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No-Flush Urinals Just Waiting for Plumbers

Industry group has stalled on endorsing the waterless devices, calling them health hazards.

November 23, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Standing in the men's room at the Cal State Northridge student union, no one would think that the long fight over the waterless urinal is about to come to a head.

The flush-free fixtures hanging on the restroom wall look good. The place smells good. The users' reviews sound good.

"They seem clean and you don't have to flush them and I like that," said Philippe Van Nieuwenhuyse, a sophomore business-law student. "I always hate to flush with my hand. A lot of germs can collect on one of those handles."

It's hard to believe that the ordinary-looking urinal is at the center of a national debate that has plumbers and water conservationists taking aim at one another.

The skirmish could take a new turn today when the country's largest plumbing industry advisory group intends to reveal whether it is finally willing to endorse the water-free urinal.

Before the device finds a place in public buildings, it must find a place in the Uniform Plumbing Code.

The code is produced by the Ontario-based International Assn. of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials. It serves as the basis for plumbing codes used by contractors and building inspectors in some 8,000 cities and counties across the United States.

The plumbing code is revised every three years. And three times in the last decade the nonprofit association has declined to certify the waterless urinal for public use on health-issue grounds.

The water-free urinal resembles a conventional men's room fixture that requires a gallon or more of water to flush urine into a U-shaped pipe trap and then on down the drain after each use. Instead of water, it relies on gravity to force urine through a filter containing a floating layer of oily liquid that then acts as a sealant to prevent odors from escaping from the sewer pipe.

Conservationists say the average no-flush urinal can save as much as 24,000 gallons of water a year. They say that the liquid sealant keeps dangerous bacteria as well as bad smells from the restroom without a need for water.

But plumbers argue that the devices could spread diseases such as cholera and severe acute respiratory syndrome and emit deadly sewer gas into restrooms -- allegations both conservationists and manufacturers strongly dispute.

The two sides once again argued their case last week at a hearing conducted by the association's "standards council." That nine-member panel is composed of appointed representatives from the plumbing industry and governmental agencies as well as engineers and other construction experts. It is helping draft the 2006 uniform code update.

The Uniform Plumbing Code, which serves as the model for Los Angeles, traces its roots to a set of construction standards first published in 1932 by Los Angeles city plumbing inspectors -- who six years earlier had created their own association. In the '30s, the inspectors were joined by area master plumbers, plumbing contractors and plumbing equipment makers.

These days the standards serve as the base code for local jurisdictions in 34 states. There are several other published plumbing guidelines, including the International Plumbing Code, which permits flush-less fixtures.

The hearing last week involved an appeal filed by a Los Angeles-based urinal maker, Falcon Waterfree Technologies. The company was contesting a June recommendation by an association technical committee that flush-free fixtures continue to be banned by the Uniform Plumbing Code.

Both sides came armed with technical reports that supported their position.

Advocates of no-flush fixtures contend they are clean and safe and have worked well in tests in such places as sports stadiums, college campuses and experimental environmentally friendly "green" buildings. Some cities, such as Pasadena, allow waterless urinals.

There, 259 of the urinals at the Rose Bowl save an estimated 130,000 gallons of water during each year's Rose Bowl game.

Backers of the urinal, including representatives of several California water districts, poured praise on the fixture, telling the council that its certification is critical to widespread future urinal use that could save millions of gallons of drinking water daily while reducing sewage treatment costs.

They pointed to a 2000 UCLA study of a no-flush urinal tested at the Boelter Hall classroom building that found the device did not result in increased restroom odor or bacterial growth.

"We find they work fine. It's another tool that we need to conserve water," said Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District in La Mesa and El Centro, which has also tested the units at a water conservation demonstration garden.

A representative of the Sacramento-based California Urban Water Conservation Council complained that some association members seem intent on permanently blocking no-flush urinals.

"Their goal is to make it essentially impossible to use them," Thomas Pape said.

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