Waterless Urinals

I found this sign over the waterless urinal at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (where I am hanging out this summer) difficult to parse (or follow).


Ordinarily I wouldn't devote a blog post to this kind of thing but believe it or not, this month's Wired has an excellent article on the science, economics and considerable politics of waterless urinals.  Here's one bit:

Plumbing codes never contemplated a urinal without water. As a result, Falcon’s fixtures couldn’t be installed legally in most parts of the country. Krug assumed it would be a routine matter to amend the model codes on which most state and city codes are based, but Massey and other plumbers began to argue vehemently against it. The reason the urinal hadn’t changed in decades was because it worked, they argued. Urine could be dangerous, Massey said, and the urinal was not something to trifle with. As a result, in 2003 the organizations that administer the two dominant model codes in the US rejected Falcon’s request to permit installation of waterless urinals. “The plumbers blindsided us,” Krug says. “We didn’t understand what we were up against.”

One thing that does annoy me is the claim that these urinals "save" 40,000 thousand gallons of water a year.  Water is not an endangered species. With local exceptions, water is a renewable resource and in plentiful supply.  At the average U.S. price, you can buy 40,000 gallons of water for about $80.   


I like this quote:

The plumbers reject the contention that their opposition was an attempt to protect their livelihoods. “We just weren’t so sure this was a good product,† Massey says. “People think we’re a bunch of dumb plumbers, but we’re actually quite sophisticated.†

Case closed!

For a few months they had one of these in the main floor bathroom of the Johnson Center -- Then it mysteriously disappeared. Anyone know the story of its emergence and vanishing act?

In many places taxpayers subsidize the water used by farmers. I'm no water economist, but from the conversations I've had with people who do know about these things, water in America is heavily subsidized by government and does not sell at market value. I've even met people who do a pretty good job of explaining how any agricultural goods we export, aren't really agricultural goods, but more of a way to transport our cheap water. Rather than ship the cheap water someplace else where they can grow the goods, we use the water ourselves to grow them, then ship the good (you're inline for yet another subsidy that way as well).

As I said, I'm not a water expert, but I've met people who are and I think you're comment would make their heads explode.

Finally, as someone who grew up in a drought in California and the rifts water caused between northern and southern CA, there are indeed some local places where this is a good idea, like vast swaths of the Southwest.

I'm in Texas now and we have waterless urinals here. Work just fine.

As I said, I'm not a water expert, but I've met people who are and I think you're comment would make their heads explode.

Here's what makes my head explode:

1. Government subsidizes water because of interest-group politics (for the benefit of farmers),
2. Government tries to mandates use of water-saving equipment to try to avoid waste created by #1.
3. Government reverses self and forbids use of equipment in #2 because of interest-group politics (for the benefit of plumbers).

Yes, and the government takeover of healthcare will be smooth, painless and effective.

The 'local exceptions' include much of California, and a number of other places in the west.

Water is scarce here in the West, but our governments subsidize it so it's as cheap as anywhere. And then of course people waste it, on silly things like a half-acre Kentucky Bluegrass lawn in the freaking desert. Then you get water use restrictions. If the water department would just set a profit maximizing price we could use the water for whatever we liked as long as we were willing to pay.

There is a waterless urinal in my office building. Above it, is a sign claiming that it saves 30,000 gallons of water a year. That, I believe is based off of faulty assumptions.

Regardless, it has been in the building for five years and it works just fine.

the only thing it requres is maintenance that regular urninals do not need, so the janitorial staff has to be specially trained.

At the bottom of a Falcon Water Free Urinal is a filter disc that contains a fluid that is lighter than water (i believe glycerine). the urine travels through the glycerine which is trapped inside the disc before going into the sewer system. The glycerine trap serves the same purpose as a P-trap in standard plumbing, which is to prevent sewer gasses from escaping into the restroom.

Over time, the glycerine depledes, so it has to be refreshed a few times a month. Every three months, the filter disc has to be replaced.

If the glycerine and filter disc are not properly maintained by the janitorial staff . . . . You guessed it, the restroom will either smell like shit from the escaping sewer gasses, or the waterless urinal will back up with urine.

But other than that, as long as the waterless urinal is properly maintained, they work just fine.

