A water-free way to pee

Step right up! These no-flush urinals are friendly to everyone: The environment, the University budget and your bladder!

In the men's rooms of the Ward Circle Building and Mary Graydon Center, the skeletal remains of once-flowing water pipes suggest the need for an "out of order" sign. Curious students approach these water-free urinals with skepticism.

"I thought it was broken," remarked senior John Pichter. "The spout was still sticking out of the wall."

But as Pichter and many other men who've answered nature's calling in Ward or MGC have discovered, these "broken" urinals simply don't need water. The wall literature above the porcelain bowls explains: "[The] cartridge [in the drain of the urinal] has a floating thin layer of a high-tech biodegradable sealing liquid. The urine passes through the sealing liquid, which forms a complete barrier that prevents odors and sewer vapors from escaping to the restroom atmosphere. The cartridge retains sediments and when full is simply replaced about every 7,000 uses. The urinal bowl is cleaned with conventional cleaning supplies."

The information leaves a few gaps: after the urine passes through the sealing liquid, which is more buoyant than the urine, the cartridge filters sediment (white blood cells, salts, cellular elements) and - to calm the concerns of the more traditionalist urinal users on campus - the urine drains into the sewage system in a typical fashion.

The University has installed five water-free urinals on campus-three in MGC, two in Ward. They represent what Physical Plant Director Willy Suter describes as a "monitoring period" for an AU pilot water conservation program.

"You use about a gallon a flush," Sutter said. "This is a way to chip away at the University's water consumption and reduce its environmental impact."

The urinals are manufactured by Falcon Waterfree Technologies, whose past clients include the City of Seattle, IBM, Heathrow International Airport, the United States Navy, and University of California-Los Angeles. Falcon sells the urinals from two angles: environmental impact and economic savings.

While the environmental benefits are obvious (an estimated 40,000 gallons each year per urinal saved), the economic ones take a little more explaining.

According to Falcon sales representative Joe Romero, the urinals range from $200 to $300. A standard low flow urinal from TOTO USA, one of the world's leading toilet manufacturers, costs $260.

Though an exact figure wasn't available, Suter said that the urinals on campus cost about 25 percent less than equivalent, conventional urinals. In addition, the Falcon requires less installation labor since it only needs a drainage source. And while saving 40,000 gallons of water each year makes a dent in the bill, the greatest savings, Romero insists, come from lessening sewage costs.

In Romero's eyes, the sewage companies have been making out like bandits. He gave an example: sewage companies charge per gallon of water handled. While the water company may charge $1 for a gallon of water, the sewage company charges $4 to process that same gallon. Maintenance is less costly too, since valve and pipe repair are minimal.

A study conducted by the UCLA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering cites data collected by its research team from three California public schools, which indicated that during a period of roughly two years, the Falcon urinals saved between 37 to 61 percent annually.

Cleaning is one small problem area for the Falcons; it requires some training. Suter mentioned an incident a few weeks ago in which a cleaning woman from Aramark who had missed the training session used water to clean the bowl. Water diminishes the life of the sealant liquid.

Some students also take issue with the Falcon's cleanliness. Zach Maden has his doubts.

"There's something fishy about these urinals," Maden said. "I don't know how a water-free urinal works or how it could be hygienic."

After using a Falcon, School of International Service graduate student Brad David expressed different sentiments.

"It was awesome," he said. "I expected nasty odor and I got nothing."

Perhaps Maden is just skeptical and David lucky, for the Falcon certainly can smell from time to time. In fact, the same UCLA study concluded that there was "statistically no difference between the Falcon Waterfree or the water flushing urinals [on UCLA's campus] in the amount of ammonia gas measured inside the urinal bowl or at the bowl lip."

The study also found "that water-free urinals will not experience greater bacterial growth rates than a water flush urinal."

But once you get beyond the money and the environment and the smell, the skepticism really centers on people's captivation with (and fear of) the novelty of waterfree urinals.

Sure, students like senior Eitan Naftali will always long for the past.

"I kind of miss the pink thing," Naftali said with a nostalgic chuckle referring to the bleach disc typically in the urinal drain. But as more and more men use these new toilets, they discover the same old experience. Same smell, same drain- just a few new environmental and economic benefits.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.

Coronavirus Project