The City of Austin is ending its toilet-rebate program as water utility officials shift limited dollars to other water conservation measures.
Low-flow toilets will still be available free of charge for residents and business owners willing to pick them up at a local city-contracted vendor. This program targets individuals, as opposed to contractors, who often sought rebates for many toilets at once.
City officials say water conservation is as big a priority as ever, but reimbursing homeowners and businesses for low-flow toilets purchased at retailers was not cost-effective compared with other water-conservation programs. The rebate program is an example of how incentives for buying eco-friendly products can lose their effectiveness as those products become widely available and prices drop.
High-efficiency toilets use about 63 percent less water than older models, according to the water utility. The city offered the rebates in an effort to conserve water. That in turn allowed the city to conserve resources and avoid steep price increases that would occur if Austin uses more water than allowed under a contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority, which provides most of the city’s water.
But the toilet rebate program is no longer the best method for conserving water, said Drema Gross, acting water conservation division manager for the Austin Water Utility. The rebate, which included installation costs until recently, cost the utility up to $200 per toilet, she said; by contrast, simply giving away the toilets costs the city about $71 (the per-toilet cost of a wholesale contract).
“When you look at the cost/benefit of the rebate program, it just doesn’t give us as much bang for the buck,” Gross said.
In a sense, the program is also a victim of its own success.
It began in the mid-1990s , but was targeted mainly to single-family homes. In 2009 , the city decided to shift emphasis to large buildings such as apartment complexes and hotels.
Private contractors also recognized a business opportunity, city officials said. Contractors began approaching apartment complexes and offering to handle the work of switching out old toilets en masse; in essence, a building owner could get dozens or even hundreds of new toilets installed with almost no effort, on the city’s tab.
Some members of the city’s Resource Management and Water and Wastewater commissions wondered whether the city needed to offer such a rich enticement to install a widely available appliance.
In November 2009 — barely a month into the city’s budget year — the rebate program had exhausted almost all of the $2.3 million the city had budgeted for water-conservation measures, including subsidies for rainwater collection barrels and low-flow washing machines. The City Council approved an additional $3 million , but the toilet rebate program promptly chewed through that as well.
Five months into the 2010 budget year, the city had almost doubled the number of toilet rebates it had accepted the year before; apartment-complex rebates increased nearly eightfold, to 7,697.
“The demand that we saw far exceeded what we expected,” Gross said.
Web site: City of Austin Free Toilet Program
Source: Marty Toohey, Statesman.com, 29 Jun 2010