Feature Article - September 2011
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Last Things First

Trends in Restroom Structures

By Rick Dandes

Going Green

Flush toilets have been the norm in public restrooms for years. And yet in public park areas without water or sewer utilities, they are not feasible.

A functioning restroom with flush toilets requires a drain field, septic tank and water system. This can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many state parks, golf courses, beaches or other recreation areas these days simply can't afford that, and have had to resort to porta-potties or vault latrines.

Along came the inventors of totally self-contained and solar-powered restrooms that can operate without any utility connections.

Think of the cost savings on this kid of unit. How does it work? In many ways it is similar to restrooms on trains, RVs or airplanes. They have their own plumbing, tanks and pumps. The big difference is that these restrooms recycle hand-washing water, collect rainwater and use low-flush toilets, which greatly reduce the restroom's dependence on potable water (i.e., tap water). What's more, the average restroom "visit," which includes the toilet/urinal and sink, only produces approximately a quart of effluent. The effluent is later pumped and treated at a facility where it can then be safely reintroduced to the environment.

Even the installation is low impact. All that is needed is a shallow hole big enough to fit the base of the restroom, which contains the water and sewage tanks. After water is added to the tank the restroom is ready for eager visitors.

The inventors of this solution call it a hybrid that can significantly improve people's outdoor experiences in ways that protect and enhance the environment without the exorbitant cost of installing utilities.

All of this is part of the go-green movement, so prevalent in many parts of the country.

"Water conservation is an important national issue," explained Fee, of Carducci Landscape Architects. "Building codes require low-flow toilets. We have included signs at the lavatories to inform people where the water came from and where the wastewater goes to."

Fee's firm's restrooms use the wastewater from the lavatories and drinking fountains to water trees. Gray water can also be used to flush toilets, though it may stain the toilet.

The rainwater from the roof can be used in a rain garden.

A "green" roof can add to the lifespan of the roof and the R-value of the roof insulation so the interior will not be uncomfortably hot in the summer.

Governing bodies, such as city councils, often support meeting the criteria for LEED certification (such as using local materials, conserving energy and water, and reducing waste), which can support the goals to make the building sustainable.

Green restrooms are billed as being clean and odor-free, and an improvement over portable potties or outhouses found in parks without easy access to water and sewer lines.

Meanwhile, green restrooms have been installed in places ranging from California's Mount Shasta to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the Grand Canyon. New York's Bronx Zoo has "Eco-Restrooms" with toilet fixtures that can accommodate a half-million visitors a year. The toilets use three ounces of water per flush, but rely on composting rather than sewage disposal.