Urinals are the one fixture in plumbing history flushed the least.

One of the hottest topics in commercial construction is whether to flush or not flush when it comes to urinals. Waterless and waterfree urinals are the buzz in the plumbing engineer's office. There is an ongoing debate about the viability of using a urinal that does not flush water. The discussion centers on odor, sanitation and maintenance.

Every male, at some point in his life, has used a nonwater-supplied urinal. We have either called it the woods, an outhouse or a port-a-potty. The one similarity to all of these makeshift urinals is the odor associated with their use. Hence, we tend to have a bias that urine is going to stink.

The manufacturers of the nonwater-supplied urinals have claimed that urine, by itself, does not stink. Or I should say, does not have an offensive odor. I asked my son, the chemist, to give me a run down of what happens to urine after it leaves the body. I received a long lesson with a string of chemical equations showing me what occurs.

The bottom line is that eventually, urine converts to ammonia, and ammonia definitely stinks. The conversion to ammonia occurs more quickly (almost instantly) when the urine comes in contact with water.

My interest in the conversion of urine to ammonia was based on the data that has been supplied by the manufacturers of nonwater-supplied urinals. They have indicated that odor is not a problem. The main reason is that the urine does not come in contact with water.

Maintenance Is Key

Independent laboratory studies have shown that the nonwater-supplied urinals have the same, or less, odor than do flush-type urinals.

Some of my colleagues have performed their own field studies regarding the odor in waterless urinals. Their nonscientific studies indicated that the nonwater-supplied urinals work fine, without an odor problem, when you follow the manufacturer's recommendations for maintaining the urinal. When the urinal was not maintained in accordance with the recommendations, they would begin to stink in about three day's time. Interestingly, if you did not maintain a water-supplied urinal, it would stink in a shorter period of time.

The plumbing industry has known for a long time that if you install a urinal, you have to maintain it. It is not a fixture that stays clean by itself. The nonwater-supplied urinal is in the same category; it requires routine maintenance.

From a sanitary standpoint, the manufacturers of waterless urinals claim that urine is sterile. They cite data from World War II whereby soldiers were educated on the use of urine to clean wounds in an emergency. Reading that information never turned me on, however, when looking at the use of the urinal; the urine quickly runs down the wall to the trap area.

The nonwater-supplied urinals use a fluid that floats in the trap seal. The urine is heavier than the solution, and flows under the solution and down the drain. I always refer to the solution as “magic blue,” since the manufacturers never tell you what the solution is. This is one of the trade secrets they do not divulge.

Part of the maintenance of the waterless urinals may be the introduction of more “magic blue” solution and the periodic changing of the cartridge trap assembly. Most cartridge assemblies are good for a long period of time. One of the manufacturers lists 7,000 uses of the urinal as the time to replace the cartridge.

As far as code approvals go, nonwater-supplied urinals were just approved by the International Plumbing Code. There is a code change before the Uniform Plumbing Code to accept the fixture in the next edition of the code.

Automatic Flush

When is comes to flush-type urinals, I am a big believer in automatic flush valves. I cannot understand why anyone would not want an automatic flush valve vs. a manual flush valve for a urinal.

Urinals have been the one fixture in plumbing history that is flushed the least. Why men choose to go and not flush is beyond me. But, any guy who has lined up behind a urinal at a ball game, fairground or racetrack, has witnessed the use of the fixture without a flush following.

Automatic flush valves take the gross male user out of the equation. The urinal flushes by itself.

Not all automatic flush valves are alike. There are different infrared technologies used by the manufacturers. One of the manufacturers claims to have a higher level of technology by using a twin beam sensor. Another claims that the sensor is an isolated operator. One of the newer features, used by some of the manufacturers, is the use of a remote control device to set the adjustments for the flush valve. This allows the automatic flush valve to be set independently for each installation.

All of these tweaks to the technology are to improve the performance of the automatic flush valves. The newer flush valves are less likely to flush the urinal when it has not been used. They also are more likely to flush the urinal when a person has finished urinating.

When they were first installed, automatic urinal flush valves sometimes flushed as you walked by. A friend of mine always called it the “plumber's salute.” It let him know how important a person he was. This problem is virtually nonexistent today.

I especially like battery-operated automatic flush valves since they can be easily installed on existing urinals. The newer battery-operated valves use standard batteries you can purchase anywhere. This makes it easier than having to find the expensive special batteries. Sensors also provide a visual indication when the batteries are in need of replacement.

So, if you are installing flush-type urinals, I would highly recommend automatic flush valves. The better the infrared sensing, the better performance. For battery-operated flush valves, the easier to change the battery, the better.

In commercial construction, there are now multiple options for urinals. If you haven't tried a nonwater-supplied urinal, add it to the list of things to do. When installing a standard flush urinal, think automatic flush valve, think good automatic flush valve.

Ballanco at ISH North America
Julius Ballanco, P.E., is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. On Thursday, Oct. 14 he will present “Hot Water Scalding And How To Protect Your Company & Customer” at 9 a.m., and “DVW-Design/Protection Against SARS And Infectious Diseases” at 3 p.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.