Raleigh's rebate program for water-efficient toilets ends Jan. 1

sgilman@newsobserver.comNovember 11, 2013 

  • For more information

    Until Jan. 1, the City of Raleigh will offer rebates for WaterSense-labeled toilets to all Raleigh water and/or sewer customers, including customers in Wendell, Garner, Rolesville, Knightdale, Zebulon, and Wake Forest. For information, go to http://bit.ly/ko86RQ.

— After four years and at least $1.2 million, the city of Raleigh is phasing out its rebate program for replacing old, inefficient toilets with newer ones that use less water.

Residents have until Jan. 1 to postmark their application for the $100 the city has been offering for the purchase of toilets labeled “WaterSense” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The program began in 2009 as part of water conservation efforts that followed the severe drought of 2007-2008. The program has helped pay for more than 12,000 toilets, but the need for it diminishes each year as demand for water falls, Raleigh environmental coordinator Ed Buchan said.

“It’s been a steady decline since 2010,” Buchan said. “The amount of media attention really hammered it home, the water conservation message. I think people are taking it to heart.”

The economy has also dampened demand for water, Buchan said, as have Raleigh’s tiered water rates, a system put in place after the drought that charges higher rates for those who use more water.

Lower demand for water means less revenue for the Public Utilities Department, another reason the toilet rebate no longer makes sense, Buchan said.

“We operate on water and sewer sales,” he said. “It is incredibly difficult for us to manage the financial obligations we have.”

The rebate was one of several measures adopted by Triangle governments during and after the 2007-2008 drought, which threatened to deplete the region’s water supplies. Falls Lake, the largest source of drinking water for Raleigh and other Wake towns, dropped as much as 10 feet below normal on Christmas day 2007, leaving behind expanses of cracked, dry earth and illegally dumped tires.

At the height of the drought, Raleigh banned all outdoor water use, including irrigation and power-washing. Residents also responded voluntarily, buying rain barrels for their gardens, taking shorter showers and sharing ideas for saving water.

The drought ended by September 2008, after sudden rainfall from tropical storms Fay and Hanna filled area reservoirs. Most of the restrictions on water use were eventually lifted. But many Triangle residents continued to conserve.

Even without the rebate, city officials expect people will continue to switch to water-saving toilets, which they say now make up the bulk of models on the market. According to the EPA, toilet flushes account for about 30 percent of all household water consumption, but that figure goes down with more efficient plumbing.

A successful program

Old toilets could flush up to six gallons at a time, while newer toilets can use as little as 1.28 gallons per flush. Since many have bought in to water conservation and are purchasing newer toilets, Buchan said, it’s a good time for Raleigh to end an expensive program. The City Council voted Nov. 5 to end it.

“It was the right time to say the program has been successful,” he said. “It’s time for the natural markets to do that.”

Low-flow toilets have caused debate since 1992, when Congress set 1.6 gallons as the industry standard. Kilo Krahn, regional manager for Roto-Rooter, a national plumbing company, said he replaces old 3.5-gallon flushers about twice a week and that he “100 percent” supports putting in low-flow toilets because they are cheaper to operate.

“If somebody had an old 3.5-gallon toilet, they could save the cost of a new one over time,” Krahn said.

But Bobby Poisella, service manager at Raleigh Plumbing and Heating, said installing a low-flow toilet might not be the best option.

“They don’t work,” Poisella said. “If it’s number one, it goes away just fine. If it’s number two, you have to flush it (more often than) you would otherwise to get it done.”

Even with the remaining water-guzzling toilets still in use, Raleigh residents use relatively little water – 98 gallons per capita daily on average. Current water consumption matches the low during the worst of the 2007-2008 drought and compares favorably to other cities, Buchan said. In Charlotte, for example, residents use about 115 gallons per day on average, and in Charleston, S.C., they use 135, according to numbers compiled by the city of Raleigh.

“In a way, we’ve won the day,” Buchan said. “We’ve continued to sell less water each day.”

Raleigh’s Public Utilities Department will continue to encourage the efficient use of water. It still has a program that provides water efficient showerheads and faucet aerators for free to all Raleigh utility customers who wish to trade in their older, water-wasting models.

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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