The Right Rest Stop
Selecting Restroom Structures to Suit Your Site
By Dave Ramont
There are a few great equalizers in our society, and you could argue that restrooms are one of them. Everybody needs to use a public restroom on occasion, and when nature does call, we all hope to find someplace that's clean and safe. Parks departments big and small are well aware of this as they strive to use their budgets and resources wisely to provide a welcoming, friendly facility for their patrons.
One popular option is to purchase a precast concrete building, which is delivered ready to use. These could either be flush (wet) buildings or vault (dry) buildings. Flush facilities arrive pre-plumbed and hook into sewer and water services, while vault restrooms typically don't use water and utilize a pump-out vault that is buried beneath the building, so no utilities are necessary.
"Many parks are trying to modernize their facilities and meet current requirements in regards to accessibility and gender neutral facilities," said Gary Burger, national sales manager for a manufacturer of both flush and vault restroom structures. "Our buildings allow any size parks to meet these needs."
There are many configurations and floorplans of flush facilities available, from single-user restrooms with one toilet and sink to multi-user restrooms with six toilets and four sinks. Family-assist style facilities are becoming more prevalent as family members—often of different genders—choose to be in a facility together. And there are also combination shower-restroom building options, as well as concession-restroom buildings, which could include a six-foot roll-up concession door and a concession room with a three-compartment stainless steel sink. Additional chase and storage areas are optional.
Many parks are trying to modernize their facilities and meet current requirements in regards to accessibility and gender neutral facilities.
And then you have the vault buildings. The single vault option has one toilet riser, a waste clean-out hatch, and a concrete waste vault, while the double vault version is equipped with two of each of those features. Burger said that while they do install more flush buildings, vault buildings are still used extensively—wherever utilities are not available. "Both styles of buildings offer a wide range of options and meet all accessibility standards," he added. "Both styles are easy to keep clean and maintain." Solar light and fan kits are also available.
Jeremy Smith, building products manager for a Midland, Va.-based manufacturer of restroom structures and other buildings, said his company also provides more flush restrooms than vault facilities. "However," he said, "there are still many remote parks without water and sewer where a vault-style restroom works great, and we sell them regularly throughout the country."
Smith added that parks and municipalities are top customers when it comes to purchasing restroom buildings. "We bid jobs and sell directly to these customers, through contractors as part of larger projects, and we also provide structures through government purchasing programs," he said.
Concrete construction makes the buildings easy to maintain and able to withstand the rigors of vandalism. They are rated for seismic activity, wind load, snow load, fire and even bullets. Burger's company offers a marine package with extra corrosion resistance.
But it's also important to manufacturers to have their buildings look inviting, and to fit in with the natural surroundings or other nearby architecture. "The good thing about concrete is that it can be cast to look like anything. So, we can meet the individual needs of any designer while still providing a low-cost, easy-to-maintain structure," Burger said.
Indeed, many choices of colors, textures and finishes are available. Some of the wall texture options at Burger's company include barn wood, stucco, aggregate, split-face block, lap siding, board and bat, brick, fieldstone, and river rock. Roof textures include cedar shake, ribbed metal and tile. Standard fixtures are porcelain or plastic, though custom options are available.
A network of licensed precast producers working with Smith's company means that buildings are manufactured and serviced by local companies. Post-tensioned and pre-stressed roofs and floors create buildings with extra strength and weather-tightness. They offer a tornado alley upgrade with heavier connections and reinforcing, a flood plain option with sealed vault and riser features, and a unit designed for petrochemical blasts. Vault structures can feature ventilation technology, which utilizes sun and wind to vent the restroom's air, and opaque windows provide some daylight. Fixtures might be stainless steel or vitreous china.
Other basic options include a self-draining soap dish; stainless steel towel dispenser with locked hinged door; stainless steel toilet seat cover dispenser; single, double or triple-roll tissue dispensers with brass padlocks or key locks; grab bars; mirrors; soap and hand sanitizer dispensers; waste receptacles; and various entrance signs—some using braille.
Restroom manufacturers have certainly taken notice of the "green" trends when it comes to their structures. Smith pointed out that along with the known eco-friendly aspects of the concrete itself, they provide a pre-assembled structure that's pre-plumbed and outfitted at the factory, which greatly reduces construction time and disruption to the site. "The key focus of green construction is sustainability, which we achieve by reducing environmental impacts and lowering maintenance costs," Smith said.
Restroom manufacturers have certainly taken notice of the "green" trends when it comes to their structures.
Burger agrees that sustainability is an important industry trend, explaining how they started using LED lights and low-flow fixtures and valves years ago. "We added fly ash, a waste product of the energy industry, to our concrete mix to help reduce the overall waste stream. Our green buildings now provide LEED credits for designers to add to their sustainable LEED-certified projects."
