Lean, Clean Restroom Machines

April 1, 2003
High-tech fixtures conserve water, improve hygiene

From high-tech toilets to low-tech waterless urinals, restrooms hold exciting and promising possibilities in the quest to make buildings more efficient, economical, and environmentally friendly.

Recently, the nature center near my home underwent a massive renovation that included the installation of waterless urinals. Curious about these devices, which I had only heard about, I dropped by the center with a camera on my way to work one morning. A very pleasant woman was leading a tour of the building. Thinking I would have a little fun, I looked at her seriously and said, “I’m here to take a picture of your waterless urinals.” Without batting an eye, she led me to the men’s room door, knocked (there was no response), and entered. With a “ta-da” flourish, she pointed to a line of three urinals and explained how they worked in such a way that I suspected she had done this dozens of times. In fact, she had. “They’re the most popular stop on the tour,” she said.

I took the sought-after pictures, noting that sensor-activated sinks, but not sensor-activated flushometers on the water closets, were used. An occupancy sensor activated the room’s fluorescent lights, and surprisingly, there was a paper-towel dispenser instead of an air dryer. The restroom was a hybrid of the emerging technologies for restrooms described in this month’s article by Alex Wilson.

On my way out, I asked if the center had noticed any reductions in its water bill since the renovations. It has, but with the grand opening coming up on April 26 and a lot of work still needing to be done, it’s too early to report stable differences.

Of the sensor-activated faucets, the tour guide said: “They’re a godsend. We host a lot of classes for small children, and little kids forget to turn the water off. Not only that, but too often, I’d be working and hear the sounds of a sink flooding because water was left running, and a child had put something in the sink that plugged the drain--like an acorn. The new faucets not only save water, they’ll prevent flooding.” Schools and insurance companies should take note.

The field trip to the nature center and Alex Wilson’s article have given me insights into where restrooms are going: hyper-hygienic and resource-efficient, or as the title of this editorial says, lean and clean. The hygiene benefits of hands-free activation are obvious. Sensor-activated products are available for every conceivable restroom fixture: flushometers, faucets, soap dispensers, lights, towel dispensers, air dryers.

Saving water, though, is the emphasis of new restroom-plumbing technologies. For high-use, conventional buildings, I’m particularly excited about sensor-actuated fixtures that feature scheduling and control beyond flushing valves and turning the fixture on and off. This increase in intelligence decreases accidental activations, while the ability of these fixtures to regulate flow based on frequency of use is akin to variable-speed drives helping energy-efficient motors save even more energy.

Although the United States is blessed with abundant freshwater resources, regional stresses are becoming more frequent, raising tensions as well as costs for many water users. As this month’s four water-related articles make clear, buildings and water are inextricably linked; therefore, every reasonable effort needs to be made to conserve one of our most precious resources.