I am hardly an environmentalist, but I dont believe there is anything wrong with conservation.. And if it makes environmentalist libs feel better about themselves, that is fine too.

A waterless urinal is a simple, economical, and practical way that building owners can save a little bit of water. The cost of a waterless urinal is about the same as a conventional urinal. The only difference is that it costs a little more to maintain; instead of spending $20 on an annual supply of urinal cakes, you are buying $100 of filters and the glycerine.

So economically, they are about the same, plus they save a little bit of water, which I see nothing wrong with.

I will add to the above:

I grew up in colorado, which is an arid climate. Various constituents are always fighting over water. the farmers battle the ski areas. the urban areas battle the farmers. The water companies place restrictions on when lawns can be watered. Now I live in San Francisco. And the fact is,there is very little drinkable water supplies that are native to the bay area; most of it is diverted from the sierras, yosemite, or colorado river.

Even if saving a little bit of water with the use of a waterless urinal is marginal and makes no diference in the grand scheme of things, it reminds people that water is scarce.

That may not be the case in Michigan or Virginia, but it is certainly the case here.

There isn't really a market price for water (for residential, commercial or industrial users at least) mostly because water provision is a monopoly in most places but like Alex said this isn't really a problem from a scarcity perspective.

The real problem with water pricing in Canada, where I study water rates, is that residential and commercial water prices (whether flat rates or volumetric) do not cover the capital cost of water infrastructure. Water prices are set to cover the operating costs of a water utility, leaving a massive investment gap when the pipes (or what have you) need to be replaced. When that happens, municipalities can't cover the replacement costs and look to upper tiers of Gov. to fill in the funding gap. This creates an environment where water users are not paying the full cost of water provision: they don't need to because they can qualify for grants. This isn't always the case in big cities (with huge population bases) but in smaller municipalities this is endemic.

Given the comments on the non-functioning and subsidized water market, no one has commented on the failure of a urine market to develop.

Natural fertilizer.

Markets in everything.

"Water is not an endangered species. With local exceptions, water is a renewable resource and in plentiful supply. At the average U.S. price, you can buy 40,000 gallons of water for about $80."

Wow, that is just shockingly ignorant of conditions that are very relevant to a very, very large percentage of the world's population and geography. Others have offered more specific criticisms, so I'll just say...wow.

I found _Every Drop For Sale_ to be a good introduction to the topic. I've heard good things about _Cadillac Desert_ and _Water Wars_, but have not read them.

"At the average U.S. price, you can buy 40,000 gallons of water for about $80."

Alex, I expected much better of you. The cost of water is a very small portion of most water and waste water bills.

For the month of May is used $4.79 of water. However, my total water and waste water bill was $74.81. This included a meter fixed charge of $16.81. a summer levy of $0.59, a water main replacement levy of $9.73, a waste water fixed component of $14.16 and a waste water consumption component of $28.70.

You don't pay for water - it has always been free. You pay for the treatment and delivery of water and for the removal and treatment of waste water.

So go ahead, and turn on your tap and let 40,000 gallons of water run through it. I guarantee your "average" bill will not be $80.

Conservation is not a bad idea.

The innovations that are being made in this area of technology are most often prompted by a very, very simple principle. Fresh, drinkable water is rare.

Most of the world uses fresh water in plumbing. Toilets and urinals mix waste with fresh water to remove it from living spaces and that process requires larges amounts of resources to treat and filter in order for that water to re-enter the environment. The same problem is magnified in the agricultural and industrial uses of water.

My predictions: a. The technologies around the conservation of water will become larger engines for growth in the next ten years than they have in the last 100. b. Land values in the Great Lakes region will continue to climb and those states will be more reluctant to pipe water out to other states. c. A well known Hollywood marriage will break up in the next year.

Can we please not have 'urine' and 'trifle' in the same sentence?

FYI, the big subsidies are for farmers especially in CA who pay much less than the residential price I cited. That is a problem for another day.

Ha.. Something about the waterless urinal that stinks more too.. Pay for the water..

>Water is not an endangered species.

Fresh water most certainly is.

A waterless urinal? Ah, you mean a compost heap.

