SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES hit the streets to find out what toilet manufacturers are bragging about, where their focus is today and where their attention will be for the near future.

Since 1994 manufacturers have been trying to rise above the 1.6 gallon-per-flush ruckus caused by disgruntled homeowners and since 1998, the equally vocal double-flushing business community. While this technical and managerial challenge was stewing, the U.S. economy was enjoying the longest economic expansion in its history.

Today, growth rates are more moderate, somewhere around 5%, but consumers and businesses alike are beginning to acknowledge the gains made by manufacturers in the 1.6-gpf market.

"Performance with the 1.6 gallon has always been and, in some cases, will always be a big mess," admits Kohler's Mike Chandler, marketing director, sanitary products. "That's the bad news. The good news is our research indicates consumers are moving on - getting past the performance issue. And our measuring stick for this change in consumer thinking is that consumer focus has shifted to comfort, aesthetics and functionality."

Admittedly not all low-consumption toilets are created equal. Efficiency gains have been made in both the gravity tank and the pressure-assist units. Experts agree most pressure-assist are quieter, and most gravity models perform well with one flush.

Changes in a toilet's well contours, rim and trapway size for both gravity and pressure-assist have worked so well that most experts envision a day when a new regulation is enacted - lowering the 1.6 gallon requirement. A 1999 study by the American Water Works Association found that efficiency toilets saved on average 10.5 gallons per person per day.

Areas Of Opportunity

"This is the year of the rollout of the Champion toilet and flushing system," boasts Robb Kass, American Standard, vice president/marketing, Americas Bath & Kitchen. "The Champion represents a real turning point for American Standard. We've spent several years in R&D, have three factories producing it to keep up with demand and are convinced it is the best performing toilet on the market today."

American Standard claims several one-of-a-kind features and benefits for the Champion. "Largest siphon trapway in the industry, flapper-free, 10-year warranty no competitor can match on everything including china, tank and trim, commercial and residential appeal, and unprecedented local, regional and national advertising and promotional support," Kass declares.

TOTO, the world's largest plumbing manufacturer, promotes the Washlet E200 with this thought-provoking question: You wash your hands. You rinse your face. Why not use water to get really clean where you need it most?

The TOTO Washlet transforms an ordinary toilet into a high-tech toilet providing an entirely new way of cleaning that's healthier, gentler and more hygienic than mere bathroom tissue. Using a warm stream of water to gently cleanse your intimate areas, the Washlet provides a comfortable, refreshing and sanitary bathroom experience. First introduced in 1990, there are more than 17 million in use worldwide.

"In September we will blanket the market with television infomercials, print advertisements, a national public relations campaign and distributor and end-user training for the Washlet E200," says TOTO's Public Relations Manager, Lenora Campos, Ph.D. "The Washlet incorporates embedded bidet technology into the toilet to create a warm water cleansing unit. It can be operated by wireless remote and has commercial and residential applications.

"The Neorest debuts in October," Campos continues. "This tankless, high-tech integrated toilet and Washlet system includes the revolutionary new cyclone flush engine, a lid that automatically opens and closes, automatic flushing, self-cleaning mode, heated seat and warm air dryer. There is nothing comparable to this product in the market today!"

And with a more-power twist that would make Tim Allen of Home Improvement proud, the Neorest may include a power catalytic deodorizing function which engages when a user rises from his seat.

"The Kohler Co.'s focus for the toilet marketplace will continue to be linked to the Ingenium flushing system," notes Chandler. "It's gravity-fed, has a big water spot, 2-inch trapway, quiet controlled flush with easy installation and serviceability."

Ingenium, the name derived from the Latin word for engine, gives Kohler flexibility and consistency in toilet performance and design.

"With the foundation set, we have unlimited capabilities with computer-driven models that build and wrap shapes and colors around the engine," Chandler says. "Consumers can demand almost any type of product or design and we can build it around the Ingenium. And finally, these are products that not only work, but have a higher level of comfort, aesthetics and functionality."

Kohler's strategic approach is similar in many ways to another industry leader - Honda. They make many of the most revered motors in the world and through advanced technology wrap Indy cars, passenger cars, lawn and garden equipment, generators and marine equipment successfully around them.

What's In Our Way?

The reputation of a toilet manufacturer in the market and in the distributor's mind can work for you and against you. Two examples: Let's say your slick, persuasive advertising campaign convinces people your product is better than it really is. That will work for the short-term only. Conversely, a manufacturer that built its reputation with a single focus may struggle to shake off an outdated image.

