comfortable sitting down at a public restroom, at a gas station or something, maybe they do at home,” he said.
Another upshot of not flushing is stench, although most water experts dismiss this gripe as petty, saying water absorbs a significant amount of odor.
An additional concern — that toilet bowls get discolored or even eroded by standing urine — can be mitigated with even occasional flushing and cleaning, experts say.
As important as reduced flushing can be for conservation, equally important is having a toilet that doesn’t leak and doesn’t use much water.
On Jan. 1, California began requiring toilets for new homes to average no more than 1.28 gallons per flush — a bit less than a national standard of 1.6 gallons. Residents fixing up older homes also must have low-flow commodes.
For additional water savings in the home, residents are urged to limit use of the washing machine, dishwasher and shower and, when possible, upgrade to high-efficiency products.
The potential to save the most, though, comes with lawns and landscaping.
“There’s a lot of room for conservation without pain and suffering,” said David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center. “There are the day-to-day questions that people encounter: Do I do a full load of laundry or do I turn off the shower? But frankly, the biggest impact we can have is tied to our water use outdoors.”
Attention to detail
Of the more than 300 gallons of water that the average household uses each day, about 55 percent flows outside, experts say.
Sedlak said California residents can hit the governor’s 20 percent conservation target with just a little attention to detail.
As for letting it mellow, Sedlak said that, yes, it’s a good thing.
“We do it in my house,” he said. “We just make sure the dog doesn’t drink out of the toilet.”
Tips for conserving water
The state’s Save Our Water program, which seeks to cut everyday water use, offers the following suggestions:
* Do only full loads of dishes and laundry and get water-efficient appliances, including toilets.
* Install an aerator on the kitchen faucet to reduce the flow.
* Install low-flow shower heads, reduce shower time to five minutes, and fill bathtubs halfway, at most.
* Don’t use the toilet to flush away trash, and turn off the faucet while shaving or brushing teeth.
* Use efficient irrigation systems, and water early in the morning or late in the evening.
* Water deeply but less frequently, select drought-resistant plants, and use mulch around them.
* Use a broom rather than a hose to clean driveways and patios.
* Wash vehicles with a bucket and a sponge, plus a hose with a self-closing nozzle.
— Reach Kurtis Alexander at email@example.com