Drinking water has become vogue again.

Everyone seems to be carrying a bottle of water: Even briefcases and purses have sleeves to hold water bottles.

Of course, the bottled water industry has boomed. Who would have thought 15 years ago that bottled water would be more than a $10 billion a year industry?

But now there seems to be a backlash on the bottled water industry. All of a sudden, bottled water creates waste; energy is required to produce the bottle, etc., etc. Communities are now saying no to bottled water. Will it last? It is hard to say.

The question for plumbers and designers is: With all of this bottled water, do we still need the trusty drinking fountain? This has come up recently at code hearings. The other question that has come up is what qualifies as a drinking fountain?

Hilti’s B22 lightweight

For many years, restaurants were permitted to serve water rather than have a drinking fountain. That worked well until a few years ago. Now they try to sell you the water. As the one commercial said, “Man, you can’t sell water; water is free.” That is the position of the plumbing codes. All restaurants must provide free water if they don’t have a drinking fountain.

Recently, the building code got involved regulating drinking fountains. This is a totally new direction, since drinking fountains were always left to the plumbing codes. The building code entered the business of regulating drinking fountains as a result of demands regarding accessible fixtures.

For many years, the ADA recommended a high and low drinking fountain. Yet the accessibility standard only specified a requirement for the low drinking fountain. That all changed when the 2006 International Building Code was published.

First, the difference between the two:

  • A low drinking fountain is designed for a person confined to a wheelchair. The individual can approach the drinking fountain and use it while in a wheelchair. Furthermore, the water stream must be so that one can place a cup under the spout and obtain a glass of water.

  • The high drinking fountain is for tall people like myself. At 6-foot 1-inch, it is a long reach to bend over to get a drink from a drinking fountain mounted for a person confined to a wheelchair. People taller than myself have complained of back problems trying to access a drinking fountain. (I like higher counters, too.)


Split 50/50

The low drinking fountain must have the spout located not more than 36 inches above the finished floor. The high drinking fountain must have the spout mounted 38 to 43 inches above the finished floor. (The usual request from tall people is the higher the better.)

The building code now states there must be a minimum of two drinking fountains. When more than two drinking fountains are provided, they must be split 50/50 between the low height and the high height. This may sound easy, until you read the exception to this section.

It states: “Where 50 percent of the drinking fountains yields a fraction, 50 percent shall be permitted to be rounded up or down, provided that the total number of drinking fountains complying with this section equals 100 percent of the drinking fountains.”

I will admit, I have no idea what that statement means. I could interpret it to say that if you have 11 drinking fountains required by code, you must install 12, so you can divide it six and six.

At the same time, I could read it to say that if 11 are required, six would be one way, and five would be the other way. The problem you are faced with is that the inspector can read it either way, too. Whatever the inspector says is gospel. Plus, this can change from town to town.

The building code has one other strange statement. It says: “A single drinking fountain that complies with the requirements for people who use a wheelchair and standing persons shall be permitted to be substituted for two separate drinking fountains.”

Apparently, when this section was written, somebody forgot to read the height requirements for the high and low drinking fountain. The two dimensions don’t intersect. One is 36 inches or lower; the other is 38 to 43 inches.

Which raises the next issue: What qualifies as a drinking fountain? Could a water dispenser serve as a drinking fountain? If so, can a single dispenser work for both an individual confined to a wheelchair and a standing person? I would think the answer is, “Yes.”

Many offices now have kitchens with refrigerators. Many refrigerators have a water and ice cube dispenser. If glasses are provided, wouldn’t this type of dispenser qualify as a drinking fountain?

In my opinion, it does. In many plumbing inspectors’ opinions, it does not. The comment I hear the most is that they can remove the refrigerator and then there is no drinking fountain. Of course, they could also remove the drinking fountain. We have all seen buildings where this has happened.

The building code does not regulate drinking fountains. For the regulations, you must go to the plumbing code. The plumbing code is very specific in requiring the drinking fountain to conform to ASME A112.19.1M, ASME A112.19.2M, ASME A112.19.9M, or ARI 1010. None of these standards includes a drinking dispenser. Hence, a plumbing inspector is well within his or her rights to prohibit a water dispenser and mandate a drinking fountain.

The only option available is to have the plumbing inspector evaluate a drink dispenser as an alternative approval. Most inspectors would allow such alternative approval.

In the meantime, whenever you see a drinking fountain on a set of plans, start thinking two drinking fountains, not one. If the engineer or architect only shows one drinking fountain, give the engineer or architect a call and ask about the building code requirement for two drinking fountains.

When they ask what section, rattle off Section 1109.5 of the 2006 International Building Code. That will impress them that you know the section number that stipulates two drinking fountains as a minimum.