Feature Article - November 2007
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Dirty Business

What Your Restrooms Say About Your Park

By Dana Carman

In the Backcountry

Building onsite can be a problem if the desired location is very remote. In these cases, some opt for prefabricated buildings because the necessary construction vehicles can't or shouldn't access the location. Often waterless restrooms are utilized in these cases also because access to the sewer and water lines is unavailable. However, onsite building in remote locales can be done, albeit delicately. Kevin Mart, president of a prefabricated and onsite-constructed restrooms company, has placed prefabricated buildings in the middle of nowhere, literally.

For a project in Roaring Springs, a seven-mile hike in from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the materials were flown in by helicopter and excavation and building took place on site, as this facility was utilizing a composting toilet system.

For other similar projects, materials were also hiked in on the backs of people and animals. In one case in Glacier National Park, the caravan met a grizzly on the trail, and despite the scare only lost one window as a result.

"You never know what you're going to run across," Mart said.

Green the Way

These days, you can't talk about anything without talking about being green. And what's more green than open park space? That was one reason that the Lost Dog Wash facility was designed with sustainability in mind.

According to architect Phil Weddle, from an energy standpoint, "the project is off the grid electrically" by being completely solar-powered. The facility conserves water in two ways. One is by utilizing a greywater system that harvests reusable water for irrigation. Lost Dog Wash also features a composting toilet system.

Before you hold your nose, listen to this: Miller said she gets a lot of interest from people who want to actually go down and visit the composting system.

"People are very accepting that it is so environmentally sound," she explained. "It's a neat opportunity to talk about the environmental consciousness of Scottsdale's preserves. People ask for a tour to see the composting unit and how it works."

How it works is pretty simple. Unlike a vault toilet system, which is waterless but has the waste filter into a vault that needs to be pumped every so often, a composting toilet system breaks down the waste and paper the same way a yard composter works, with aerobic bacteria and fungi doing all the work. A ventilation system continuously works to pull air down and out so there's no odor. While it's essentially a self-contained process, composting toilet systems are not maintenance-free, so it's important to consider maintenance when implementing any toilet system.

From the user perspective, a composting toilet system looks just like any other flush toilet except there's foam in the base instead of water, which is what carries the waste to the composting system. In order to utilize a composting system, space beneath the toilet fixtures is required.

Vault systems also require space underground for the vault, which can store roughly 1,000 gallons of waste or 15,000 uses. Vault toilets are generally thought of as pretty aromatic, though many utilize a similar ventilation system that pulls the air down the toilet for natural ventilation.

As many parks are interested in preserving green space and limiting the impact users have on the natural environment, restroom facilities have the ability to also contribute on several levels by utilizing solar energy, water savings through various methods, and lower-impact materials.