When I first entered the plumbing trade in 1981, the majority of toilets in use were designed to flush using 5 gallons of water. It wasn't uncommon for people to place a full-size brick or portions of one, in their tank to displace some of it. It was how water conservation in toilets got started. New toilets were already being designed to flush using 3.5 gallons and were hailed as "water savers", and compared to the dinosaurs of the past, they were.
In 1992 President George H. W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act. The law made 1.6 gallons per flush (GPF) a mandatory federal maximum for new toilets. This law went into effect on January 1, 1994 for residential buildings and January 1, 1997 for commercial buildings.
Like most plumbers I was skeptical. Would they flush? Manufacturers were allowed to sell off their existing inventory of 3.5's and plumbers with storage space bought as many as they could. I stuffed a half dozen into my shed.
I was an American Standard guy early on but then changed to Kohler. Neither company was able to produce a good 1.6 on their first attempt. The first manufacturer to produce a 1.6 gallon toilet that worked was Universal Rundle. UR was the "American Motors" of fixture manufacturers, but they kept their design simple and it worked. They became my go-to and I installed a lot of 'em.
When Universal Rundle couldn't keep up with the demand, they started having their toilets made all over the globe and as a result, quality control suffered. Manufacturers rate defects A, B, C, and D, based on how visible they are. A is the worst type. It's the side of the fixture you see on approach. B is the side you see when you're using it. C is the side you see when you're standing in another part of the bathroom, and D is the side you see if you've made an effort to look at it from angles you would never be in otherwise. Unfortunately, a lot of the UR toilets had A and B defects, and to avoid any hassles, I stopped using them.
Enter Toto, the largest toilet manufacturer in the world. They were originally headquartered in Kitakyushu, Japan but now have manufacturing plants all over the world. In Europe, 1.6 toilets were the standard long before H.W. signed the Energy Policy Act, and Toto had perfected their design by the time their toilets began showing up in the states. The toilets had names like "The Ultimate" and "The Supreme", and for a while, they stood alone at the top, but like all technology, toilets continued to evolve, and other fixture manufacturers improved their designs and began making claims of flushing superiority. Suddenly, there was a lot of competition for the crown…
Long Live the Queen!
After Toto changed their flush valve design and replacement flappers for their older models became harder to find, I started using Kohler again and never looked back. Kohler's 1.28 GPF model works better than most 1.6's.
Over the years a variety of manufacturers have stolen the toilet spotlight. Back in the 80s, Villeroy & Boch became the number one choice for million-dollar homes in my area, their top of the line toilets costing in excess of $1,500. I had a customer who got divorced and in her settlement, she got the house and the Mercedes. When I went to do plumbing work for her, she constantly complained about the cost to repair her Benz, that was until I had to shag parts for her toilets. Toilet parts that normally cost $50 were close to $200 and had to be ordered and paid for in full upfront. I suggested pulling the toilets and installing Kohlers, but she wanted no part of that. To her, it would've been the equivalent of trading in the Benz for a Ford, not an option in her world. With labor, it ended up costing her close to a grand to fix two of her toilets (1996).
The most interesting high-end toilet story I have involves a guy named Roger and his wife Carolyn, who in their mid to late 50s and with no children living at home, decided they'd add a family room on to their 1950s Cape-style house, remodel their dated kitchen, put in another bathroom, and replace their ancient hot water boiler. It was back in 1987 and I was the plumber on the job.
Roger was 6 foot 1, on the heavy side, with short gray hair and a long face with sharp wrinkle lines at the ends of his narrow lips that extended straight down to the bottom of his jaw. He worked for the government, in contracts, and he was more than willing to share with me what he did. According to him, contracts with outside vendors and contractors weren't finalized until after the work began and in some cases, after the jobs were completed. When I responded with "that's totally ass-backward" he looked puzzled, not knowing what to say. It's how he'd been doing business his entire career. When we sat to discuss fixtures he and his wife listened to my recommendations. I said "Kohler everything" and they took the catalog and made their decision the following day.
They wanted "Raspberry Puree" colored fixtures. The color looked a lot like raspberry sherbet to me and I started remembering when I was a kid, how disappointing sherbet was when I was expecting ice cream, but I digress… I never discouraged my customers from having what they wanted simply because it wasn't my cup of tea. Raspberry Puree it was!
After they gave me model numbers for the tub and drop-in sinks, Roger said he wanted a San Raphael toilet. I knew it was Kohler's high-end, one-piece, quiet flush, all the bells and whistles toilet, and that it wasn't cheap. Their house was a very ordinary Cape, certainly, a little extravagance wasn't out of the question, but a $1,200 toilet? I tried to discourage it. I told Roger for $400 he could have a really nice one-piece toilet and for $200, a toilet that would look great as part of his Raspberry Puree Fixture Ensemble… He wasn't budging. He told me he wanted only the very best toilet and he wasn't backing down.
When the tile floor was done and the bathroom was ready for finish, I went to my local Kohler dealer and picked up the fixtures. The toilet was heavy, there was a lot of vitreous china used in the manufacturing of this high-end fixture.
