How water and the human factor influence restroom design

by Katie Daniel | March 30, 2017 10:25 am

All photos courtesy Sloan Valve Company

by Patrick J. Boyle, CSP
The commercial restroom is at the epicenter of a critical environmental consideration—water. Recent innovations have elevated the commercial restroom as an opportunity to drive sustainability, performance, and design for architects, engineers, and project managers. From water-saving systems to innovations reflecting the total product life cycle, outdated industry standards—even those of only 15 or 20 years ago—are being turned on their heads thanks to key advances in technology, affordability, and human ingenuity.

Commercial restroom environments of all types present growing challenges requiring water-efficient products that do not compromise design, quality, performance, the environment, or human health. The evolution in approach to restroom sustainability practices begins with the turn of the 20th century. William Elvis Sloan revolutionized the plumbing industry in 1906 with his invention of the flushometer, which replaced tank-and-chain fixtures, saving water and energy.

Efficiency and sustainability reign
Awareness of the environmental impact of design has grown, sprouting new ventures to manage and advance sustainable design. In the 1990s, advancements included the Federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct), which was the first major federal legislation mandating maximum water consumption for toilets at 6 L (1.6 gal) per flush (i.e. Lpf/gpf), urinals at 3.8 Lpf (1 gpf), faucets at 8.3 L (2.2 gal) per minute (i.e. Lpm/gpm) and showerheads at 9.5 Lpm (2.5 gpm).

The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program launched in 1993, mandating a 20 percent reduction from the previous EPAct baseline for toilets and urinals. As the program evolved, LEED also required the specification for WaterSense-labeled products. The WaterSense program was designed in 2006 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to promote and enhance water-efficient products. This boom of environmentally focused organizations and programs reflected the growing global concerns of the effects that buildings have on the environment and promoted better strategies and solutions.

These initiatives prompted the advent of the ‘low-flow’ toilet with a focus on reducing water usage. Prior to these water closet advancements, it was common for 19 to 22.7 L (5 to 6 gal) of water to rush down the drain with each flush. Today, more commercial restroom product manufacturers are offering toilets that use as little as 4 Lpf (1.1 gpf) and urinals can reach as low as 0.5 Lpf (0.125 gpf). For example, high-efficiency toilet (HET) systems, at about 4 Lpf, boast approximately 37 percent more water savings than a 6-Lpf toilet, while pressure-assist units can use less than 3.8 Lpf without sacrificing performance, resulting in up to 46 percent more water savings.

Some urinals are now water-free and can conserve as much as 151,416 L (40,000 gal) of water per unit annually. Water-free urinals typically consist of a vitreous china fixture and a cartridge, the latter of which is the heart of the system—it provides an airtight seal from the drain and the restroom so as to prevent odors from escaping. The cartridge also acts as a trap, collecting sediment and allowing waste to pass easily down the drain.

Integrated sink systems, part of the Los Angeles International Airport’s (LAX’s) modernization overhaul, included touch-free soap dispensers, automatic sensor faucets, dryers, and sink basins.

The next evolution was the innovative hybrid urinal, which uses a unique technology first introduced in 2015. This technology keeps urinals and drain lines clean, hygienic, and free of both odors and clogs. Water-free operation, combined with a programed water purge, prevents calcite from forming and easily removes any small amounts of the phosphate mineral struvite from forming in the drain line.

Hybrid urinals are essentially water-free urinals that use a solenoid valve to automatically inject water into the drain line, right where calcite and struvite buildup causes the most issues. The water injection is pre-programmed on a timer and eliminates the need to manually clean the line. Newer hybrid and water-free models are also easier to maintain thanks to an improved, multi-patented cartridge that reduces odors and better retains sealants. The latest designs also have a greener footprint, with a cartridge that employs 20 percent less material than previous models.

New faucets and sink systems are also making sustainable design easier to achieve. Battery- and solar-powered faucets are touchless and can contribute to water savings of up to 40 percent. The key advantage of solar products is they consume less battery power, and their power source extended by the ambient light in the room by two to three times the normal life of a regular battery-powered product. However, battery-powered products require a maintenance staff to change the batteries as needed and dispose of them into a landfill.

