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Restrooms Go Green

A variety of water conserving options and plumbing products enhance Chicago's Social Security Center, and educational facilities like Washington's Islandwood, Michigan's Bunker Interpretive Center, and California State Northridge's Student Union. By Robert Kravitz, Don Mills, and Alex Linkow

The Harold Washington Social Security Center occupies a full city block in Chicago's West Loop business section. The 10-story edifice is the Regional Headquarters for the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA).

Although, the building was constructed in 1976, after the 1972 oil crisis that resulted in the creation, installation, and implementation of several new energy conservation measures, by current standards, the complex needed updating.

"When the first Bush was in office, we were instructed to cut back on energy use and given specific energy savings goals," says Andy Andrzejewski, SSA Facility Manager. " These included not only cutting back on energy use but also, because of growing concerns about the environment and sustainability, cutting back on the use of natural resources, such as natural gas and water. President Clinton took it a step further and established a timeline to meet these goals by 2010."

According to Andrzejewski, by the beginning of the new millennium, the facility had made significant strides in saving electricity by switching to more energy efficient light fixtures and ballasts as well as ways to better control and monitor HVAC systems and overall power use. Because of their overall commitment to the environment and energy savings on this project, Andy Andrzejewski and Larry Smith were named 2003 Energy Champions by the U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program.

However, only marginal progress had been made in curtailing the use of water in the facility -- until, that is, when a complete renovation of all the restrooms throughout the structure was begun.

At a Department of Energy Conference two years before, Larry G. Smith, Facilities Team Leader, and Andrzejewski were introduced to water-free urinals. "We realized that if they worked, they could help us reduce our water usage tremendously," Andrzejewski says.

With this in mind, Andrzejewski chose to collaborate with Falcon Waterfree Technologies (Grand Rapids, Mich.), one of the few companies in the world that manufactures water-free urinals, to try them for a three-month period in the SSA's newly renovated restrooms to see if the water-free fixtures could:
  • Significantly save water and reduce disposal costs

  • Cut back on plumbing repair and maintenance costs

  • Prove to be safe, odor free, and hygienic

  • Be accepted by the custodians who clean and the men who use the urinals in the building.
"Because of all these concerns -- and to be on the safe side we had the plumbing for traditional urinals 'roughed-in' for the new renovated bathrooms just in case the water-free fixtures didn’t work to expectation," Andrzejewski says.

How They Work

Although water-free urinals have been around for many years in Europe, the technology is still relatively new in the U.S. “I know people who have been in the jansan industry for years and still have either never heard of them or have no idea how they work,” says Bruce Fleisher, vice president of sales and marketing for Falcon Waterfree Technologies. He adds that this is understandable since only about 2% of the 20 million urinals in the United States are water-free.

According to Fleisher, water-free urinals are made from a nonstick, nonporous vitreous china or acrylic and include a Falcon-patented, funnel-shaped cartridge installed at the bottom of the urinal, which is connected to a drainpipe. “They look just like any other standard urinal; they just don’t use water,” says Fleisher.

The secret to the device is in the cartridge. A biodegradable liquid sealant floats in the top of the cartridge, which allows urine to pass through to the drain line. The sealant assures an airtight barrier between the restroom environment and the sewer line to prevent odors from escaping into the restroom.

Fleisher explains the process in his own terms: “Uric sediment is collected by the cartridge, leaving not only an odor-free environment, but also clean pipes -- with absolutely no water waste. A sealant ring provides an airtight barrier between the cartridge and the urinal housing. The only required maintenance is routine cleaning and a change of the cartridge approximately three to four times per year for most facilities.”

Going Waterfree

Once the new water-free urinals were installed in the SSA facility, Andrzejewski and Smith took a wait-and-see approach. “We hoped they could help us save water and cut costs,” they said, “but there was real concern regarding how well they would be accepted in the building”.

According to Ron Lancer of Meridian Management, Project Manager for the buildings management contractor, the custodial crew did have some initial reservations about cleaning the new urinals. “They were apprehensive about changing the cartridges and they thought they needed water to not only clean the urinals but to flush away the urine to prevent odors,” he says. “However, the custodians soon found that changing the cartridges every three months was simple, and cleaning the urinals was easier than cleaning traditional water urinals because they needed less water and less detergent.”