I worked on the tub trim and the sinks first and then I set the toilet. It looked good. I just didn't think Roger and Carolyn needed to spend the farm on a toilet, but it was what they chose and could afford, apparently.
I was home relaxing that night when my business phone rang. I picked it up and it was Roger. I immediately asked him how he liked his new toilet and he said he liked it, but… on the back of the tank lid, on the bottom edge, he said there was a small white spot where the Raspberry Puree ended. I hadn't seen it and since it was on the back-bottom of the lid, no one would ever see it. When I mentioned that to Roger he reminded me that he paid $1,200 for Kohler's best toilet and he expected it to be perfect. After sensing he would not be letting it go, I told him I'd call my supplier in the morning and see if they had another San Raphael in Raspberry Puree, and if they did, I'd be more than happy to change out the lid. He thanked me and I told him I'd call him in the morning.
I didn't expect my supplier to have the lid, but they did. I told Roger the good news. I drove to the supply house, checked the new lid for flaws, and headed over to change it out. Carolyn was the only one home and she didn't seem to be bothered by the spot on the tank lid, but she seemed overjoyed once the new one was in place.
I was home that evening relaxing when my business phone rang. It was Roger again. I figured he was calling to thank me, but no, he said he removed the lid and discovered a small white spot under it, in the back of the tank. I asked Roger if he could see it with the lid on and he said he couldn't. (Remember the defects, A-D, I described earlier in the blog?) I explained the way defects were categorized and that I rated this defect a D. I told Roger "you can't see it from anywhere in the bathroom unless you remove the lid, squeeze your head up against the back wall, shine a flashlight in the 3/4" space behind the tank, and have better than 20-20 vision". Roger was just getting started. He lectured me on quality and what he expected from Kohler's best toilet, that it had fallen short of his expectations and that as a plumber, it should fall short of mine as well. After one of the most exhausting hours of my life, I caved and told him I'd call Kohler's Rep, but I warned him they're pretty strict on defects, especially ones they categorize as D, "impossible to see from anywhere in the bathroom without being a contortionist!".
I called the Rep and explained the situation. I told him Roger worked for the government in contracts, and he said the government negotiated contracts with outside vendors and contractors long after the work was started and sometimes, after the jobs were completed. The bathroom is complete, but he's just starting to negotiate. I told him "Roger is gonna sit you down in his living room and start talking about quality. He'll tell you he chose Kohler's San Raphael toilet because of its reputation for being the best. He will go on and on until you're thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. You'll feel weak, your knees will begin to shake and it'll feel a lot like torture, but do not give in! I'm not replacing that toilet, so don't think you can give me a token $100 to waste my time because of Roger's pathetic definition of quality." The Rep was a nice guy, mild-mannered, and I sensed he needed a pep talk to prepare him for Roger, to get him toughened-up and ready so he wouldn't cave.
The next night the Rep called me and I immediately asked him how his meeting with Roger went. He said it was just like I said… "I sat in his living room for over an hour while he lectured me on quality. I was thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. I began to feel weak and my knees were shaking…" I interrupted him "You didn't give him a new toilet, did ya?" The Rep was choking on his own laughter and when he finally gathered himself he said "I did. But don't worry, I'll give you $200 to change it out". I knew Roger was gonna be too much for him…
I called Roger and told him I was picking up a new toilet in the morning but I wanted him to meet me at the supply house so he could look it over first. He said he was gonna be out of town, but Carolyn could meet me there. I told him to have her bring a flashlight so she could look the toilets over thoroughly. I was surprised, there were three San Raphael's in Raspberry Puree in stock.
I met Carolyn at the supply house at 8:00 a.m. and she had her flashlight in-hand. Jimmy the counter guy, opened the first box and together we lifted the toilet out and placed it on top of a bench. When I told Carolyn to look it over carefully, she asked me to set it on the floor. I told her that having the toilet on the bench was like having a car on a lift, she could see everything. She insisted we put it on the floor. We set it on the floor and she walked around it, shining her flashlight and looking for defects. After one walk around, she said "This toilet's fine". I asked her "Are you sure? We can take another one out for you." "Nope" she said "This one's fine". Then I took out a little hand-written agreement I drafted up that read "I ____ on this date ____ have thoroughly inspected this Kohler San Raphael toilet for defects and I'm accepting it in its current condition. In the event that I find any defects once the toilet is installed, I cannot return it for another one or attempt to negotiate a credit as I was given every opportunity to inspect it first."
After reading it she looked at me and asked "Are you a Lawyer?" I said, "No, I want you to be happy, I just don't have time to do this again. If you date and sign this agreement I'll bring the new toilet to your house and install it".
I went to the house, removed the first toilet, put it in the box the new one came in and put it in my truck, and then I installed the new one. While I was down on my knees tightening the bolts, I saw a 2" seam running up the front of the base, dead center. It looked like an imperfection in the vitreous china that Kohler filled and then covered with Raspberry Puree touch-up. It was a legitimate B side defect…
In their unrelenting quest for quality, Roger and Carolyn had me remove a perfect toilet and then install one that had an actual flaw. I felt bad for them, but at the same time, I was happy to finally be outa there with $200 and my sanity still intact!
Besides, there were other toilets that needed my attention…