Integrated sink systems can allow for sensor-activated faucets with customizable flow rates ranging from 1.3 to 5.7 Lpm (0.35 to 1.5 gpm), which saves up to 67 percent more water than traditional systems using 5.7-Lpm faucets. Similarly, highly efficient deck-mounted hand-dryers reduce waste by eliminating the need for paper towels.

Hybrid urinals keep fixtures and drain lines clean, hygienic, odor-free, and clog-free.

Balancing conservation and sanitation
Advancements in water savings do not come without concerns. There is a fine balance between sanitation and conservation, and water reduction can only go so far before compromising hygiene.

One facility that has become a showcase for restroom sustainability with a focus on sanitation is the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This global gateway sees thousands of people pass through its doors daily with non-stop flights to more than 100 U.S. locations and 40 countries. Airports run 365 days a year, so restroom maintenance is a costly demand. As with many high-traffic restrooms, LAX experienced sanitation issues, including paper towels and water on the floors in the sink area.

Part of the airport’s $14-billion modernization project, which aimed to maximize sustainability, efficiency, and aesthetics, included both new and updated restrooms throughout the facility. Engineers from Syska Hennessy specified many of the commercial restroom products they knew could handle the high volume of users, while also making an eye-catching first impression.

The result of the modernization was significant water conservation improvements, simplified maintenance, and a sophisticated look. The airport installed several integrated sink systems with touch-free soap dispensers, automatic sensor faucets, dryers, and sink basins that aligned with their design and efficiency goals. The elements are designed to work together, creating a more efficient system that saves water and reduces energy consumption and paper waste. Further, some models are manufactured with solid surfacing that utilizes recycled materials.

High-efficiency urinals (HEUs) have a maximum flush volume of 1.9 Lpf (0.5 gpf) or less, and must meet the performance requirements of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) A112.19.2, Ceramic Plumbing Fixtures. Due to this efficiency, HEUs for LAX met the EPA’s WaterSense criteria; the automatic faucets used around 1.9 Lpm, meeting the state’s strict green building code, CalGreen.

With just under 75 million passengers passing through the airport last year, the facility saves 4.7 Lpf (1.25 gpf) on average, according to Los Angeles World Airports, the city department that owns and operates LAX. This represents a 22 percent reduction of potable water use per unit.

Reclaimed-water flushometers are made to withstand the harsh chemicals present in reclaimed water.

Widening the focus
However, even these advances concentrate on the products’ water and energy consumption. Modern ideas are looking toward the bigger picture. This evolution opens the door to infinite opportunities that recognize the entire life cycle of an individual product, from harvesting those metals from the earth to manufacturing, operation, and end of life.

The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) and Health Product Declaration (HPD) are new standards shifting and broadening focus from how low a company’s fittings flow can be to how each production detail can have an impact on both human beings and the environment. EPDs and HPDs are taking green construction to another level, offering more product transparency as demanded by an increasing number of architects, designers, engineers, and building owners.

An EPD follows ISO 14025, Environmental Labels and Declarations−Type III Environmental Declarations: Principles and Procedures; it discloses the life-cycle environmental performance of a particular product. Also known as a Type III environmental declaration, an EPD is based on a life-cycle assessment (LCA) and contains a summary of key LCA results like carbon footprint, acidification, depletion of fossil fuel, and other resources. Developed by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, an HPD is a standardized disclosure document identifying potential chemicals of concern and health concerns in a building product.

Until recently, the focus has been on making high-performance buildings consume less energy and water while also generating less waste, but the industry is now looking at how the building can affect human health, too. This monumental shift in thinking is deeply influencing the products specified by architects, designers, and engineers as they continually try to push the envelope. The result is a new generation of standards influencing future restroom designs.

Organizations such as the International Living Future Institute have developed another resource for designers to make informed product decisions. DECLARE is a transparency platform and product database allowing manufacturers to publicly ‘declare’ the life-cycle sustainability of their products or projects based on the inclusion of environment- and occupant-friendly materials and chemicals.