Andrzejewski added that some men were puzzled on how to “use” the new urinals and were a bit uncomfortable with them. He also discovered that the old water urinals had been used by many male employees as a place to flush coffee grinds -- a no-no with water-free urinals.

To address this, an e-mail was sent to everyone in the building on how to use -- and not use -- the water-free urinals, and a small sign was posted above each urinal clarifying that the urinal is water-free and requires no flushing. “Essentially, it tells them all they have to do is go and then go,” Andrzejewski jokes.

Test Results

After the three-month test period, the water-free urinals were evaluated to see if they accomplished their desired goals. Building management also asked for feedback from users as well as the custodial crew.

“Overall, everyone was very impressed with the water-free urinals,” says Andrzejewski. “They were accepted by the men in the building as well as the custodians. In addition, it was apparent from the start that we would probably save quite a bit on water, disposal, and maintenance costs. “But it will not be until we switch all 80 of our urinals to water free that we will fully realize our savings,” Andrzejewski says. SSA’s washroom renovation project is to be completed in about eight to 12 months.

According to Andrzejewski, the amount of water saved annually in the building will amount to a staggering 2 million gallons per year. A more extensive analysis of water usage found that it was costing the SSA approximately $2 for every 1,000 gallons used in the old water urinals as well as another $2 for every 1,000 gallons in related sewage costs. By eliminating these two operating costs, the facility will be able to save more than $7,000 per year! In addition, the savings don’t stop there. Andrzejewski says that the facility will recoup another $7,000 per year it formerly spent on plumbing repair costs. Meanwhile, the initial expense to install the water-free urinal units was about $150 to $200 less per fixture because water-free urinals require less plumbing.

A Closer Look At Clean-Up

Water free urinals are cleaned much the same way, as traditional urinals except there is no need to add water. “For the most part, apply properly diluted cleaner by misting it onto the surface of the urinal and wiping it away with a soft rag or sponge,” says Fleischer. “But avoid applying the cleaner directly into the cartridge for this can interfere with its operation and reduce its lifespan.”

Custodians at the SSA support Fleisher’s claim, finding that the use of harsh cleaning chemicals became unnecessary with the water-free urinals.

Additionally, the City of Chicago made a site visit in the SSA building to gather data on the water-free urinal installation as part of a study on new ways to cut costs and “go green.”

The success of the water-free urinals at the SSA has received considerable attention. Eager to see how they work and if they can achieve the same savings, other SSA Facility Managers around the country are contacting Andrzejewski to get usage feed back and data on cost savings that he is experiencing.

In addition to the water-free urinals, the SSA building utilized other water-saving products including Sloan (Franklin Park, Ill.) battery powered faucets, and Sloan Flushometers on American Standard (Piscataway, N.J.) water closets.

Educational Facilities Demonstrate Success of Composting Toilets

Water, Water Everywhere… But not a drop to drink. It’s almost true: While water makes up around 70% of the earth’s surface, far less than 1% of the world’s water supply is potable. And yet millions of gallons of potable water are wasted every day transporting human waste from the toilet to the septic system or to the sewage treatment plant.

Green building standards have begun to address the wasting of water for flushing within their water conservation criteria. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for New Construction Green Building Rating System, for instance, gives credits for waterless urinals and composting toilets, and similar credits are currently being created for homes and existing buildings. But not only do these standard offer the chance to conserve water. When composting toilets are chosen as a water conservation strategy, the environmentally destructive consequences of conventional waste treatment systems can be completely avoided.

To better understand these destructive consequences, consider the intelligence of land mammals other than ourselves: they don’t defecate in water. They defecate and urinate on land, where soil organisms break down the waste and recycle the nutrients in it. For nearly all of their history, humans defecated and urinated here and there, within their nomadic territory. Since those territories were large, and since the human population was small, the practice was sustainable. And for most of our sedentary history, the collection of human waste from privies for use in agriculture was commonly practiced in cities (often called a night-soil system), continuing the course of sustainability.

