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By Willoughby Mariano December 1, 2010

DeKalb commissioner says low-flow toilets can be costly

Thanks to The Dunwoody Crier, the minds of your AJC PolitiFact Georgia scribes are in the toilet.

An op-ed by DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer derided what she called "the toilet tax," which was passed in response to the region's drought.

"Two years ago, the commission unnecessarily started mandating that low-flush toilets had to be installed in older homes for sales to get to the closing table," Boyer wrote in the Oct. 27 issue. "Those toilets can cost homeowners up to $1,000 each."

Toilets? For $1,000?

We were, ahem, bowled over. Does a commode really cost that much? We researched the ordinance and called plumbers to find out.

A 2008 DeKalb ordinance requires that newly purchased buildings have low-flow toilets and other water-saving fixtures installed before the county turns on water service. The ordinance applies to residential and commercial properties built before Jan. 1, 1993, in the county's unincorporated areas.

The Department of Watershed Management performs free inspections to certify a building is compliant.

Buildings that will be torn down, foreclosed, or transferred between spouses or from a parent to a child are exempt.

If the switch costs more than $1,000 per toilet for a residential property, you can get a financial hardship waiver.

DeKalb County offers a rebate program to defray the cost. Water customers can purchase from a list of eligible toilets and receive up to $100. After a quick search, AJC PolitiFact Georgia found a $160 toilet on the online list.

A Boyer spokeswoman emphasized the toilet ordinance was not the main focus of the commissioner's article. Her target was DeKalb's recently instituted foreclosure registry, which requires banks and other owners of foreclosed homes to register them online. She tried to tank the proposal, but it passed in July.

The spokeswoman also referred us to Robert Broome, a lobbyist with the Atlanta Board of Realtors. Broome told us that the group supports water conservation but opposes DeKalb's rule because it ties the installation of those fixtures to real estate transactions.

The change can be expensive, Broome said. He's been told of cases where homeowners have had to rip up dry wall or old plumbing to comply.

Broadly speaking, toilets can cost just about anything. Consider the porcelain throne of rock royalty John Lennon. It sold in an August auction for about $15,000.

Lee Krinsky, general manager of Plumb Works Inc. in Atlanta, recalled a toilet that cost $13,000, excluding the $1,000 seat. It was hand-painted with a floral design. The seat, which was inlaid with gold, was fashioned in the shape of a seashell.

A more typical low-flow toilet can range from $500 to $800, Krinsky said. This includes the cost of purchasing the toilet, picking it up from the supplier, installing it, and hauling the old one away.

If installation goes smoothly, and most do, a plumber can be in and out of the bathroom in an hour-and-a-half, Krinsky said. Given the high cost of water, the toilet will easily pay for itself.

For another opinion, we talked to Ellen Whitaker, executive director of the Plumbing and Mechanical Association of Georgia. The trade organization once opposed low-flow ordinances but switched positions after the drought.

Plumbers in Whitaker's group were reluctant to give a price range for the job. Variables such as the condition of the old toilet and plumbing can make it hard to predict, she said.

Consider the toilet flange, Whitaker said. The ring connects the toilet to a drain pipe and stops smells from seeping up through the commode. If the flange is stuck in place, a plumber might spend extra hours removing it.

This means $1,000 "can be a good price," Whitaker said.

Of course, you could install the toilet yourself. If you purchased that $160 toilet we found online, hauled it home yourself, got the $100 rebate, and encountered no unusual problems, your grand total would be $60, plus tax.

A low-flow toilet can cost as little as dinner and a movie or as much as a Toyota Corolla.

The cost of professional installation varies, but can often fall in the $500 to $800 range. Do-it-yourselfers can spend less than $100, thanks to DeKalb's rebate program.

If the job costs more than $1,000, you can get a waiver.

Very strictly speaking, Boyer's right. Installing a low-flow toilet "can" cost up to $1,000.

But in many cases, it will cost much less.

Boyer's claim could have used more explanation and context, but much of it holds water. We therefore rule it Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

The Dunwoody Crier, "DeKalb's 'foreclosure registry' is another government intrusion," Oct. 27, 2010

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Foreclosure registry OK'd in DeKalb," July 30, 2010

DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management website, accessed Nov. 17, 2010

Atlanta Board of Realtors, "DeKalb County Inefficient Plumbing Fixtures Replacement Plan," accessed Nov. 19, 2010

Interview, Robert Broome, Atlanta Board of Realtors, Nov. 17, 2010

Interview, Lee Krinsky, general manager of Plumb Works Inc., Nov. 19, 2010

Interview, Ellen Whitaker, executive director, Plumbing and Mechanical Association of Georgia, Nov. 19, 2010, AquaSource toilet search, accessed Nov. 29, 2010

The Telegraph, "John Lennon's toilet sells for £9,500," Aug 28, 2010

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