January 17, 2011

How does a Waterless Urinal work, save money & help our planet? ~ Joe Yeoman

The Waterless Porcelain Palace.

Image Courtesy of Bradley Gordon

Sitting at the bar, drinking down a Fat Tire, waiting for the Jets game to start, I wonder about all the water that went into creating this moment. The beer is mostly a water bi-product; the irrigation sprinkling on the wheat; the H2O in the fertilizer; the truck driver sipping on bottled water; the washing of the glass…down to the paper napkin moistening through condensation. Then, after the beer is long gone, more water will be used to get through the game; I’ll have to flush the urinal. Then water sweeps away water.

Water is essential for life; it is essential to having a drink at a bar. But, water can be conserved by adding one fixture to any men’s bathroom: the waterless urinal.

The waterless urinal uses a deep design to maximize flow into the the sewer system without the assistance of water. A regular urinal uses between half to three gallons of water per flush to force the urine away. This means that a bar may go through several hundreds of gallons per busy night. It is estimated that nearly 5% of our fresh, drinkable water is used to flush away urine, which accounts for billions of gallons of water wasted on pee. Most fixture companies estimate that their urinals, especially in high volume areas, can save between 20,000 and 40,000 gallons of water per year.

There are three basic waterless urinal designs. The first is the Trap. The Trap uses a chemical compound, close to the properties of oil, that is less dense than water. Like in physics class, the liquid sits on top of the urine and forces it into the sewer line. This also means that gas from the sewer cannot creep into the bathroom, hopefully eliminating all odors. These Traps or Cartridges need to be replaced every so often based on the particular brand.

The next is the Built-in Trap. This is the same technology as the Trap but minus the cartridge. Instead, the maintainer needs keep refilling the urinal with a chemical that forces the urine into the sewage line.

The last style is the Self-sealing Valve or Cartridge. This style doesn’t use a chemical, but instead it is a pressurized rubber seal that allows liquids into the sewer but not from coming back up.

(The trough that lacks a water connection, much like at Wrigley Field, does not count as waterless. They typically use giant blocks of ice to dampen the smell and to create consistent waste flow.)

Installations are very easy, because they typically just hook onto the current waste line. Each product will have more specific information available. Maintenance usually means daily cleaning and replacing the cartridges after so many uses.

The city of Boulder has installed a few of the waterless fixtures, like the one on the Pearl Street Walking Mall and Chautauqua Park. Boulder is currently in Phase II of their Energy Performance Contract, where they will try and save half a million dollars per year in electricity and water consumption. Joe Castro, FAM and Fleet Manager, said that the city installs waterless urinals whenever they are doing a complete remodel. “In this phase of the contract, we didn’t want to replace the fixtures.” Instead they used Hydrometrics to calibrate the water valves, adjust the fixtures, and replace broken valves. This is a low cost way to conserve water, without having to do a costly remolding job.

The Sink in Boulder switched over to waterless urinals three years ago. Chris Heinritz, the owner, had a hesitation over the cleaning products and cartridges, but then found out that “they clean super easy.” “We only have an issue with people throwing up. It’s actually even easier to clean than the old urinal. You just have to pull the cartridge out and then you have a four inch opening. Then you just take a hose, and it all goes down.” This is a symptomatic problem based on their clientele and not the fixture. It is a bar located within strolling distance to the University of Colorado.

Most of their users and staff think that “they are pretty cool.” “It kind of just puts it in your face that we are trying to be green and efficient.”

“After I lived with them for a few months,” he continued, “I don’t know why regular urinals aren’t illegal in this part of the country, for how much water they use, and how well these work. They should just be the standard.” In Boulder, he really wanted to stay within the tiered water allotment, which meant that if the Sink went over a certain amount of water, then he would be charged at a higher rate. The waterless urinals keep them “well under [their] allotment”, which meant they recovered the initial costs in a year and use the continued savings to keep upgrading the business.

Most of the complaints about waterless urinals have nothing to do with the manufacturing of the products, some are in fact very “beautiful” in design. Most of the problems are user generated. For example, public restrooms tend to smell, and when a person excretes waste inappropriately, it affects the facility negatively. The urinal is not responsible for a person urinating on the ground. In fact, because urine is sterile, most waterless urinals actually smell better than their counterparts. Bacteria and microbes build up in the moist corners of regular urinals, especially leaky or often used ones, and this is what generates a rotting smell. Waterless urinals do not have this problem, because they’re waterless.

The same goes with maintenance. The cartridges and chemicals actually need to be replaced in a timely manner. As the urinal is used, the chemicals are slowly swept away with the waste, and eventually, the chemical may run out of the trap. This can cause the sewer smells to escape into the bathroom. This is not a problem with the fixture; it is a problem with the maintainer.

Eroding of the fixture can also happen when non-urine liquids are introduced into the environment. For example, coffee and beer may turn into urine, but they have different properties, so they will efficiently eat through the seal and allow the sewer gases to escape.

Here is an old video on how waterless urinals work; I like it because it reminds me of a gym class style film.

Most of the corporate websites include their own YouTube style videos to showcase and promote each product.

In drier climates like Arizona, California, and Colorado, the savings can help both wallets and the water shortages. They’re already being installed in places like the  Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Walt Disney World, Harvard, and Heathrow Airport. At a cost of between 200 and 800 dollars, the urinals are actually a cheap, green renovation idea. They work well for families with lots of boys and men who are looking to redecorate their “Man Caves”. Right now, at some of the slopes in Colorado, the ski resorts pump water all the way to the summit just for urinals. That consumption could be cut down, and then let mother nature pull the waste back to earth.

Truthfully, everything about these systems is great, and they should be implemented everywhere. Who can argue against saving money and the environment at the same time?

As Joe Castro comments, “We need to be good stewards in all conservation.”

Joe Yeoman loves you. He is an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School. As a displaced Chicago writer and editor, he hopes to see the Windy City soon.  You can contact him at Joeyeoman [at] gmail [dot] com.

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