Another driving force behind DECLARE, EPDs, and HPDs are green-building frameworks like USGBC’s LEED v4 and the International Living Future’s Living Building Challenge (LBC). Certified products are eligible for helping a project earn credits in the LEED v4 Materials and Resources (MR) category, while DECLARE-labeled products are required for LBC projects. Both LEED v4 and LBC promote a more comprehensive approach to water conservation through less toxic products fabricated through a more efficient, less carbon-intensive manufacturing process. More architects and designers seeking the next high-profile project are insisting on certifications that take a whole-building approach to sustainability.

Water’s footprint
When exploring the life cycle of restroom products, it is important to look beyond tangible materials. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a common, yet oft-overlooked, byproduct of many manufacturing processes.

“In the United States, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions—more than the transportation or industrial sectors—and commercial and residential buildings comprise more than 70 percent of electricity use,” wrote Brandon Tinianov, PhD, PE, LEED AP, in a 2016 web article for The Construction Specifier. (To read the article, “Reaching Ambitious Energy Requirements in Commercial Building,” visit[5].)

Recent years have seen a greater emphasis on the carbon footprint of water, concerning the impact of potable water processing on our environment. While the majority of people may not yet associate potable water with carbon emissions, water treatment/distribution is an energy-intensive process that deserves critical attention.

Today’s various sensor-operated faucets and soap dispensers are designed for sustainability and easier maintenance, featuring adjustable flow rates as well as integral water-supply shutoff.

The amount of energy required to extract or pump water from its source, and then treat and purify it to potable drinking standards, is significant. Potable water is pumped, sometimes over long distances and varied terrain, to the end-user, who may heat that water, producing more carbon. The used water is then collected and treated at a wastewater treatment plant before being released back into the environment.

There are various ways to reduce this footprint. Some areas of the country are using more onsite and/or municipally supplied reclaimed water in conjunction with high-efficiency fixtures and fittings. Others are seeing results by implementing stricter local codes and providing education on water stewardship.

According to the EPA, restrooms consume about 37 percent of the total water usage in a typical office building, and 45 percent of the water in a typical school. Architects and designers are considering other non-potable water solutions, although the solutions come with limits.

Alternatives include utilizing reclaimed water or greywater for flushing toilets and urinals when feasible and allowable by code. There is no difference in the function of a commercial restroom product that taps into alternative water sources. The primary limitation is the lack of a universal plumbing code that allows for the easy use of reclaimed water.

Reclaimed-water flushometers have recently become available and are an increasingly popular solution, especially in drought-stricken areas. Reclaimed water has long been used for agriculture and landscape irrigation. Although it has higher chemical concentrations than potable water, its use can be ideal for reducing water usage in commercial toilets and urinals thanks to new, innovative solutions specifically designed for reclaimed water systems.

Some manufacturers have developed flushometers made with high copper, semi-red brass (which has a lower zinc content than the yellow brass used in traditional flushometers) that withstands the harsh chemicals found in potable water. Reclaimed water generally has many types of particulates and more constituents (e.g. salts and minerals) that make it harder than potable water. Although certain municipalities allow reclaimed water to be used untreated for subsurface irrigation, the water must be treated for all other applications.

As conversations arise around water’s footprint and EPDs, HPDs, and DECLARE labels start becoming mainstream, many architects, engineers, and project managers have been prompted to keep restrooms top of mind and specify products that can help them achieve their complete design vision.

However, the next evolution may come when simply having a product certification is no longer a differentiator. Rather than accepting the certification at face value, in the next few years, specifiers will gain a much deeper understanding of the individual sustainability qualifications of each product. This revolution will also influence manufacturers to continuously improve and increase sustainability at every stage of a product’s life.

The bar for safer, more sustainable products is always rising. Well-designed, high-quality restrooms combine aesthetics with performance that is safer for the environment, as well as people.

Patrick J. Boyle, CSP, LEED GA, is the director of corporate sustainability at Sloan Valve Company. He has 20 years of environmental and sustainability experience, and is responsible for creating and implementing  global sustainability programs to educate local and national architecture, design, and engineering firms on water stewardship. Boyle holds a master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability, sits on the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Water Efficiency Technical Advisory Group (WETAG), and is on the Executive Committee of the USGBC Illinois Chapter Board of Directors. He can be reached at[7].

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