Fast-forward to the late 19th century. As wealthier city dwellers began to insist on better bathroom aesthetics, the flush toilet became increasingly popular. But not much consideration was given to its impact. The result of the comparatively huge volume of human waste and water created by the flush toilet was overflowing cesspools and polluted drinking water. The 'solution’ to this problem was to move the wastewater mixture away from its source, first in open sewers, and, later, in closed sewer pipes. However, “away” meant it became someone else’s problem, namely those people who lived down-stream. As mass quantities of raw sewage were dumped into nearby rivers and streams, the results were polluted drinking water and regular epidemics of typhoid and cholera. The outbreaks were only stopped when water filtration and sewage treatment technologies were introduced. But while solving one set of problems, the modern flush toilet and centralized waste treatment system have become implicated in others.

First, the flush toilet misplaces the nutrients in human waste (i.e., puts them into water instead of soil); second, sewers and septic systems offer an all-too-convenient opportunity to, either accidentally or intentionally, dispose of many of the myriad of toxic substances that we now live amidst. The destructive impacts of these systems are profound; namely, the nutrients and bacteria in the waste-water mixture cause water pollution, and the toxic matter winds up in sludge, the solid byproduct of centralized sewage treatment, which then gets used as fertilizer. In historical terms, our use of water carriage based systems has lasted for a blink of an eye. And most of the world’s people don’t even have flush toilets -- yet. Now seems a good time, then, to start employing lessons we can learn from this history.

Islandwood Inspires

One place that has learned the lessons well is IslandWood, A School In The Woods, on Washington’s Bainbridge Island. Its environmental mission is “to inspire environmental and community stewardship by providing hands-on learning experiences that link science, technology, and the arts in a natural setting.” Completed in the fall of 2002, IslandWood gives mainly grade-school children a chance to see and feel many of the sustainable technologies, including composting toilets that earned it the state of Washington’s first LEED Gold rating.

Two of the main goals of the design team from Seattle-based Mithun were to conserve water and to provide students with exposure to a variety of innovative, sustainable technologies. Mithun Project Manager George Franco, who was familiar with the composting toilet systems at the C.K. Choi Building at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, wanted to reduce water use as much as possible. Project engineers at Keen Engineering were already old hands at designing composting systems into multi-use structures from their work at the Choi Building, as well as other composting toilet projects.

Acceptance of the systems has been enthusiastic. IslandWood Facilities Manager Dean Newcomb says, “All of the comments about the compost toilet systems have been favorable. We keep the bathrooms immaculate, and the fan in the vent system generally works well, so it really gets rid of the misconception that these are smelly systems.” The no-flush systems have received high marks for ease of maintenance as well. “Maintenance on the units is easily accomplished even in our remote locations. If you follow the recommended maintenance lined out by the manufacturer’s maintenance guide, you will find maintaining them is straightforward and routine,” adds Newcomb.

Below the bathrooms are several composters, in which urine and feces are both separated and composted. Over the course of more than a year, solid waste volume is reduced by more than 90%, and the solid and liquid end products are both stable and safe to use as fertilizer, where local regulations permit. System maintenance involves creating and maintaining conditions inside the composter that favor the proliferation of a wide range of soil organisms. Although IslandWood staff manage their systems, it is not uncommon for owners to engage the manufacturer to carry out this responsibility. At IslandWood, the finished compost is not yet ready to be removed from the systems, even though the systems have been in use since 2002. However, when the time comes, the staff plans to use the compost, which will closely resemble topsoil, along the trail edge to fertilize ornamental plants. Liquid compost is currently being pumped into IslandWood’s Living Machine. However, there are plans afoot to store the liquid, sometimes called compost-tea, for future use as a fertilizer in conjunction with the solid compost.

By using the compost end products as fertilizer (applied according to regulations), IslandWood will be preventing nitrogen pollution in Puget Sound. The same can’t be said for sewage treatment plants within the Puget Sound region watersheds. They discharge millions of gallons of liquid daily into the rivers and streams that feed the Sound and into the Sound itself. This effluent contains most of the nutrients in human waste, primarily from urine. These nutrients, nitrogen especially, fertilize aquatic plants and disrupt eco-systems, with devastating impacts in the Sound. Moreover, toxic substances that also enter the sewer are either discharged with this liquid, or remain in sludge, which is commonly used to fertilize food crops throughout the country.

