What's an Easy and Inexpensive Way to Modify a Toilet So That It Conserves Water?

What's an easy way to modify a toilet to conserve water?. New Africa/Shutterstock

Q: My husband and I are about to embark on a few budget-minded water- and energy-conserving home improvement projects around our home. First stop? The bathroom. Ultimately, we’re interested in replacing our antiquated toilets that use 3.5 gallons or more per flush with low-flow 1.28 gpf or dual-flush models but financially that’s not in the cards at the moment. Do you have any recommendations for temporary, DIY-friendly (we’d rather not resort to calling a plumber) ways to make our commodes more conservative while we save up for the real deal?

How low can I go?

— Sandy, Flushing, N.Y.

Hey Sandy,

Great question since I can think of about a million and one things that I’d rather spend my hard-earned money on than a shiny new porcelain throne. However, I’m glad to hear that down the line you do plan on replacing your older, water-guzzling toilets with high-efficiency models given that standard toilets are the numero uno source of household water use in the home no matter what numero you’re flushing down.

Since you’re on the lookout for a cheap and easy temporary solution, my first recommendation is a modern update on the old brick-in-the-tank trick. Although putting a plastic soda bottle in the toilet tank may seem too MacGyver meets Martha Stewart-y it can help you save in the ballpark of 10-plus gallons of water per day. All you need to do is get your hands on an old 1-liter plastic soda or water bottle, take the labels off, fill it partially with sand, marbles, or pebbles to weigh it down, and then fill the rest with water. Place the bottle in your toilet tank away from any moving parts and it will effectively displace water in the tank. The water savings from the bottle-in-the-tank trick won’t be as significant as actually replacing your toilets but since you seem to have some true dinosaurs in your house, every little action you can make will indeed help.

If you’d rather invest a few bucks in a device that does a similar job, try the Toilet Tummy. Although it has the same name as the sensation that I experience after eating cheap Mexican food, this device is easy to install and maintenance-free. Just fill the Toilet Tummy — it’s a plastic bag that looks like a hot water bottle, essentially — with water and hang from the inside of your toilet tank. If you use one, you’ll save around 80 ounces of water per flush. Or try two for double the results. The Toilet Tank Bank is also a similar, water-displacing option.

Since the toilets in your home are aged and prone to leaking, take a look around the tanks to see if the flappers — the rubber doodads that keep water sealed in the tank — are in good condition. I recommend performing a dye test to see if they’re up to snuff. Although flappers are designed to last for years, wear and tear and the use of chemical cleaning products can shorten their life and render them less effective. Replacement flappers are cheap and swapping in an old one for a new one is a relatively easy process. Toiletflapper.org (yes, that is a real website) has details on how to do so.

There are other actions you can take, Sandy, to make your commode more conservative without expensive conversions or full replacements, the most basic being abiding by the “mellow yellow” rule. I’d proceed with caution on this one ... an erstwhile roommate of mine traumatized me for life by taking this phrase to the extreme. However, for a quick fix that doesn’t involve a plumber, a ton of cash, or any kind of mellowing, I’d start with the steps I described above. And when you do get around to replacing your toilets, keep an eye out for EPA-sponsored WaterSense label that guarantees that the model in question uses 20 percent less water than current federal standards. Think of WaterSense as the Energy Star of johns. Happy flushing.

— Matt