A history of ULF toilets shows how the greenies and congresscreatures make the industry jump through moving hoops.

They reminded me of bookworm staff officers with their charts and graphs. Like so many military theoreticians, they knew little of the front lines where tactical brilliance could be rendered meaningless by a few well-placed artillery shells.

"They" were the environmental zealots. It was October 1988, and they were prominent among the 130 people - including this reporter - attending a conference in Cherry Hill, N.J., sponsored by the Delaware River Basin Commission, a water resource agency with jurisdiction over a large swatch of the Mid-Atlantic region. Interested parties had gathered to debate the wisdom of legislation mandating ultra-low flush toilets. ULF laws had been enacted in scattered municipalities around the country, and Massachusetts recently had become the first to commit to such restrictions statewide. Federal legislation was in an early stage of development.

Also attending the conference were representatives of various plumbing fixture companies. At the time, most of the manufacturers were dead set against flushing restrictions.

Toilets may seem like uncomplicated devices to the average citizen, but are highly engineered products. It wasn't just a simple matter of reducing their water content. Bowls, trapways and flushing mechanisms had to be reconfigured to make the transition from 3.5 to 1.6 gpf. This required trial-and-error lab work. Unanswered questions existed about the impact on drain lines, sewers and treatment plants. Also, plumbing manufacturers doubted their ability to revamp production fast enough to meet an abrupt shift in demand.

Nobody was opposed to water conservation. The Plumbing Manufacturers Institute simply asked for five years to phase in ULF technology. Fixture companies needed that time to work out design kinks and make a smooth transition in production.

The greenies wouldn't hear of it. For reasons never clearly articulated, they were in a hurry to pass laws regulating plumbing products, as if our nation were in imminent danger of running out of water. Self-righteousness breeds its own sense of urgency.

Shortly after the Cherry Hill meeting, PMI reversed its position from opposition to support of federal legislation. Fixture manufacturers decided it was the lesser of evils. Numerous states and municipalities were hopping on the ULF bandwagon with regulations that invoked a variety of standards. Manufacturers were faced with the nightmare of potentially having to produce different toilets for dozens of markets. So they held their noses and lined up behind a single federal standard. Wholesalers' interests coincided, so PMI and American Supply Association marched in lockstep throughout, as did the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association. The industry was united in asking for more time, but regulation proceeded at a frenzied pace. State after state passed ULF initiatives until superceded by the federal Plumbing Products Efficiency Act of 1992.

That's when plumbing technology started to devolve. As predicted, most of the early ULF gravity toilets did not work very well. Many projects turned out to be fiascos, with hundreds or even thousands of toilets being ripped out and replaced. Plumbing contractors dreaded going out on toilet calls. They did everything possible to keep decrepit 3.5 gpf units working rather than suffer inevitable callbacks on 1.6 replacements. The entire industry got a black eye, while the environmentalists laid low. Not a peep could be heard from them explaining to the American public our ecological interest in enduring the equivalent of Third-World plumbing. Just as well. They would have blamed it all on the industry.

As time passed and more and more ULF units got installed, mounting complaints about lousy toilets caught the attention of a heretofore obscure young congressman from Michigan, Joe Knollenberg. He's a Republican who postured as a friend of business when, in 1999, he launched his first of three annual attempts to repeal the 1992 plumbing products statute. His mantra was that the federal government has no place in our bathrooms. That bill failed to gather enough support ever to come up for a vote.

Last year, he resurrected his proposal with a different angle. This time he blew smoke about a black market for 3.5 gpf toilets, supposedly smuggled across the border from Canada. The American Supply Association refuted that notion with a survey done of ASA members located in states along the Canadian border asking if toilets from Canada were having an impact on their product sales. Of 76 companies responding to the survey, 92% said no.

Knollenberg's quest began to catch on with the consumer media. Syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry capitalized on the American public's penchant for potty humor with a couple of articles about Knollenberg's legislative initiative. Although tongue-in-cheek, Barry's popular column nonetheless helped raised the issue's profile with the public.

Time magazine ran a lowbrow article about the ULF controversy in its April 3, 2000, edition. Time parroted Knollenberg's line that "scores of Americans" are shopping for toilets in Canada "each week." The plural "scores" could mean as few as 40. Multiply that by weeks in the year and it would mean around 2,000 toilets annually are being imported to skirt the ULF rules. Double, triple, or even multiply that number tenfold, and we're still talking about an inconsequential percentage of the 8 million-plus toilets produced each year in the U.S. It was an unwitting refutation of the black market fable, although nobody read it that way. Knollenberg's bill gathered enough support to put a scare into the industry, barely getting shot down in subcommittee by a 13-12 vote.

Limelight is a politician's heroin, so the Michigan congresscreature is at it again. This time, his rallying cry has shifted to states' rights, saying toilet standards ought to be left to those jurisdictions rather than the federal government. This is precisely what gives plumbing people the heebie-jeebies. If the repeal were to go through, manufacturers would be back to square one spending millions of dollars on reengineering and retooling to meet various state standards. Wholesalers would once again find themselves stuck with a bunch of outmoded inventory.

Knollenberg's crusade illustrates so much of what's wrong with Washington, and why the marketplace is usually a better servant of public interest than government fiats.

By the time Knollenberg started noticing the plague of unfulfilled flushes, the problem was well on its way to getting solved. Just as plumbing manufacturers said back in the 1980s, given enough time, they could figure out a way to make 1.6 gpf toilets perform well. ULF product kept getting better.

This is not to say that every model delivers sterling performance or every user is satisfied. Anecdotal evidence is easy to come by of citizens fed up with deficient toilets, especially among those still stuck with fixtures from the early '90s. And it doesn't take much goading to get people to blame everything on the government. Yet, ULF toilets produced in recent years are much improved from the hurry-up designs forced on the public by the do-gooders. Some gravity units are virtually indistinguishable from their 3.5-gpf predecessors, and today's pressure-flush technology is absent most of the noise that raised objections in the early going. What's more, every study done on the subject shows that ULF restrictions are doing the job intended of conserving significant amounts of potable water.

For instance, late in 1999, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California found that residents were generally satisfied with their low-flush toilets, even though some models worked better than others, and despite a fair amount of double-flushing. In another study, the American Water Works Association Research Foundation spent $1.4 million on a sophisticated analysis of household water usage that isolated different fixtures and appliances. Its study, titled "Residential End Uses of Water," found that low-flow toilets cut water used for flushing just about in half and - surprise! - the incidence of double flushes was about the same as that for households still using 3.5 gpf units.

Nonetheless, every year Knollenberg seems to pick up a little more support. Many observers fear he might succeed this year with a maneuver that tags the ULF repeal as a rider to popular legislation. It could pass into law with hardly any public debate.

Such cruel irony. Back when the industry was pleading for a little extra time to do things right, we could have used a Knollenberg to champion our cause. Now, we find ourselves instead snuggling with the tree huggers, who have a reflexive interest in preserving the legislation they imprudently rushed into being a decade ago.

Let's hope these strange bedfellows can achieve the same success in flushing the publicity hound from Michigan back into obscurity.