Calvin College Gets People Thinking

Of course, educating people about the problems of conventional waste treatment systems is a big job. So, what better place to do it than in school? That’s the view at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For their Bunker Interpretive Center, Calvin College architect Frank Gorman and Preserve Director Dr. Randall Van Dragt initially discussed using composting toilets and greywater systems as one way to insure that Calvin’s newest facility was as 'green’ as possible and “to get people thinking deliberately about how they interface with natural systems,” as Van Dragt puts it.

A field trip to see composting toilets and greywater recycling systems at the City of Ann Arbor’s Leslie Science Center was decisive. But instead of the waterless toilet fixture, the Bunker Center uses the foam-flush toilet fixture, which was suggested by Wolverine Building Group. This fixture looks and acts much like a conventional flush toilet, except it uses only 3 oz. of water per flush along with a drop of soap to make a foam blanket that moves the waste to the composting system in the basement. The decision to use foam flush fixtures instead of the dry toilets simplified Gorman’s task of designing the building, because while dry fixtures typically need to be situated directly above the composting tank, foam-flush fixtures can be offset at 45 degrees and used with an ordinary 4-inch drain line. Greywater, (i.e., water from sinks, showers, etc.) is recycled through an indoor solarium. Plants use the water and the small amount of nutrients (mostly from soap) carried with the water. The mission to be as green as possible is fulfilled.

Now that the systems have been up and running for nearly a year, Van Dragt has no reservations, and the teaching benefits are clear. “The composting toilets are useful as well as instructional: younger students who tour the building are exposed to this new idea and Calvin’s students can use them, discuss them, and learn from them. I think that they are a conversation starter and a launching place for many discussions about sustainability,” says Rachel Unema, a Calvin College Biology Major.

Another student, Senior Erin McGuire, puts it all into perspective: “The mission of the school is to cultivate minds and actions that will help renew the world, and one large area which needs to be renewed is our poor treatment of the environment,” says McGuire. Real-life experience with sustainable waste treatment systems, like those at Calvin College and IslandWood, make it more likely that future generations will have plenty of water to drink.

Don Mills is the sales director of Clivus Multrum, Inc. Clivus has been providing practical, sustainable waste treatment solutions for over 30 years. In nearly 10 years with the company, Mills has been involved in a wide range of projects, including commercial buildings, nature centers and college campuses. His special interest is increasing the use of composting toilets and greywater systems in commercial/office settings. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 978-725-5591. Mills is also a featured speaker at the Ecobuild America Conference in Orlando, June 20-23, 2005.

Alex Linkow is the marketing manager of Clivus Multrum, Inc. Linkow’s experience with Clivus has sparked his interest in the field of green building and, specifically, in educating people about the importance of choosing sustainable waste treatment solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].

The Student Union At Calstate Northridge Moves Ahead Towards Hands-Free, Environmentally-Sound Bathrooms On College Campuses: By Eric Bass

Southern California is almost as well known for its environmental conscientiousness as it is for its frequent water shortages. In a part of the American landscape once dominated by arid desert, the now densely populated region has had to find new ways to preserve its important water resources. The University Student Union at California State Northridge has met this environmental challenge head-on. Several of the newly-renovated Student Union buildings boast the most hands-free green state university bathrooms in the country.

All of the University’s Student Union renovation projects in the last decade have been undertaken with environmental soundness and water preservation in mind, and the energy-saving measures have, not surprisingly, saved the University a great deal of money in the process.

Gary Homesley, assistant director of facilities and maintenance at the Northridge University Student Union, says that the environmental initiative began with the former assistant director, Ray Miller, and they both agreed it was the logical thing to do. “After all,” says Homesley, “in the state of California it only makes sense to be water and landfill conscious.”

Plus, they knew that an environmentally-friendly (and money-saving) student union complex would be a popular selling point for incoming students. “We’re a nonprofit organization, and this way, we let students know we care about their money. They’re very supportive of our efforts.”

Together, Homesley and Miller discussed how best to achieve green standards and save money amidst budget cuts and other challenges to new development.

