Barriers to the No-Flush Rush

Even as water-free urinal technology becomes more widely accepted, Building Teams continue to get pushback from code officials, owners, and even unions.

February 26, 2007 |

Slow to catch on in the 1990s, water-free urinals are finally making their way into the mainstream building market. An estimated 50,000 units are installed in U.S. buildings, and the number of manufacturers has more than doubled within the past few years.

Two of the three national plumbing codes now allow for the explicit use of water-free urinal fixtures (see sidebar), and most of the early claims of health and sanitary issues have either been resolved or successfully refuted by the manufacturers.

“There's been more public health studies conducted on water-free urinals than perhaps any other plumbing fixture product,” says Winston Huff, LEED AP, plumbing/fire protection project manager and LEED facilitator with Smith Seckman Reid, Nashville, Tenn. “We know they are safe and sanitary, as long as they're maintained properly.”

Moreover, many early adopters claim that the units are a healthier choice than standard fixtures. Because there's no flush pressure, these systems do not spray water into the air like many traditional fixtures do. Also, with no need to flush, users never come in direct contact with the unit. Finally, there's less opportunity for vandalism.

“The biggest advantage is that there are fewer incidents of flooding, and, as a result, fewer health issues,” says Lee Kapp, utilities/energy manager in the Environmental Control Office at Palm Beach County Schools, West Palm Beach, Fla., which has installed 300 water-free urinals in its schools since 2004, saving an average of 40,000 gallons per fixture annually. Kapp says two of the biggest maintenance and health issues in schools are the malfunction and vandalism of flush valves, which lead to flooding. “With these units, the students can't lock the flush valve down; they can't stuff the drain and let the water run.”

Pushback at the local level

Desite making significant inroads in the U.S. construction market in the past 15 years, no-flush technology has its skeptics. Some building owners and facilities managers remain wary of the technlogy, citing increased maintenance time and costs, sanitary and health concerns, and lack of water savings for the investment. These issues, whether actual or percieved, remain key barriers to “selling” the technology to owners.

Pushback has also come from local code officials, many of whom are not familiar with or are incredulous of the technology, says Steve Baer, LEED AP, senior consultant with Five Winds International, who works with a major manufacturer to help build the case for water-free urinals.

“Many code officials don't yet understand the technology,” says Baer. “They follow the code by the book, and make their decisions at the local level.”

Even in cases where the state-adopted plumbing code permits the technology, some local jurisdictions are outright denying applications for water-free urinals, forcing Building Teams to apply for a variance to the code and to meet any special concessions the local code officials deem necessary.

Building projects in Tennessee, for instance, are governed under the International Plumbing Code, which allows no-flush urinals. However, cities like Nashville have yet to explicitly approve the technology, according to Huff.

“When the building plans are reviewed, [the city planning department] will automatically reject them saying that they don't meet code,” says Huff. The design team must then apply for a variance, which must pass the scrutiny of the city's codes review board. “Through trial and error, we discovered their hot buttons, which included concerns with daily maintenance and changing out the trap sealant or the cartridges.”

Huff says some common concessions mandated by local code officials include installing standard water supply piping behind each fixture or locating the fixtures a predetermined distance from a main water supply line. This allows the building owner to install standard flush fixtures should the water-free units fail. Some local code officials even mandate the installation of a capped “rough-in” connection for a flush valve for each fixture.

For instance, Houston permits no-flush urinals, but requires the installation of a water line behind each stall, says Huff. “Some jurisdictions want the water line capped through the wall, while others will allow it to be concealed behind the wall.”

Code officials are not the only skeptics. In a few isolated cases, local trade unions have voiced their concern over the technology.

“Unions can be even more problematic,” says Baer. “It's more of a political issue because they have a vested interest in the work.” The perception among unions is that water-free systems will cut into workload for their members because these systems do not require many of the traditional plumbing components, such as water supply piping, flush valves, and associated connections. In a few isolated cases, local unions have flat out refused to install flush-less fixtures, arguing that the technology is not sanitary or that it does not meet the local plumbing code.

