Stinky Situations--The Corrosive Case Of Waterless Urinals

I have previously posted about the hazards of ossified building codes when confronted with new green technologies.  Waterless urinals appear to showcase this issue dramatically.  Last week, Chicago's city government announced that it was ripping out the waterless urinals installed in City Hall.

The problem is that Chicago's building code requires commercial buildings to use copper pipes in indoor plumbing. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifically states that drainpipes for waterless urinals "cannot be made of copper pipe, which corrodes."

This has led to a stinky situation--"with the corrosion causing urine to build up in the wall behind the men's room."

Building codes are not the only issue which has plagued waterless urinal installation.  According to the Philadelphia Business Journal, in Philadelphia's Comcast Center,

Philadelphia's Plumbers Union Local 690 did not want to install the waterless urinals because it would have required the laborers to do less work, according to published reports. As part of the compromise, the two sides have proposed that Liberty and city officials monitor performance of the urinals.

The compromise that was reached was that the Union installed piping in the walls that would allow for conversion to flush urinals if there are problems with the waterless ones.

When new technology meets old infrastructure--be it copper piping or entrenched union interests--the results can be...stinky.  In addition to the stench, who pays for removing the urinals and converting to ordinary fixtures? What happens if removing the waterless fixtures makes a building lose its LEED status?  Who is at fault for causing the waterless fixtures to fail? The installers? The architect? The owner/user? 

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Comments (11) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Lloyd Alter - February 17, 2010 12:09 PM

The plumbers in Philadelphia turned out to be right, yet it caused the biggest round of union-bashing in years. But in answer to your last question, who is at fault? Pogo had the answer: We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

We have used toilets and the sewer system to get rid of everything, a universal dumpster to wash away all our wastes, shifting our problems to our rivers and lakes. We just don't think about the implications of what we put in it because it goes....away. The waterless urinal is designed for urine, period, and would probably work just fine if that is what went into it.

I think that everyone should have to live with a composting toilet for a month, dealing with their own waste, being personally responsible for what goes in and what comes out. They would look at their toilet and urinal very differently.

Nicholas Klank - February 17, 2010 12:28 PM

There was a post on's blog by Alex Wilson earlier this year about waterless urinals where he mentions that uric acid salts can form in the pipes. But, if the owner takes the time to flush a larger amount of water down the drain from time to time to wash away the salts, this problem can be avoided. This is another one of those situations where, if properly maintained, the system should work very well. It's unfortunately not always clear about how important this maintenance is.

Ivan - February 17, 2010 1:59 PM

I'm not sure how they do things in Philadelphia or how their building codes are written but here in NM and TX all wastewater/ fluids travel through pvc, its just cheaper down the lines and if they use them in sez pools they must be more corrosive resistant than copper.

Timothy R. Hughes - February 17, 2010 4:10 PM

Second what Lloyd said.

Great story Shari, very interesting.

Dianne Saxe - February 18, 2010 9:18 PM

Thank you, Shari. Great post.
Ontario has just adopted a regulation under the Green Energy Act to keep this sort of obstacle from blocking rooftop solar and geothermal renewable energy projects. But we haven't done anything to solve the equivalent problems with water. More at
Best wishes

Rich Cartlidge - February 19, 2010 11:30 AM

Great article. I find the problems waterless urinals pose very interesting. My building recently installed them and was having a problem because the cleaning crew was using a cleanser which was clogging the pipes. They switched to a new product and the problem disappeared.

Dave Holst - February 22, 2010 8:02 AM

Waterless urinal manufacturers don't want to tell us to only use PVC waste piping for fear that many area codes do not permit PVC piping in buildings (ie Philadelphia). The other problem with waterless urinals is that the method for paying for waste treatment is through the water meter (water used equals waste treated). Since waterless urinals don't use water, essentially they provide free waste treatment. Waste treatment providers should be charging monthly fees for using waterless urinals in commercial buildings or where ever used.

Robert J. Bellizzi, P.E. - February 27, 2010 3:27 AM

We recently dodged this bullet at the Honolulu PJKK Federal Building and Courthouse. Prior to installation of 56 waterless urinals proposed by a mainland ESCO, one was installed as a mock-up. The stink was overpowering which caused me to investigate further. The manufacturer's installation video stated that the piping had to be ABS or PVC, sloped at minimum 1/4" per foot on the lateral and have a water fixture upstream. Our facility struck out 3 out of three. Our pipe is cast iron with rubber gaskets, zero slope and the urinal is the last fixture on the lateral. I still had trouble killing the project, but finally prevailed. We installed low flow urinals instead, with excellent results.

Regan Pyke - March 26, 2010 8:27 PM

One of my customers in California was having issues with scale (uric salt) build up and the corresponding odor from the waterless urinals they had. They followed the manufacturers instructions and yet they still had issues. Waterless urinals are great, but, they don't address the scale issue, which leads to an odor issue and clogged pipes. My company represents a European bacteria based product, yes, environmentally friendly that was designed to break down the scale buildup in pipes from urine and water. The customer no longer has scale, odor issues. Yes, this is an additional cost, but it's actually reduced the cost taking into account annual maintenance and cartridges replacements. They have found that the burn through rate with cartridges is reduced, and most important of all, they were able to leave all of the waterless urinals installed. If you've taken the time, money and effort to install waterless urinals, seems like a shame to rip them out and send them to a local landfill...Good luck everyone, saving water while having an enjoyable waterless experience is possible...

David Warren - April 2, 2010 8:06 AM

I installed three of the Sloan waterless urinals as a test a little over a year ago. In my opinion the test has failed and this week replaced one of them with a flush urinal, due to the over-powering smell and the fact that I had to have the drain augured twice in 13 months. In addition to this new plumbing expense, the cost of the cartridge exceeds the cost of the water and sewer bills. I pay 0.2 cents per flush for water that gets treated and reused and 0.6 cents per use for a plastic cartridge that ends up in the landfill, does that sound green? I have been searching around for stories of people who have had the same problem, with some luck. After reading many articles and blogs, I will say..... Be aware of these blogs, because at least four of the people who have posted to this blog are getting paid by urinal manufactures to tell you how great these things are. In a perfect world these my building they don't.

Ashton Kleinn - September 28, 2010 11:35 AM

Nicholas seems to be making the point that jumps out to me. Why not modify the technology to maintain water in the system but just drastically reduce the amount used? The same emphasis should be placed on modifying women's restrooms. Finally, I would love to see someone develop a system to direct gray water from the sinks to the toilets/urinals. Perhaps we should look for ways to use what we already have better instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

However, I think the City of Philly has to be commended for the initiatives it's taking as it is. I've been blown away by the interest level and the visible measures taken! You may take recycle bins on every corner or luxury condos going through the trouble to get their historically accurate windows LEED certification compatible, but in L.A., even simple things like that are far-fetched suggestions!

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