"The days of Mansfield being a traditional white round-front toilet manufacturer are over; have been over for several years now," says Pete Kirkpatrick, senior vice president/sales and marketing. "We are a global manufacturer. But our toilets still carry the highest percentage of U.S.-made products compared to any of our competitors. We have also expanded commercial and residential lines, including high-end unique products that are available in a rainbow of colors."

With two new plants, one each in Mexico and Thailand, Kohler is tackling customer service and delivery issues head on. "We are in the best shape in our history, with the additional capacity to service customer needs like never before," notes Chandler.

The debate over flush types gives the market edge to the larger players who have the wherewithal to design and deliver a product equally adept in various market segments or the capital to invest in several systems.

Case in point: American Standard has introduced the Champion with universal appeal in both commercial and residential applications, referring to it as a real turning point at the company. Kohler emphasizes the gravity-fed Ingenium but has product depth and breadth to deliver wall-hung or floor-mounted Flushometer-equipped toilets to the newly renovated Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

The continued technological and manufacturing improvements in both gravity and pressure-assist mean the often-disputed performance gap and noise gap will continue to narrow.

But the continued flush debate can confuse the public. And paralysis by analysis may set in - delaying a purchase decision until the comfort level is increased. Most manufacturers produce gravity-flush for residential and pressure-assist for commercial. Some produce only one type and some produce additional varieties - like electronic and vacuum-assist.

"In the commercial sector we've seen double-flush numbers as high as 40% for gravity types," notes Michael Rosen, Chicago Faucets/Geberit product manager, commercial products. "Pressure-assist can save up to 25% more water than conventional 1.6-GPF technologies since double flushing is eliminated. Clogs and the resulting service calls are reduced by as much as 90%."

"Tank design with pressure-assist is very important," Rosen said. "The PF/2 (engine) is just as quiet as gravity. And seeing is believing. We set up working models at trade shows and let the product speak for itself."

Opportunities -- Future Potential And Growth

TOTO has earned an outstanding 30% year-to-year growth over the prior five years through technology, gravity-fed performance and by developing deep-rooted relationships with loyal distributors. TOTO employs 1,500 R&D engineers and spends $100 million annually.

In Las Vegas, for example, TOTO only had one problem toilet out of the 3,000 installed in the Venetian Hotel. And a National Association of Home Builders survey ranked TOTO toilets numbers one, two and three.

"We grow by partnering with pioneering and entrepreneurial wholesalers and kitchen and bath dealers," notes Campos. "We cultivate strong relationships founded on loyalty. Our partnership is our primary focus. And you will not find us in a home improvement warehouse."

"Going forward, pressure-assist will be the enhancement people are looking for," notes Pat Kimener, Chicago Faucets/Geberit, vice president/sales. "The latest market data we have been provided with shows the pressure-assist market is the fastest growing and currently holds an estimated 15% market share."

"We continue to experience tremendous growth for Geberit with pressure-assist flushing systems, specifically the Tessera - the wall-hung bowl in-the-wall tank and carrier unit. We are receiving great feedback from customers who appreciate this pioneering new product and proven technology. The specifying community is coming to us, and as the in-wall leader we are well positioned for growth. We have a track record with this product going back 20 years. The European styling - with a focus on cleanliness, sound, performance, and the additional 6-inches to 9-inches of floor space afforded by the Tessera model make this an American success story."

Similar to the popular "Intel Inside" commercials, Kohler's future is tied to the Ingenium (inside) flushing system. "We will continue to promote the Ingenium models," says Chandler. "They flush like a 3.5 gallon. No one else can say that. Suites will also continue to be a focus for us. They make the buying process so much easier for the consumer and the builder."

American Standard's Kass sees growth in suite products as well. "We have delivered a tremendous output of new products, especially suites, faucets, toilets and a whole line of new anti-microbial jetted tubs. Suites will continue to be in style and successful. The positive responses we receive continue to reinforce the impact our suite products are making."

"The market demand for higher-end products has increased," admits Kirkpatrick of Mansfield, which delivers the high-end Windsor Collection suite to respond to market demands.

"However, we also strive for variety and diversity within our product lines and to our different customer segments. Like 12 one-piece toilet offerings. Or five color options no manufacturer can match. And we brought discontinued colors back for our repair and remodeling customers who could not find them anywhere else, including harvest gold, venetian pink, fawn beige and avocado."