The most noteworthy case of union pushback occurred in March, when the United Association Plumbers Local 690 in Philadelphia very vocally opposed the idea of granting a variance to the local plumbing code for the installation of 116 no-flush urinals in the 57-story, $540 million Comcast Center office tower, to be completed in fall 2007. The union argued that the installation would have required their members to do less work. Developer Liberty Property Trust argued that the urinals would save 1.6 million gallons annually, and help make the tower one of the tallest “green” buildings in the U.S.

Ultimately, the mayor's office had to step in to help negotiate a compromise. The agreement, reached a month later, permitted the installation of the fixtures (by union members), but also called for installation of water supply infrastructure behind each urinal. Also, as part of the agreement, the installation is considered a five-year trial, during which Liberty Property Trust is prohibited from installing water-free urinals in any other building in the city.

Philadelphia is considered an extreme case, but it's not the only municipality to experience pushback from local unions. San Diego County, St. Louis, and the state of Oregon have all experienced opposition from union officials. “I'm sure it's like this in plenty of other areas,” says Baer. “We just haven't heard about them yet.”

Advice from the front

Huff offers advice for Building Teams on “selling” no-flush urinals to owners, code officials, and unions.

First, have the entire team behind the technology, from the architect to the contractor to the subcontractors to the owner. “It takes a joint effort to overcome all the hurdles to get it installed and operating, especially if the project is located in an area where this is a fairly new concept,” says Huff. “Make sure everyone is willing to put in the time and effort to push the technology all the way through the process.”

Also, allot ample time to build your case. “Make sure you have gone through the routine of asking everybody,” says Huff.

Finally, work closely with the manufacturers. Most have contacts at the local level to help deal with any pushback. “If you're going in front of the code review board, they can be there to help state the case,” says Huff.

Water-free urinals in the national plumbing codes

Two of the three major national plumbing codes allow for the explicit use of water-free urinal fixtures: The International Plumbing Code, published by the International Code Council; and the National Standard Plumbing Code, authored by the Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors Association of America. In late 2005, code officials with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials ruled against including the technology in the 2006 edition of the Uniform Plumbing Code. Several industry groups plan to lobby the IAPMO to include the technology in the 2009 edition of UPC.

Installation and maintenance advice from a water-free urinal expert

While the various national building codes specify design standards for water-free urinals, these standards are not always adhered to on the job site, says Winston Huff, LEED AP, plumbing/fire protection project manager and LEED facilitator with Smith Seckman Reid, Nashville, Tenn.

One common mistake made by Building Teams is designing insufficient slope for the “rough-in” connection to the main drain line, which can be a foot in length or longer, depending on thickness of the wall and the location of the drain line.

“If that connection line is somewhat flat, it can affect the way the fluids are drained since there's such a small amount of liquid going through the trap,” says Huff.

A slope of less than 1/8 inch per foot can lead to pooling of waste and a steady build-up of urine crystals within rough-in line.

Huff also advises teams to locate the water-free urinals “downstream” from standard flush fixtures. “The waterless urinals should be connected to a waste line that has constant flow,” says Huff. In other words, make sure lavatories, water closets, or other standard plumbing fixtures are located upstream so that the main drain line gets flushed out on a regular basis. “Avoid installing a line of five or six water-free urinals at the dead end of a waste line,” says Huff.

Maintenance is also crucial. The cartridges or sealant must be changed out regularly (anywhere from one to three months, depending on the volume of use), and the maintenance crew must stick to manufacturer-recommended cleaning products. Standard restroom cleaning products, such as harsh alkaline-based cleaners, can actually breakdown the liquid sealant in the trap. Pouring large amounts of water into the urinals can also break the seal. There's also the question of who's responsible for replacing the cartridges: maintenance or housekeeping?

“Maintenance is not difficult, but the owner has to be ready for it,” says Huff. “For instance, sometimes housekeeping is contracted out, so who knows who's going to be doing the cleaning a year from now.”
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