I guess what I feel is do we need a bowl full of water to flush urine down? That seems pretty wasteful. If economics is about making things more efficient (aka maximizing productivity while minimizing waste) then the true argument would be whats the most efficient toilet. For instance if I use a 1 gallon of water to flush 1/10gal of pee, when all I really need is 1/10gal of water (or no water) wouldnt the second solutions be better for everyone. Particularly if the costs of toilets are comparable. True enough that 1gal is renewable, but only after some energy intensive filtering. I mean once you pee into a 1gal bucket its tainted, not many people I know would drink until after its been treated.

One distinction to note: agricultural water is different from drinking water.

Drinking water is stored in special reservoirs and is treated with fluoride etc. while agricultural water is just pumped where it's needed. These urinals may not have an effect on the overall water use for a county because farms use so much, but they do reduce stress on municipal drinking water infrastructure.
And yes, this applies mostly to the south and southwest, not the northeast.

And yes, Alex's blunt willful ignorance is annoying, but probably intended that way

"One thing that does annoy me is the claim that these urinals "save" 40,000 thousand gallons of water a year. Water is not an endangered species. With local exceptions, water is a renewable resource and in plentiful supply. At the average U.S. price, you can buy 40,000 gallons of water for about $80."

It's often amazing what can be done if waste streams aren't diluted or combined with other waste streams.

For example, it may be commercially viable to make pure urine into a phosphorus-containing fertilizer:

Converting urine to fertilizer

This is more difficult if the urine is diluted with water.

Water, even where plentiful, is easily ruined or squandered by humans. In many places, it isn't plentiful, or easy to come by, and can't be purchased for the price you cite. On Cape Cod, to pick one example near to that urinal, the town of Provincetown draws water from the town of Truro's aquifer in order to meet summer demand. No one knows the rate at which the aquifer renews, but nearly everyone agrees that drawing it dry would be bad for both towns and would create inconveniences and costs that are not now borne. Why, then, dismiss the goal of saving water so cavalierly? If septic systems and treatment plants don't need a gallon of water with every pee, why *not* save that water?

Were you being deliberately obstinate? Or obtuse?

Waterless Urinals can actually cause significant pipe damage.


Somehow the fact that this post sides with the Plumbers Union, makes me wonder what will be covered in following posts? Increase in the minimum wages create jobs? Higher marginal tax rates improve standard of living? Higher Government regulations improve business innovation?

The thing that bothers me is that in many policy discussions people (1) confuse environmental effectiveness with the one-dimensional idea of how much water is used, (2) think that any improvement over current technology is worth adopting.

The problem with (1) is that people are being naive. The waterless toilets are a product, just like any other product, and you are a fool to think he's introducing them out of benevolence; falcon wants to make money. The market should decide whether water or waterless toilets win, not the plumbers, but you are falling for a marketing ploy by simply jumping on board because they save water. They produce cartridges and other byproducts that could be poor for the environment, and that might be a serious problem in many contexts, like residential use. There are only two scientists on board with these, and both are cheerleaders for their respective side --- one works for the waterless toilets, one works for the plumbers. The efficacy of this invention is not obvious.

The problem with (2) means you often endorse ideas that backfire, like the expensive process of making corn into gas (raising the price of corn --- great for farmers), or solar panels for your roof that take 150 years to break even, Costner's oil vacuum, etc. Being a cheerleader just because the idea seems to address a problem that your ideology cares about can be irresponsible when you divert resources away from real plans to poor ones. That is an important efficiency aspect that cheerleaders often seem to overlook; e.g., "This reading program that costs $10K a year helped one child, that justifies it!"

The map at

(*) Dutch flood land to repel French (1672)
(*) Hammurabi's Code includes laws on water (1790 BC)
(*) Australian hacker causes sewage spills (2000)

These are somewhat questionable as contemporary conflicts over water...

berger - People are focusing on water because that was the argument Alex himself used against it. There are also a class of people who will immediately go hunting for a reason to reject a technology because environmentalists advocate it. LED stoplights are an excellent example.

All I can say is that very few people here can read very well.

Someone mentioned that there was no market for urine. Bull crap. In China, it's called 'night soil', and sold on the black market. Farmers treasure it as a fertilizer and soil amendment, for good reason.

