A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did New York water pressure drop due to toilet flushing after the Super Bowl?

February 13, 1987

Dear Cecil:

During the coverage of Super Bowl XXI I read something about New York City officials being concerned that people watching the game on TV might all go to the bathroom during the commercials and flush the toilet at the same time, causing a catastrophic pressure drop. Was this for real? Did anything really happen?

Cecil replies:

The thing you have to understand, friend, is that New York is a giant media circus, and everybody feels like they have to get into the act. The Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl, Harvey Schultz, commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, issued a "bowl warning" (get it?) urging Super Bowl viewers, particularly those who planned to drink a lot of beer, to stagger (as it were) their trips to the bathroom so as not to put too much of a strain on the city's water system. A city spokesperson cheerfully concedes that the whole thing was done tongue in cheek, and that it was specifically timed so that it would make a cute weekend story for the media.

As it turns out, there was no noticeable "super flush effect" during or after the game. The city spokesperson speculates that this may have been due to one of two things: (1) New Yorkers actually cooperated with the government for the greater good of the city--admittedly an unlikely possibility; or (2) the game was such a laugher in the second half, and there were so many commercials, that the flush effect sort of, you should pardon the expression, dribbled away.

Media stunt or not, there really have been occasions when the super flush effect did occur. The most recent, according to the city, came at the end of the much-touted last episode of M*A*S*H, which aired in 1983. People were apparently glued to their seats during the entire two-and-a-half-hour show and then all headed off to the pissoir at once. The resultant pressure drop caused a pronounced surge in the two huge tunnels that bring water into New York each day from the Catskills. Similar surges have been observed during the Academy Awards, the first moon walk, and so on.

How much of a threat these surges pose is debatable; they only last for a few minutes. But what the hell, New Yorkers always seem to get a big kick out of contemplating impending disaster, and let's face it, living in Enwye, sometimes you need all the cheap laughs you can get.

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