Friday, July 16, 2010

Things I Do Understand: Water-Free Urinals

I've spent a lot of time this All-Star Break trying to answer some of the mysteries that have been bugging me. Like how gas pumps work. Or why Channel 2's Jim Hill doesn't age. Or what marketing genius thought Sit and Sleep should move from the "you're killing me Larry" tactic to this annoying "dust mites in your mattress" routine that evokes painful thoughts of Alvin and the Chipmunk movies.

But I did make a breakthrough on one mystery: how the the waterless urinal works.

Long-time readers of SoSG know that we've been a little obsessed with waterless urinals ever since Dodger Stadium redid the field level in 2008. (I think we're the only Dodger blog to have posted videos of the secret urinal rooms.) (Probably for good reason.)

And then, I came across this Wired Magazine article which is honestly fascinating, not only because it describes how these waterless urinals actually work; it's an entertaining read which includes some interesting points:

  • The guy behind Falcon Waterfree Technologies (I believe Dodger Stadium uses Sloan waterfree urinals, but I assume theirs work the same way) is a former entertainment guy;
  • Plumbers unions, threatened by these inventions, lobbied hard against them using health, safety, and odor concerns;
  • The way these urinals make money is the whole Gilette razors-and-blades model, with cartridges that have to be replaced regularly for them to operate efficiently.

Here's an excerpt:

Falcon wasn’t the first to develop a waterless urinal. A company near San Diego had been struggling to sell them since 1991. But [Falcon head James] Krug made a conceptual breakthrough: The real profits wouldn’t come from the urinals themselves. They’d come from selling the replaceable cartridges that sat in each of the waterless receptacles.

In a traditional urinal, water pools in the drain after every flush, preventing sewer gases from escaping into living areas. [engineer Ditmar] Gorges’ invention employed a plastic cartridge filled with a liquid sealant. Urine could pass through, but sewer gases remained trapped beneath the sealant—no water needed. The $40 cartridge had to be replaced after 7,000 uses, turning a onetime urinal purchase into a perpetual income stream. Krug’s business model took a page out of the Gillette playbook: Keep the urinal cost low and lock customers in to buying the cartridges.

He quickly won converts. Cable tycoon Marc Nathanson made a substantial investment in early 2000, and in 2001 Falcon began to manufacture its urinal, dubbed the U1P. Soon Al Gore signed on as an adviser, and in 2006, Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, made a significant investment. Krug was sure the world was ready for a better bowl—there hadn’t been any major advances in urinal technology for decades—but there was something he wasn’t prepared for: the plumbers.

Mike Massey didn’t like Krug’s urinal. As head of PIPE, a plumbing union advocacy group in Southern California, Massey looks out for plumbers’ interests. And as far as he was concerned, the waterless urinal was a threat to public health. Diseases might fester because the urinals weren’t being washed down with every use. Sewer gasses might leak through the cartridge. “People take plumbing for granted,” Massey says. “But the reality is that plumbers protect the health of the nation. That’s how we think of our job.”

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.”

Krug scrambled to counter the plumbers’ public health claims. He hired Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona. Gerba studies “filth, pestilence, and disease,” with an emphasis on the bathroom, and says he has done more field studies on the toilet than anyone else in academia. From his point of view, there was a clear explanation for the plumbers’ resistance: It drained their wallets. “Plumbers don’t like the waterless urinal because it cuts down on their work tremendously,” he says. “There’s no more piping to install, and the urinals have no moving parts to repair.”

Look, it's not Stieg Larsson, but it's an entertaining read. Anyway, more things to think about, next time you relieve yourself in a secret urinal room at Dodger Stadium.

26 comments:

Dusty Baker said...

"Plumbers unions, threatened by these inventions, lobbied hard against them using health, safety, and odor concerns;"

What a load of shit! Plumbers unions keeping the waterless urinal down the same way the Stonecutters hold back the electric car.

Steve Sax said...

@DB: Actually, to be accurate, plumbers are still pretty supportive of loads of shit, which still require water-full toilets.

Steve Sax said...