Other restroom manufacturers are working to take sustainability features to the next level. Kyle Earlywine is the co-owner of a Vancouver, Wash.-based manufacturer of vault toilets that flush, which they believe is the best of both worlds. Vault toilets typically use a toilet seat mounted on a fiberglass riser located over a hole in the floor. In the hybrid flush-vault facility, the toilet riser is replaced with a flush toilet, and a water storage tank is installed in a mechanical room. If potable water is unavailable, flush water is processed through a high-efficiency filter and can come from harvested rainwater, irrigation or another non-potable water source.
"About a quarter of the time they don't have any water source, they'll just bring in a water truck of some kind or they'll have a hose close by that they can use. There's just a lot of different ways to provide water to the restroom," Earlywine said.
With this type of structure, customers don't have to connect to sewage, water or power systems, so there are no septic permits, service fees or monthly utility bills. The restrooms are engineered to reduce water consumption by up to 90 percent compared to conventional flush restrooms. The toilets use as little as one quart of water per flush, and the urinals are water-less. Water tank capacities vary from 2,500 to 5,000 uses, and vault capacities vary from 4,000 to more than 20,000 uses, allowing months of use without having to be pumped out. And the buildings are odor-free.
Hand-wash sinks with limited-flow faucets are typically installed in the hybrid structures as well, and the used sink water can be filtered and re-used for flushing. Earlywine believes that having a sink is a big part of having a positive restroom experience, especially if kids are in the equation. "Having a sink there is going to be big for parents and for people who enjoy washing their hands and feeling clean after their restroom visit." Earlywine also gets excited by the custom interiors they offer, saying that most parks managers they've dealt with don't experience vandalism problems, which allows them to go with nice interiors like full tile.
Traditional vault risers have large holes, and people tend to throw garbage and other items into them, making pumping difficult. But flush toilets can't pass anything much larger than 2 inches in diameter. Plus, the use of water for flushing means the sewage is only 10 percent solid, so the pumping of vaults is easier. Also, if electricity is desired, there are solar and battery power options.
When You Gotta Go...
When the city of Portland, Ore., was looking to address the problem of a homeless population having a serious lack of restroom facilities to use, City Commissioner Randy Leonard spearheaded the mission, with police and fire departments, parks personnel and maintenance and cleaning staff all having a say in what restroom would come to Portland. And in 2008, the first restroom was installed downtown, with several others popping up around the city since then.
"The city just approved a recent parks bond measure that would allow more restrooms to go in more parks. It's working out well—the city staff really does enjoy them," said Evan Madden, sales director for the city, which now markets its restroom solution to other municipalities and parks departments. The City of Portland owns the patent on the restroom, and maintains intellectual property rights.
The stainless steel flush toilet kiosks, which weigh about 6,000 pounds, fit in an average parking space and can be delivered on site as a complete enclosure, connecting to existing water and sewer lines. Toilets are low-flush, using minimal water. Solar-powered batteries power the lights, with an AC hard-wired system offered as an option, which is advised for installations in heavy shade. There is interior and exterior LED lighting with photo-eye and motion sensor. The entry, railings and fixtures are fully ADA-compliant.
Placing a hand-wash station on the outside of the unit eliminates the so-called "hotel effect." "When you put your toilet and sink together, people tend to spend more time than they need to, so it's just a way to get people in and out as fast as possible," Madden said. Electrical and plumbing controls, as well as a cleaning hose, hose reel and janitorial supplies, are kept in a rear plumbing closet for easy, on-site maintenance.
The unit features louvered panels at the top and bottom of the structure. One priority of the structure's design was making sure that occupants wouldn't loiter. Therefore, the lower louvers are angled to provide law enforcement the opportunity to observe the number of users inside the unit without compromising privacy. "It has kind of minimal privacy with the louvers, so really it's not a comfortable place to be," Madden said, adding that it still allows a user the privacy needed to go to the restroom. And while they don't install units they sell, a foundation layout is provided with footing design, dimensions and specifications for installation, as well as factory-provided installation hardware.
Many parks are trying to modernize their facilities and meet current requirements in regards to accessibility and gender neutral facilities.
Madden also tells us that they've recently joined forces with Earlywine's company. Now they can go off the grid by utilizing the solar power and having water and septic systems installed underneath the units. "I'm really excited that we can partner with them and make sure we can get the restrooms in other places that just don't have utilities."
One concern with putting restrooms where there are no utilities is keeping the units from freezing in the coldest climates. Each of Madden's facilities is equipped with standard freeze protection that insulates the plumbing and toilet components with a heated heat trace, protecting it to down around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. But Madden also pointed out that "It's not always best for cold-weather cities where they require so much extra heat in the toilet, so we have to heat the toilet to keep it from freezing, and the electricity is not always met with just the solar panels." But where electricity is available, they now offer a cold weather upgrade. "It's a heated toilet that we use hot water to pump around the interior of the toilet, and that allows the restroom to go down to around negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit."
