A guide for proper plumbing fixture selection.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was approved by the 101st Congress to mandate "clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability."

For good reason, Congress chose not to ignore the 43 million Americans with physical or mental disabilities. Instead, the passage of this law opened doors -- literally and figuratively -- to a new pool of employees and consumers across America.

In an effort to help facilities meet ADA compliance for public restrooms, manufacturers of commercial and industrial plumbing fixtures adjusted their products to ensure accessibility to everyone. Although the advent of touchless, sensor-operated plumbing fixtures came before the ADA, these products have emerged as the norm in some applications, while manual models still have a stronghold in facilities such as schools and other high-traffic, low-supervision areas.


For both new buildings and retrofits, touchless, sensor-operated flushometers are a common means to meeting ADA regulations, as well as promoting improved hygiene.

Sensor-operated flushometers function by emitting an invisible beam of light as a user enters the monitored area. This light reflects back to a sensor that controls the flushing device, putting it on hold. Once the user leaves the area, the loss of reflected light triggers the "one-time" flushing mechanism. After the cycle, the circuit automatically resets for the next user.

Though battery-operated models lend themselves to retrofits more easily, both battery and hard-wired systems perform in a wide range of settings, including schools, restaurants, hotels, shopping facilities, office complexes and stadiums. Differences among these two and other flushometers are listed below.

  • Battery-operated flushometers typically operate on four AA batteries and will function for years without having to change power source. Delivering "hands-free" operation, these units will sense the presence of a user, and automatically flush after the user leaves.

    Most battery-operated retrofit kits install within minutes in a one-trade upgrade, using the existing hardware from standard manual units, allowing facilities to provide accessibility inexpensively and quickly while advancing to current plumbing standards.

  • Hard-wired flushometers are better suited for new construction and are recommended in high-traffic, high-abuse applications. The sensors used are self-adaptive -- meaning the range adjustment is entirely automatic.

    Microprocessor-based technology self-adjusts the sensor's range depending on the environment where the valve has been installed. Reflective backgrounds, ambient light sources and fixed objects are identified by the sensor circuitry. The sensor will then automatically increase or decrease its range to compensate for these outside influences.

  • High-end manual flushometers are typically shipped standard with ADA-compliant handles that require less than five pounds of pressure to depress, which allows for easy operation by anyone. Kits to upgrade handles for ADA compliance are also available from leading manufacturers of plumbing fixtures.

    Handle location on ADA-compliant manual flushometers must be on the wide side of a water closet stall and may not be more than 44 inches above the floor. The seat of the water closet must be 17-19 inches above the ground, accompanied by a grab bar that is between 33 and 36 inches from the floor. Some applications will require a split grab bar to allow room for the flush valve.

    Manual urinal models follow the same handle height regulations, but requirements for ADA demand installation on elongated rim-type bowls that are no higher than 17 inches from the ground. Frontal clearance space for urinals must be at least 30 inches wide by 48 inches in length, and must adjoin or overlap an accessible route to the door.

  • Hydraulic flushometers offer versatility and feature a simple, but effective actuator push button that meets all requirements of ADA. Hydraulic flushometers use tubing to connect the actuator button to the valve, allowing placement almost anywhere.

Floor Clearance Requirements

Floor clearance requirements in stalls vary depending upon the design of the facility, but specific regulations are in place and can be applied to any restroom layout.

For a front transfer to the water closet (see Figure A), the minimum clear floor space is 48 inches in width and 66 inches in length. For a diagonal transfer to the water closet (see Figure B), a minimum space clearance of 48 inches in width by 56 inches in length is required. For a side transfer to the water closet (see Figure C), 60 inches of width and 56 inches in length must be available for clearance.

Two other ADA acceptable stall alternatives include one that is 36 inches in width and one that is 48 inches in width. The 36-inch-wide stall requires parallel grab bars on both side walls' and the 48-inch-wide stall requires a grab bar behind the water closet and one on the side wall next to the water closet.

For each alternative, the centerline of the water closet is 18 inches from the nearest side wall. If a wall-mounted water closet is used, the depth of the stall must be at least 66 inches in length, and a floor-mounted water closet requires 69 inches in length.

Grab bars on the side of the water closet should be 40-42 inches in length, beginning a maximum of 12 inches from the rear wall, 33-36 inches above the floor. Grab bars that are located on the rear of the water closet should be at least 36 inches in length, extending from the wall toward the open side of the water closet, 33-36 inches from the ground.

Sensor-Operated Faucets For Lavatories

Most ADA-compliant electronic faucets use the same type of technology that operate touchless, sensor-operated flushometers -- some even employ fiber optics to transfer the activation signal. Either way, the result is hands-free operation that is an accepted way to meet ADA requirements. Once a user's hands enter the sensing zone, tempered water flows until there is no detection of a user, which ends the cycle.

ADA-compliant lavatories (see Figure D) should be mounted with the counter surface no higher than 34 inches above the floor and should provide an 8-inch knee clearance from the edge of the counter to the lavatory protective enclosure. At least 27 inches of vertical space from the bottom of the lavatory to the floor is required.

Lavatory protective enclosures -- although not required to meet ADA regulations -- protect users from scalding and sharp surfaces, leaving no lavatory plumbing, electrical and mechanical components exposed.

Lavatories require installation of ADA-compliant faucets and should have a minimum of 48 inches of clear space from the wall and have an opening of 30 inches from side-to-side in front of the sink. If a vertical minimum of 9 inches of toe clearance is provided, a maximum width of 6 inches of the required 48 inches of clear floor space may extend into the toe space.