Unfortunately, in China they don't compost it first which leads to smells and disease. When composted, problem solved, and you now have a safe and valuable soil amendment ready to be applied to the land as nature intended - not high-nutrient effluent expelled into our rivers and washed to the ocean... yet more sludge to haul off to the landfill for the benefit of no one.

For an example of a commercial venture here in the US, there's Milorganite, which is sewage sludge cooked at high temps, sold in bags at my local Walmart as fertilizer. They've been doing that for 75 years or more.

Please read _Humanure Handbook_ or otherwise educate yourself on where drinking water comes from and where it goes you've polluted it before tossing aside the idea of a waterless toilet. There are lower-tech solutions, but a shiny porcelain waterless urinal is a step in the right direction at least.

Retro style, reminiscent more fun! People who are curious, please come with me, I will give you different feelings!

Alex is absolutely right. Water is extraordinarily abundant, with some local exceptions. Agriculture in the US uses about 80% of water supplies, while residential uses about 6%.

In California, alfalfa alone uses 20% of the state's water supply, while contributing 0.1% of the state's GDP. If there was a competitive market for water, the price of water would go up and these farmers would pick a less thirsty crop. But due to political involvement, agriculture is protected with artificially low water prices, and the irrigation water flows unimpeded during the droughts.

There is no water crisis, there are no exotic technologies required. It is a simple matter of the allocation of an abundant, but not unlimited resource. And I'm surprised that most readers of this site don't feel that competitive markets are the best way to allocate resource.

Argh. The people who are talking about California water law (like BruceT and Alex) are both ignorant and wrong. Farmers get cheap water because (a) they OWN THE RIGHTS TO IT, (b) they are willing to take the first cut when there's a shortfall, (b) it's delivered untreated, (c) it's removed by gravity and (d) it's largely delivered by gravity. Compare the location of Imperial County, where much of the alfalfa is grown (essentially downhill from the Colorado River), to San Diego. Note the intervening mountain ranges.

Oh, and did I mention that the farmers in many instances OWN senior water rights to cities? Geez, you'd think a bunch of libertarians would want to protect the property rights of individuals.

Water is not an endangered species. With local exceptions, water is a renewable resource and in plentiful supply.

As are the Federal Treasury sales to fund the building of waste treatment plants to remove the nitrates from urine diluted in waste water.

The nitrogen compounds in urine is readily broken down by biofilms in water water treatment plants that add that waste processing stage, or in the leach field of a septic system if the water flow rate isn't too high. Clean water is waste to biofilms. The greater the water flow, the larger the leech field needs to be, and the waste flowing into groundwater too fast will pollute it.

Reducing the waste water flow reduces the cost of waste water infrastructure.

But then again, Federal debt is plentiful and it recycles through the economy, so who cares how much waste water is produced. In fact, increasing the amount of waste water will create jobs.

No flush urinals are a job killer! That is the real reason Alex is opposed to them!

"Can we please not have 'urine' and 'trifle' in the same sentence?"

How about 'urine' and 'truffle'?

I did a study for Circle of Blue on water rates in 30 major US cities. The results might surprise. Most cities charge for water using increasing block rates so that the marginal cost increases with consumption. Your first 5,000 gallons might be charged at $2 per 1,000, but your next 5,000 at $4 per 1,000 and the next 5,000 at $8 per 1,000.

Waste water treatment is even more expensive. The results of that survey will be out shortly.

"You haters are gonna make Megan cry. These things work just fine."

I'm sure that to a woman, who will never have to use one, and will never have to walk into a bathroom equipped with one and face a wall of air thick with the eye-watering stench of dried up urine, they do work fine.

"Read 'Dune' by Frank Herbert. Begin to understand the consequences of the lack of drinkable water."

Of course, while he's reading science fiction, he could also read about recent reductions in the cost to desalinate water:

Water costs in California

"We have waterless urinals pretty much everywhere here in California, they work fine."

They don't work fine. They are disgusting.

If you're part of the 80%+ of the country that lives east of the 100th meridian or west of the Cascades, water is not a scarce resource for you at all - plumbing is, and plumbing is what your water bill pays for primarily.

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