The 80s Called. They Want Their Toilets Back.

The final straw came when Brenden rushed into the kitchen, a panicked look on his face, to tell me the toilet was overflowing. I praised him for telling us so quickly, cleaned up the mess, and decided it was time to complete a project I’d wanted to do ever since we moved in four years ago: replacing our original 1983 toilets with modern ones.

The old ones were pretty, um, crappy. They didn’t flush all that well and occasionally stopped up or even overflowed, as Brenden learned the hard way. I’m still surprised that the boys hadn’t plugged one up by trying to flush something weird like a Hot Wheels car or action figure.

The other problem was high water use. These used 3.5 gallons per flush, the standard in the mid-80s, whereas modern toilets flush just as well or better with as little as 1.28 gallons. With our ongoing water shortage in Texas likely to get worse in the future, I didn’t feel very responsible keeping these water-guzzlers in service. With all four of us now using the toilet several times a day (thanks, Jonathan!), replacing all three toilets would save 10,000-20,000 gallons of water per year. That’s equivalent to a backyard swimming pool.

I already had my toilet picked out: the Penguin high-efficiency at Lowe’s. I liked the Penguin because it combined great flush performance with a unique feature: overflow protection. Look back in the picture at the top of this post. See the three holes in the back of the bowl? They keep the toilet from overflowing, just like the weird hole in your bathroom sink. And if those holes get plugged up somehow, hidden backup holes can handle it. I still haven’t figure out why no one tried this a long time ago.

There are some other eco-friendly toilets like this Kohler model that offer dual-mode flushing, meaning more water for solids and less water for liquids. It’s a neat idea, but with two boys in the house who might decide to experiment with flushing Batman or Lightning McQueen, I thought the overflow protection was more important.

I wasn’t impressed with the subcontracted installer (Dr. Plumber, who did good work yesterday but showed up 2 hours late and wasn’t good about communicating), but so far I love the new toilets. They are quiet, attractive, flush and refill within maybe 15 seconds versus 45-60 for the old ones, and seem to do a great job. I haven’t gotten to test them too, um, extensively, but based on the reviews I’ve read, the Penguins can handle pretty much anything you throw at them.

Blog Soup April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day! Lots going on this month. Here are some of the random thoughts running through my head:

  1. WE HAVE SARAH MCLACHLAN TICKETS FOR TONIGHT. I think I can safely say she is my favorite musician. (See, Alex? I can do it!) Ten of her albums sit in my iPhone. Jenny and I saw her once several years ago, and it was truly a spiritual experience, like we were connecting to something Other and Beautiful and The Way Things Could Be. That time we were way up high at AAC. Tonight, I think we’re near the front at the Meyerson. Breathe, Box, breathe.
  2. Like many of you, I was horrified by the fertilizer plant explosion in West, which was so powerful that two coworkers heard it from their houses in Cedar Hill. I bought kolaches from The Czech Stop several times, and I passed through the little town dozens of times driving to and from Baylor. Jenny bought her wedding dress from a little shop there. On top of our personal experiences there, most of the dead were firefighters who were fighting the initial fire when the plant exploded, and one of my best friends growing up now works as a firefighter in Axle. If he’d been on duty in the area when the fire broke out, he probably wouldn’t be here today.
  3. Apparently our friends at Westboro Baptist Church plan to protest some of the firefighters’ funerals and a big memorial service at Baylor this week. When they tried that for a funeral of a former Aggie who was killed in combat, about 600 Aggies showed up and built a human wall to keep them away. A group near West is organizing something similar, and I might go join them for the Baylor memorial. They want it to be a silent, arm-in-arm stand to protect the families rather than a shouting match. That seems like a better approach to me.
  4. Congratulations to Jenny for getting accepted to UTA Nursing School! She has been taking prereqs for six semesters now, and she finally got the official word (as if there were ever any doubt!) that she can start full-time nursing school this fall. She worked really hard to get ready to apply and did extremely well in her classes, and I have no doubt she will rock that school. The program lasts four semesters, so she expects to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in May 2015. You better believe there will be a major graduation party.
  5. Due to sequestration, the FAA has imposed mandatory furlough days on the air traffic controllers, reducing the workforce on any given day by about 10 percent. As a result, SWA took some minor delays during the day on Sunday (a lighter than normal traffic day), but multi-hour delays yesterday evening into Los Angeles. One of my flights landed four hours late. For those who’ve been screaming for spending cuts and smaller government, was this what they had in mind? Probably not, but this is what’s happening, and it sucks.
  6. Something else that sucks is our yard! It turns out that ignoring your soil for four years, refusing to water or fertilize it, and hoping your grass won’t grow tends to produce poor soil that is more hospitable to weeds than to grass. So…I finally did something about it and bought some milorganite. It’s an organic fertilizer that adds nitrogen and lowers the soil’s pH a bit to make things less cozy for the weeds that form much of our yard. I’m trying hard to avoid poisons like Roundup and typical fertilizers that cause environmental problems (see West, TX for one example). This seems like a more effective and eco-friendly approach. We’ll how this organic stuff does.
  7. We’re also thinking about replacing the monkey grass out front with some different plants that like full shade. Texas Smartscape has a nice database of native plants that do well here without copious amounts of water.

