Today’s low-flow plumbing fixtures not only conserve water, they also provide convenience and ease of maintenance.

February 10, 2011

Although plumbing fixture performance has greatly improved in the last two decades, the introduction of increasingly stringent low-flow standards has created problems of its own. “As the flows get driven down, it’s getting more and more challenging to do the job, so to speak, of what the product is supposed to do, particularly in the case of the flush valves or urinals,” said Martin. That is, there is concern whether the new fixtures provide enough water flow to flush the system.

The plumbing products industry is looking to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WaterSense program to not only increase industry accountability that green products continue to perform, but also to raise consumer awareness and acceptance of these products. 

“Their criteria in those standards are not just about lowering the flow, they’re also about how the fixture performs,” said Martin. He points to the showerhead standard that WaterSense recently released, which not only drops water use to two gallons a minute, but also provides for heating, thermal, and wetting property standards that have to be met by the showerhead as well.“In other words, you can’t just put a pencil stream of water out there and drop the flow,” said Martin. “It actually has to feel good.”

WaterSense also provides municipalities a sort of guide to follow when determining local flow standards, helping both manufacturers and specifiers by increasing code uniformity. “What we in the industry get worried about is when individual municipalities unilaterally start cranking down flow rates without any regard for safety or performance issues,” said Martin. “WaterSense is creating a common sort of standard, if you like, that municipalities can look to and say, We’ll just require that.”

The potential of not having enough water in drains and pipes to carry waste from toilets and urinals—the so-called “drain line carry problem”—is already starting to become the next big concern in eco-friendly plumbing. “Here’s the problem: you’ve got a big infrastructure already in place throughout the country that’s designed to remove waste on the assumption that these toilets are going to flush 3.5 or more gallons per flush,” said Martin. “These systems work fine at 3.5 gpf, but when they start dropping the water flows that go into the sewer, then you’re basically going to end up with sludge.”

Municipalities in the U.S. have not faced this problem yet, but that may be because low-flow toilets and urinals are still relatively new, said Kohler’s Zimmerman. “I have heard very sporadic comments and anecdotes out there, but nothing that suggests a major trend,” he said. “There are still a lot of water-wasting toilets, urinals, and faucets in the marketplace. As those gradually get changed out and the amount of water in the system is decreased, the drain line problem may sneak up on us.” BD+C

A ‘Nonaqueous’ Way to Conserve in the Restroom

While water and energy conservation get a lot of the fanfare, PMRG Realty, a building management company, found another way to help its client improve its ecological footprint at a Dallas office building. PMRG recently renovated the restrooms at the one million-sf Campbell Center office complex, but found that paper towels were being wasted. “They fall to the floor and aren’t picked up, so the tidiness and waste were the two main reasons we were looking for some sort of solution,” said Rebecca Jack, assistant property manager for the complex.

PMRG solved the property manager’s problem with Bobrick-Koala TowelMate Towel Dispenser Retainers. These stainless steel inserts fit into existing folded towel dispensers and limit the number of paper towels that can be dispensed at one time to just a single towel. This prevents guests from pulling out a handful of towels and possibly dropping some on the floor. According to the manufacturer, the TowelMate reduces paper usage and waste by as much as 20%. The inserts accommodate recycled paper towels for added conservation.

In the two months since they were installed in her building, says Jack, the retainers have worked flawlessly. “Because of this product, there’s no waste going on, and the restrooms are tidy,” she says. BD+C


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