Psst! Wanna Buy An Illegal Toilet?

  • Windsor, Ont., just across the Canadian border from Detroit, has always been a refuge for Americans whose proclivities run counter to the prevailing laws of the U.S. In the mid-1800s, runaway slaves made their way to freedom there via the Underground Railroad. During Prohibition, Al Capone's boys smuggled rum from Windsor. And rebels are still attracted to Windsor. These days, though, they come not for liberty or libations but to buy toilets.

    This new flow of contraband south from Windsor began in the name of water conservation. In the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, passed in 1994, Congress mandated that toilets sold in the U.S. use no more than 1.6 gal. of water per flush--less than half the flow they had employed before. Soon, as Americans moved into spanking-new homes or replaced their cracked old gurglers with the swishy new models, they found themselves forced to flush and flush again--drowning the supposed benefits of water conservation. And then they had to go hunting for the plunger. Soon they wanted the thunderous whoosh of their old, high-flow toilets back.

    Trouble was, the 1994 law made selling them illegal in the U.S., punishable by a fine or even imprisonment. But where there's a law, there's a loophole, and here's the one in the toilet act: it's legal to buy a high-flow toilet in Canada and drive it back into the U.S. And that's exactly what scores of Americans now do each week.

    At the center of this gray-market trade squats Veteran Plumbing and Supplies in Windsor, located near the border crossing over the Detroit River. For 55 years, Veteran's proprietor, Sid Awerbuck, 75, has made a nice living selling faucets, tubs and other washroom fixtures. But in the past two years, as the booming economy has pushed more and more Americans into new homes and onto the balky new low-flow toilets, trafficking in the old high-flush models has added 20% to his bottom line. And here's the best part: most of the outlaw commodes sold in Windsor are made in the U.S. by companies like Kohler and American Standard. The high-flush models can still be produced for export, so long as they are not resold in the U.S. And thanks to nafta, they are duty free.

    Word of Veteran's precious inventory has quickly spread south via the Internet and local ads. "Americans love their cars and their bathrooms," says Awerbuck, "and they don't want anybody to tell them what to do with either of them."

    Shirley Krupp, 69, and her husband Bob Ward, 76, drove their green Chevy van 45 miles from Ypsilanti, Mich., to Windsor on a recent Thursday in search of a toilet that does the job on the first flush. "Everybody in our area comes up here," says Shirley. "I think the 1.6 is just terrible," sniffs Bob. "You end up having to flush it twice, three times."

    For those who don't want to drive to Canada, another option is a high-flush toilet salvaged from an old building by entrepreneurs like Tim Harmon, owner of Tim & Billy's Salvage Store in Indianapolis. "We have people who come in here and say they will give up their handguns before giving up their toilets," he says.

    Plumbers are subject to a $2,500 fine and suspension of their license if they install new high-flow toilets, but what goes on behind the bathroom door is difficult to regulate. Some people simply put in their own toilet; others have been known to have their low-flow toilet adjusted to higher flush standards. Still others have been known to buy a low-flow for inspection and replace it with an Old Faithful after the inspector leaves.

    Representative Joe Knollenberg, a Michigan Republican, has sponsored a bill to bring back the kind of flush that Americans consider their birthright. Paul Welday, Knollenberg's chief of staff, says the current law is "making lawbreakers out of people who just want a toilet that works."

    Conservationists insist that the 50 million low-flow toilets installed in American homes to date are responsible for saving an estimated 600 million gal. of water a day. And toilet manufacturers insist that they are finally building low-flow toilets that work. But there are plenty of skeptics. "My brother-in-law had to put turbo chargers on his," says Rick Nelson, 40, a businessman. "It sounds like a bomb going off in the middle of the night." So Nelson paid $175 to have a high-flow Gerber shipped from Windsor to his bathroom in Elk Grove, Ill. "Look, I'm not trying to change the world," he says. "I'm just trying to get a toilet that flushes."