Eco-urinals' problem: they're complicated (and they stink)

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 17, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Men since Adam have survived without urinals that flush. By the early 1990s, concerns over water shortages and environmental impact spawned a garage industry for urinals that don't use water.

Since then, the devices, which rely on special oil-filled drain traps, have become the rage in eco-conscious communities nationwide, especially in water-worried California and the arid Southwest. They're now fastest-growing segment of the U.S. urinal market, accounting for 250,000 of its 12 million units, thanks largely to powerful advocates.

The influential U.S. Green Building Council promotes no-flush urinals as a way towin its prized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design endorsements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifies them for the service's future construction. Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore is a board member of Falcon Waterfree Technologies of Grand Rapids, Mich., the leading no-flush urinal maker.

Still, an inconvenient truth hovers over the no-flush urinal industry. It's that many buyers and one-time fans say that the urinals are icky, tricky and costly to maintain.

Among those worried about their performance is Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency, a nonprofit corporation that promotes water conservation. She fears no-flush urinals will fizzle and deter other water-saving innovations just as underperforming low-flow toilets did in the early 1990s.

"We need to make sure no-flush urinals deliver effective savings before we incentivize their placement," she cautioned.

Other doubters include Wal-Mart, which tested and rejected no-flush urinals for its stores last year; the Army's Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona, whose 870 units make it one of the biggest U.S. no-flush clients; and the University of Washington in Seattle, which recently canceled plans to install 100 after a trial run.

The Environmental Protection Agency, charged with developing water-savings recommendations for consumer products, is delaying action on no-water urinals. The EPA's WaterSense Web site cites concerns about, among other things, "their long-term cost effectiveness as a result of increased maintenance requirements and life expectancy of (their) liquid seal or cartridge."

The feature in question is the no-flush urinal's trap. It's the size of a coffee mug and locks into the urinal drain. Urine flows under the trap's layer of scented blue oil much as vinegar flows through salad oil. At the same time, the oil blocks release of sewer gases in the drain line.

"They're not a problem if they're maintained properly," said Falcon vice president Daniel Gleiberman, whose products are also sold under the Sloan Valve Co. name. Customers with well-trained, well-managed and low-turnover maintenance staffs tend to agree with Gleiberman.

North Carolina, for example, uses only Falcon urinals at the state's busiest rest stop, on Interstate 95 in Northampton County, near the Virginia border. So does the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, Calif. So do 36 commercial buildings owned by the Liberty Property Trust, including Philadelphia's Comcast Center, Pennsylvania's tallest building. So does the Palm Beach County, Fla., school system, whose officials say no-flush urinals reduce student sabotage while conserving water.

However, no-flush urinals require distinct cleaning procedures and the fixtures vary in quality and ease of maintenance. And turnover is high among building maintenance staff. Net result: Some buyers find that their housekeeping staffs can't — for whatever reason — keep no-flush urinals in odor-free, efficient operation.

Consider the experience of building owners and managers in the Seattle area, an early adopter. Al Dietemann manages a regional utility consortium there called the Saving Water Partnership that in 2002 started offering rebates to commercial water customers for installing no-flush urinals.

The rebate program ended after Dietemann determined that more than half the 200 urinals installed under the program were removed by their owners within three years. Maintenance issues and costs were the main reason, he said, and involved all brands of no-flush urinals.

"We weren't getting the long-term water savings that utilities had expected," Dietemann said. The big reason: a maintenance challenge that he compared to maintaining a car.

For one thing, urinal drain cartridges, whose list price is about $40, need changing after 7,000 uses. But who counts urinal uses? Instead, maintenance staffs tend to change cartridges whenever urinals back up, which can be far more often.

Changing cartridges at regular intervals, or the urinal trap oil that some systems require, is no solution. That's because use rates in banks of urinals vary widely. (Given a three-urinal option, the one closest to the door gets 60 percent of the traffic, according to Roger van Gelder, a Seattle environmental and plumbing consultant. The urinal farthest from the door, which provides the most privacy, gets most of the rest.)

Moreover, a sudden surge of water can destroy a no-flush urinal's oil seal by literally flushing the trap. This can happen if a housekeeper empties a mop bucket into a no-flush urinal, a practice customary when cleaning restrooms with conventional urinals.

Then there's the yuck factor of changing cartridges, a process that's also a little complicated.

Paul Schaefer, owner of Kirkwood Plumbing, a St. Louis-area contractor who's worked up close with no-flush urinals, asks: "Who wants to go in there and pull out a cartridge that's all calcified up with urine from somebody else?

Craig Hansen, who's overseen Fort Huachuca's no-flush urinals since 1996, found them beyond the capacity of his housekeeping staff.

"People accustomed to coming in, wiping things down, scrubbing the floor and going away, show a lot of resistance to having to do something new that takes some thought," he said.

So Hansen turned instead to the fort's higher-skilled — and much higher-paid — operations and maintenance teams to monitor and change urinal cartridges.

"Personally, if I were doing this to save money, I wouldn't use no-flush urinals," Hansen said. "I'm doing it because I need to save water — and they do save water."

In its sales materials, Falcon says saving money with its urinals is "guaranteed," given proper maintenance.

The savings are reduced, however, by roughly $150 in redundant piping per unit that Falcon and the rest of the no-flush industry agreed to this year in order to end resistance to the devices from union plumbers.

The compromise is spelled out in California's new water-conservation law and in recent revisions of the influential model national plumbing code written by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials. Both require the installation of conventional water piping in the wall behind no-flush urinals whenever they're installed. That's just in case building owners someday decide to switch to conventional flush urinals.

Klaus Reichardt, founder of Waterless Co., of Vista, Calif., said the deal was "the kind of stuff you have to get into sometimes."

Waterless and Falcon tend to airbrush out concerns about maintenance and cost while stressing water-savings gains. Both offer long lists of no-flush urinal buyers, without a hint that it includes quite a few unhappy customers.

Until recently, Falcon's Web site offered a prominent but misleading testimonial.

The testimonial quoted Grand Canyon National Park engineer Bob Baker of Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the leading U.S. state and national park concessionaire, as saying: "The urinals work. The units are easy to install and maintain. It is safe to say we will be installing more urinals."

That was two years ago, however. Since then the no-flush urinals that Baker referred to have been removed, he said. "We couldn't control the odor. The bathrooms would really get pretty ugly."

Chris Lane, Xanterra's vice president for environmental affairs, said he now favors, in most applications, dual-flush toilets and flush urinals that use just a pint of water.

Asked about Baker's testimonial, Falcon's Gleiberman responded: " He did say it. . . . It just wasn't current."

ON THE WEB

How tough are no-flush urinals to maintain?

Falcon's no-flush urinal

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