And I'd also like to remind all you that everyone needs a day off...from a good union job.

Dusty Baker said...

At my local MEX cantina, they have a waterless urinal but also a toilet, and the toilet has two flushing mechanisms on the top part (the area that FB might call "top shelf"). One button is labeled "Small Flush" and the other is labeled "Big Flush." It was a long time, but I was finally there once when I needed to use the Big Flush button. I want one of these kinds of toilets at home. Of course, I also want a urinal at my house but can't get Mrs. Dusty to sign off on the paperwork.

Keven C said...

Still left unanswered: is the bee there for a purpose or strictly for entertainment?

Fred's Brim said...

the small/large flush terlets have been in use in Europe for quite some time (when they aren't just peeing into a hole in the ground) and it seems like a smart idea that, for some reason (water unions?), has only barely made it here. As an American, I have to say that I enjoy choice, but I will always choose to flush LARGE.
USA USA USA!!!

Fred's Brim said...

Also of note, I could use a sealant for my "sewer gases."
Goddamn meatball sub...

Neeebs said...

@DB 9.48

LMFAO

Not sure which is funnier, the "finally there once when I needed to use the Big Flush button" or trying to get a urinal installed only to be Kabashed by MsDB.

Funny stuff.

And BTW, we have one of those at the office. Could never figure it out until I read this. Thanks for the urinal education SAXY.

Jason said...

@Dusty, FB - We have the multi-flush toilets in our office. They aren't the two button variety, rather they have the standard flush lever with a nice plaque mounted on the wall saying: "Up for #1 (liquid waste), Down for #2 (Solid waste)." It's a kid-friendly company and all, but I still chuckle at the 2nd-grade-level references.

Dusty Baker said...

@FB

Finally, some jingoism I can actually get behind!

@Neeebs

The situation arose as I had both breakfast and lunch there while watching some World Cup games.

rbnlaw said...

My daughter's former HS employed waterless technology in the men's room, but forgot to sign up for the replacement cartridges. Big mistake, as the entire gym would then reek of "sewer gas" (which brings to mind a horrible movie I once saw featuring Jodie Foster, I think, where she and another young actress find themselves escaping a huge alligator in the New York sewers. Using torches to light the way, they both stop upon smelling said gas, face each other, and yell, "sewer gas!!" just before an explosion).

Personally, I'm a loge level trough guy, and I've taught my son to do the same.

Josh S. said...

I want to know who leaked this information.

Mr. LA Sports Fan said...

In England they call it the loo.

Todd said...

This is by far the most interesting thing I will learn all day. Thank you.

Dusty Baker said...

This is a beautiful thread. We even got a movie review from RB!

Hell, we may get more comments than in yesterday's GT if we keep it up.

All this talk makes me want to give KempKershaw a swirlie.

Mr. Customer said...

@KC

The bee is, in fact, placed as to provide minimum splashback if properly targeted.

Seriously.

Mr. Customer said...

And yeah, getting model codes changed is a bear. Even in clear-cut cases, building codes are only updated every 5 years or so, and a revolutionary change has to go through a full testing regimen.

Mr. Customer said...

@db

Big flush or little flush swirlie?

Dusty Baker said...

Big Flush Swirlie.

^This band is opening for the Flaming Menudos this weekend at the Wiltern.

Josh S. said...

What happens if you push both flush buttons? Total protonic reversal?

Dusty Baker said...

Whoa, Josh...man, that's really something to ponder. I've never thought of it before.

Next time I'm there, I'll give it a shot a report back here.

Oh my god, we should just start a an environmentally correct toilet blog and report this news on that blog.

Steve Sax said...

We have a photo of the reserved level trough running behind our banner; if you hit refresh, you'll see it eventually.

Neeebs said...

@Sax:

Never noticed that before.

Brilliant!

MR. F said...

@Sax. Mind = blown.

rbnlaw said...

I've seen the banner pic of the RL trough. Looks just like the ones on Loge, except the seats cost more there.

Steve Sax said...

The trough photo was Orel's idea. It always makes me laugh.