As a backpacker, the most important item I carry in my backpack is water. I start each morning of a hike with three liters of water; two in my bladder and one in my bottle. The water bottle looks like any typical water bottle that people carry.

I mention this because I am not a millennial. Recently, millennials have been accused of changing things around us with their quirks. One of those changes millennials have been accused of is carrying a water bottle. If they carry water bottles, so what?

As it turns out, all segments of the population carry water bottles. When I am riding my bicycle, I have a water bottle with me. If I work out, which is rare, I have a water bottle. I see water bottles everywhere. It is one of the latest giveaways at conferences, meetings and office visits. Perhaps you have even received an opportunity to have water bottles with your company name imprinted on them.

Which brings us to the plumbing device called a drinking fountain. There are many that will say a drinking fountain is old school, you mean a water cooler. In other words, we are expecting the water we drink to be cold.


Chilled water debate

Interestingly, these discussions have come up during plumbing code debates. What should the plumbing code mandate regarding a drinking fountain? Should water coolers be required? Should we require water bottle fillers?

During these discussions, millennials are thrown under the bus, accused of not using drinking fountains or water coolers. Of course, that just isn’t true. What also isn’t true is that only millennials carry water bottles.

Add into the mix a discussion on water dispensers. Can a water dispenser be acceptable for providing drinking water?

Water dispensers is a generic term that can mean just about anything. Most of us have a water dispenser on our refrigerator. Having recently replaced a refrigerator, the new one has a water dispenser that can fill a water bottle. The last one was meant for filling a glass. You had to be a contortionist to fill a water bottle.

There are also water dispensers that are alongside a kitchen faucet. Some consider a lavatory faucet to be a water dispenser. The plumbing codes do not.

In response to the question of “Do we mandate chilled drinking water?” the answer is no. The plumbing codes have, and probably always will, allow water coolers as a substitute for drinking fountains. But there is no mandate for a water cooler.

Personally, I prefer a water cooler to a drinking fountain. I like to drink my water as cold as possible. But that is a North American thing. People from the U.S. and Canada are used to drinking water that is very cold. The rest of the world drinks water at warmer temperatures.

I was recently at a dinner with a friend who is an American citizen but was born in another country. He asked the waitress to warm his water. I chuckled until I thought of being in Europe, Asia and Africa, where everyone thought we Americans were crazy for wanting ice in our water.

Then I realized that, as a backpacker, water at any temperature is great to drink when you are hiking long distances carrying 40 pounds on your back. Maybe we don’t need water to be so cold.


Solving the drinking fountain/bottle filler dilemma

Getting back to the plumbing code discussions. Bottle fillers have gained a foothold in the plumbing codes. However, they are only permitted to be used to replace 50% of the required drinking fountains. That means you could have a drinking fountain on one floor and a bottle filler on the next floor. However, that doesn’t make much sense. Architects have figured out that a drinking fountain and bottle filler should be right next to one another.

To help solve the dilemma between a drinking fountain and a bottle filler, manufacturers have been providing a combination unit. It will fill a bottle but also serve as a drinking fountain.

If you are wondering whether a combination drinking fountain/bottle filler can count as two fixtures for meeting the plumbing code requirements, the answer is no. Only one person can use the combined fixture at a time. Therefore, it is one fixture.

All attempts to mandate bottle fillers in the plumbing code, to date, have failed. They are an option, but not a requirement.

The plumbing manufacturers have done a good job trying to define the difference between a drinking fountain and a water dispenser. I am referring to the drink dispensers on a refrigerator or behind the counter at a restaurant. For the most part, they are not classified as drinking fountains and cannot be used to meet the plumbing code requirements. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, you cannot substitute a water dispenser for a drinking fountain.

We have gotten used to two drinking fountains, water coolers or bottle fillers being together. In the good ole days, only one drinking fountain would be present. The reason for installing two drinking fountains side by side is due to accessibility requirements.

Originally, accessibility requirements only specified a height for use by an individual confined to a wheelchair. For many of us tall people, that meant bending over much further to get a drink. Then the ADA requirements added a statement about providing a higher drinking fountain for those using a cane that cannot bend over to use the lower drinking fountains. The problem was the ADA provided no height requirement for the higher drinking fountain. Architects, engineers and manufacturers just guessed at a reasonable height.

When it was brought to everyone’s attention that a height was not specified for the higher drinking fountain, the accessibility requirements changed. Now there are minimum heights for each drinking fountain. The only way to comply with the higher and lower drinking fountain heights is to install two drinking fountains or water coolers.

Most recently, the accessibility code added height requirements for accessible bottle fillers. There are also reach requirements for how recessed the bottle filler can be located.

Finally, recognize that only 50% of the required drinking fountains are required to be accessible. However, two drinking fountains must always be provided to meet the accessibility requirements.

If you haven’t considered a bottle filler, I would recommend you do. Also, as a service to your customers, I would also recommend that you contact your commercial customer and suggest they consider replacing their water coolers with combination bottle fillers and water coolers. They’ll thank you for being progressive and helping them look good.