A Better Deal on Green Power

We’ve been with Green Mountain Energy for about 3 years now. I’ve always been willing to pay a little more to support cleaner electricity, and the company employs good people. Thanks to Green Mountain’s success and the growing interest in green products, several power companies now sell 100 percent renewable electricity at rates lower than Green Mountain’s. So I switched.

I was paying 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is high but much less than I was paying a couple of years ago. On PowerToChoose.org, I found a host of companies offering the same renewable electricity for under 9 cents/kwh. Yes, please.

TriEagle Energy won my business with a 12-month fixed-rate plan for renewable energy for 8.2 cents/kwh plus a $4.95/month service fee, making the effective rate for us about 8.6 cents. We’ll be saving about 25 percent over our current rate. I like the sound of that.

Wind Turbines for the Home

My eco-friendly mother-in-law sent me a very interesting article about residential wind turbines. One company, Urban Green Energy, even makes turbines you can mount on your roof. Here in Dallas, the average wind speed is about 10-11mph, so they would work. When they’re turning, your home uses the power they create. If you aren’t using all the generated power at the time, you can store it in a special battery or sell it back to the power company. Nice, eh?

Unfortunately, at current energy prices, the payback period for us would be prohibitively long. We pay about 11.5 cents/kWh, and the mid-level Urban Green Energy turbine (about $4900 after the tax credit) would generate about 1000kWh per year, saving us $115 annually. So I doubt we’ll install them anytime soon. But if the turbine prices come down and energy prices go up, we’ll certainly keep this solution in mind.

A “New” Way to Get Around

As an employee of a major airline, I probably shouldn’t like this idea. However, as an environmentalist, opponent of traffic jams and the hassles (sorry, boss!) of airline travel, I see some benefit in high-speed rail.

My experience with trains involves not high-speed rail but slower commuter rail in major cities – London, Paris, Washington, Dallas, New York, and Chicago. I was always impressed by how many people these subway and light rail systems could move around. Jenny and I have taken the Trinity Railway Express to downtown Fort Worth and the American Airlines Center many times to avoid traffic and parking hassles.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about high-speed rail. I know they are popular and very successful in Europe and Japan. In terms of carrying a person or pound of cargo a given distance, they use less fuel and produce fewer emissions than a car, truck, or plane. Sure, even a high-speed train is much slower than a jet. However, if you account for the chance of flight delays and the extra time and trouble you spend at the airport prior to the flight, the difference in overall travel time drops.

Leaders in Texas have discussed a high-speed train network to link Dallas, Houston, and Austin at various times. It appears to finally have a chance of success thanks to significant private investment. Southwest campaigned strongly against the idea in the early 1990s for obvious reasons. You won’t see me campaigning against my employer, but I think the idea is at least worth considering.

Check out this article in Time for details about high-speed rail possibilities in the U.S., particularly in Florida.