Solar panels might be able to power the heat traces needed to keep plumbing from freezing at certain temperatures, and in many locations, the amount of energy needed is lower than one might expect due to geothermal gain from the ground beneath the building that is allowed to enter the building space. But Earlywine's company has come up with other strategies to keep their flush restrooms open in cold conditions. Propane heat can be added to the buildings, and Earlywine said some customers have taken advantage of this option. And at the very least, the flush toilets can be removed for the winter and replaced with vault toilet risers for waterless operation.
Standard flush restrooms also have to be concerned with keeping their buildings above freezing in winter months, and use of in-floor radiant fluid heating is one way to help reduce heating costs.
Keep It Clean
Of course, everybody hopes to find a clean restroom, and manufacturers try to keep maintenance as simple as can be. Smith said that the beauty of all-concrete construction is that the maintenance of the structure is greatly reduced compared to other building materials. "We design our buildings to be low maintenance and easy to keep clean. The interiors are painted with an epoxy paint which is very durable and easy to clean, and there's a radius where the walls meet the floor, which makes it easy to just hose out the interior." A two-inch reverse beveled recess connection at the wall-to-floor junction locks in the radius-shaped grout, creating an easy-to-clean joint that can't collect dirt or grime.
Burger explained that parks and facility managers are often working with reduced budgets and staffs, and need facilities that stay up and running with little time or money spent. "We use wall-mounted toilet fixtures, to make it easier to clean underneath. The plumbing valves are placed in the chase area away from the public to protect them from damage. Lights are mounted high and are durable lifetime-warrantied LED units."
Burger said they also utilize the angled concrete coving, eliminating dirt at the floor and wall joints. "Basically the staff just needs to hose out the building and replace the toilet paper." They also offer complete building refurbishment, including re-painting and hardware replacement.
Some of the features that make maintenance simpler are also good vandalism deterrents. Burger said that many municipalities had stopped putting in restrooms, and shut down the ones they had due to the excessive costs of maintaining their facilities. "So yes, vandalism and the cost of maintenance are very important issues to help reduce."
He said that anti-graffiti sealers on the interior and exterior protect the buildings from graffiti, making it easy to clean off. They also use steel doors and Lexan windows instead of glass.
Smith added that there are "vandal-proof" fixtures that are more difficult to damage as well, which might be made of stainless steel or have few exposed controls or mounts. Madden said they also powder coat their restrooms with an anti-graffiti clear coat.
Matt Selbie, president and founder of a company that handles restroom maintenance described as "simple restroom management via cell phones," cited a Harris Interactive study for Cintas Corporation that found that 94 percent of U.S. adults would avoid a business in the future if they encountered a dirty restroom. But besides boosting guest satisfaction and brand image, early intervention of maintenance issues can also reduce water usage and maintenance costs.
Here's how his company's service works: a restroom guest sees a sign in the restroom inviting feedback. They can send a text or scan a QR code describing a maintenance or cleanliness issue, even uploading a photo. An alert is sent to the correct staff highlighting the issue and location. The data is also received by Selbie's company. The guest receives a thank you. The issue is now registered in the system and appears on a dashboard, so staff can see the issue, who's working on it, how long it's taken to fix and whether it's been closed out or not. A reminder is sent to staff if a fix is tardy.
"The system also has an inspection module. In this case the staff can go to the restroom and text or scan to say all is OK. This means there is now a complete log of inspections and fixes," said Selbie, adding that they've been around for about a year and do have parks and municipalities as customers.
Set It Up
When it comes to installing restroom structures, oftentimes it can be done in less than a day. The precast concrete buildings require no footings or foundation, and can be installed on a level six-inch layer of crushed stone. Burger said they'll visit any site, free of charge, to make an assessment. "Even in the remotest sites, such as Death Valley National Park, if we can get equipment in, we'll get the building installed."
Smith agreed that installations can be tricky, sharing how they delivered a restroom to a very remote state park in North Carolina known for rock climbing. "Luckily, it was a single person restroom, but it was quite the job getting the excavator in there to dig the hole for the vault that goes under the restroom."
He added that installing a restroom in an urban park where there is little wiggle room can be just as challenging. "By performing a site survey prior to installation, we can anticipate any issues and prepare with the proper crane, rigging and personnel to mitigate those problems."
Looking forward, Burger believes there are many new trends in the industry, including buildings that are more sustainable, gender-neutral or have family-assist capabilities. "Buildings that can monitor usage and have controls to lock themselves at night and open in the morning are also in demand. But, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Parks departments are still looking for great designs that are easy to keep clean and maintain, because park users want buildings that are clean, and they feel safe using."
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