Waterless Urinals, Automatic Products, Hand-Dryers

To start, Homesley and Miller tested several waterless urinal systems to save water in the student union men’s rooms, both agreeing on the Waterless No-Flush urinals (by Waterless Co., Vista, Calif.) from C&L Supply Co. (Los Angeles, Calif.). These urinals work by draining fluid and trapping odors beneath a special sealant, which is poured into a small cartridge below the drain. The cartridge traps and filters out sediment, allowing an unobstructed flow of liquid down the drain without wasting water.

The first building Homesley outfitted has 30 restrooms, 13 of which are men’s rooms with urinals. Once installed, the Waterless urinals alone accounted for a 35% reduction (around a million gallons per year) in domestic water intake that saved the university between $10-15,000 a year, depending on the annual cost of water.

Homesley was pleased at the results and immediately started looking into other green fixtures: “Once we saw how effective the water-free urinals were at saving water and costs, we wondered, what next?”

Homesley installed hands-free faucets with automatic shut-off, automatic soap dispensers, and automatic flush toilets in all 30 restrooms. The automatic fixtures provided a more sanitary touch-free environment, as well as limiting the amount of water and soap product used.

Next, Homesley decided to look at hand dryers. He wanted to reduce the $21,000 spent annually on paper towels, installation labor and trash hauling fees. In addition to the expense of paper towels, the environmental impact of their manufacture is significant: to make one ton of recycled paper uses 7,000 gallons of water, 360 gallons of oil, 158 million BTUs of energy, and releases 86 pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere. Homesley knew that he would have to limit paper use to achieve a truly green bathroom. However, he was skeptical. “I’d never liked hand dryers in the past,” Homesley said. “They never seemed to work well enough; your hands were never actually dry after using them.”

Enter the XLERATOR hand dryer. Researchers at Excel Dryer (East Longmeadow, Mass.) found that water clings to skin both as a thin film and as loose droplets. Instead of trying to evaporate the droplets, XLERATOR blows them off using a focused high-velocity air stream and a specially designed nozzle. The high-velocity air also breaks up the layer of water vapor between the air and the skin. This causes the thin water film to evaporate more quickly than it would using a conventional dryer. Thus, it dries hands in about 15 seconds and uses 80% less energy than other dryers. “I was very impressed with these units,” confirms Homesley. “They are the best dryers I’ve ever seen, and one of the most energy efficient units on the market. I decided to get rid of all of our paper towels altogether.”

Homesley says that the cost of installing the urinals and dryers added up to about $24,900 total (all installation was done in-house with a fixed overhead). He started seeing significant savings due to water conservation within less than one year, and now estimates that the XLERATOR and Waterless No-Flush urinals save the Student Union more than $30,000 every year - money that used to be spent on water, paper towels, and associated labor and disposal fees. “The Union bathrooms generated about six tons of paper towel waste every year,” says Homesley. “It’s remarkable to be able to cut that out.”

Additional Green Features

The student union now consists of 248,000 square feet on nine acres of property. Out of the seven present buildings comprising the complex, three buildings boast bathrooms that incorporate as many environmental systems as possible. In Homesley’s view, the 30 bathrooms in the union building are now 100% green. They use only biodegradable toilet paper by Georgia Pacific from Grainger that features 95% recycled paper with a minimum of 20% post-consumer paper. They use no paper towel at all.

The school has significantly cut back on overall energy use. They replaced electrical water heaters in the building with natural gas, connecting directly to an existing central plant at the Student Union. All facilities were centralized wherever possible, rather than building new systems such as rooftop heating units. They use only efficient lighting such as energy watt and compact fluorescents, eliminating incandescent lamps wherever possible. All systems in the building -- including air conditioning and lighting -- are monitored electronically via photo and motion sensors. Homesley even limited much of the landscaping around the union building to native plants that don’t require much water.

Homesley expects that, by the end of the fiscal year, two more buildings should be completed - and he plans to continue to adhere to strict green standards. “This has been a real whirlwind experience for us for the past few years,” he says. “We had a lot of success retrofitting the older buildings, once we tested and implemented suitable products; I expect to continue with this trend.”

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Environmental Design+Construction. It was first published on May 9, 2005.

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