Toilet rebates cover low-flow costs for some

by Paul F. P. Pogue

When Angie's List member Margaret Adam of Largo was thinking of replacing her two toilets in 2008, the Pinellas County toilet rebate program made all the difference in her decision.

At the time, the county offered a $100 rebate to consumers wishing to replace older, water-wasting toilets with low-flow models. So she hired highly rated Coast-to-Coast of Tampa to install two new toilets for $360, of which she received $200 in rebates. "If not for the rebate, I probably would have replaced only one," she says. "The rebate was a great incentive." She says she hasn't noticed a big difference in her water bill, but notes her usage fluctuates between summer and winter.

If she'd installed them today, though, her decision might have been different - Pinellas County, citing cost concerns, discontinued its program in 2009. Now, toilet rebates are available in various parts of the Tampa area to help with costs, but availability depends on where you live, and more importantly, who provides your water.

For instance, customers connected to the city of Tampa's water system are currently not eligible, but those who draw water from Hillsborough County are eligible for rebates of $100 to $150 for replacing a pre-1995 toilet with a more efficient model.

While Pasco County and St. Petersburg offer the same rebate, Tampa ended its program in 2008.

Coast-to-Coast owner Mark Cardillo says the uncertainty can be frustrating, particularly since his company specializes in installing low-flow toilets. "We get calls all the time from people who find out they don't fall in a rebate area, and they decide not to get the toilet if they can't get the rebate," he says.

Norm Davis, water conservation program director for Hillsborough County, says the county is constrained by cost as funding for the program comes from penalties collected for water use violations. The $70,000 set aside to cover 500 rebates in 2009 was used up in eight months. The county continued to accept applications throughout the summer. When the program restarted in October, more than 140 of the 500 rebates for the 2010-2011 fiscal year were already committed.

Brent White, water conservation analyst for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which splits the cost of the rebate program with participating municipalities, says toilet replacement is "low-hanging fruit" for water conservation: "It's a lot of return for a fairly small investment."

Tampa's program rebated 37,312 toilets over 15 years, and city officials estimate savings of about 440 million gallons of water annually.John Gennaro, owner of highly rated Red Cap Plumbing in Tampa, says he's concerned about the start-and-stop nature of the rebates in some municipalities. "It's hard for us to tell people that money is going to be there," he says.

Plumbers say when the programs are in effect, they tend to be easy to work with and have fast turnarounds.

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