For Your Convenience
Prefabricated Restroom Structures Provide Ease, Comfort & Durability
By Joseph Bush
In 1992, the U.S. Forest Service turned to a Spokane, Wash.-headquartered manufacturer of concrete restroom buildings, asking it to "manufacture a vaulted restroom building that didn't smell, could be placed in a remote area and stand up to extreme weather, forest fires and vandalism with a minimal amount of maintenance," according to Northeast Sales Manager Gregg Zentarsky.
Some 27 years later, Zentarsky's company made its 6,723rd building of the type it first delivered per that request—a single, 1,000-gallon waste vault. It now has a multitude of styles and sizes, both wet and dry.
"The benefits to using a premanufactured restroom for any new or existing restroom project are many," said Zentarsky. "Most importantly, we keep the costs down, due to lower construction costs, reduced ongoing maintenance and a significant increase in the longevity of their restroom."
It's not too hard to sell the idea of prefabricated restrooms over cheaper alternatives to recreation and park facilities, such as porta-potties and pit toilets.
Just ask Kyle Earylwine, co-owner of a Washington-based manufacturer of prefabricated restrooms.
Why would a park district or forest preserve district or golf course spend tens of thousands of dollars on bathrooms that more closely resemble ones at home or in businesses?
"What's the advantage of not having to hold your child over a vault toilet riser hoping they don't fall into an eight-foot-deep vault of sewage?" Earlywine said. "The advantage is totally obvious once you get the picture of the alternative. It's a giant amount of sewage, and if the air is not properly moving, you're able to smell it. I don't like that, I don't know anybody who does. And there's also seeing it."
Earlywine's company makes prefab restrooms that allow for flushing toilets and running water without being hooked up to a municipal water source, and the company guarantees an odor-free experience. For remote areas or in situations where the cost of utility hookup exceeds the cost of the units, users can enjoy the same experience they have at home.
"If someone calls me and says it's going to cost $10,000 to connect to sewer and water, I would tell them connect to sewer and water," Earlywine said. "That's a no-brainer."
Earlywine's company also makes restrooms that work with municipal connections, but its niche is the non-utility version that offers flushing toilets and running water sinks. One tank, in a mechanical room, holds potable water, brought to the tank in a number of ways, and that water supplies the sinks for hand washing. The drainage from the sinks goes to a partitioned underground vault that provides the flushing water. The other side of the underground vault holds waste.
"A lot of us like to wash our hands," Earlywine said. "We don't do it to be good; we do it because we like to. Some people would rather use hand sanitizer, but for most of us, in order to have a full comfortable familiar restroom experience, we like to end it with a hand-washing in order to clean our hands off and feel clean and also be hygienic."
Earlywine said clients can choose to augment their water supply with the rainwater capture feature that adds gutters that direct rain to the flush water vault. He said most clients have access to water to fill the tank, but choosing the rainwater capture option makes an environmentally friendly statement.
The agility of a non-utility restroom is ideal for situations like the U.S. National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
"We didn't know this until we started excavating, but it used to be a landfill," Earlywine said. "You can't put a septic system on top of an old landfill or excavate for a sewer pipe, so putting in our restroom in a very different kind of environment like that was a perfect fit for them. It was either going to be porta potties or our restroom, and they were getting too much use (for porta potties) to keep up, and it would get disgusting."
The City of Wildwood, Mo., also had a situation perfect for the versatility offered by a utility-free restroom: Users of a popular trailhead did not want portable restrooms, but because the area is in a floodplain, regulations on water for new buildings were restrictive. The Wildwood unit has separate male and female sides, and the male side has a non-flush urinal with a freshener insert in the drain.
The restroom was selected for its self-contained nature, according to Superintendent of Parks and Recreation Gary Crews. "For the most part, once it was installed, all that is needed is routine maintenance and cleaning."
Crews said he learned the hard way that the flush water levels had to be monitored but once that was understood, the only issues have been maintenance and cleaning. Crews said the unit is pumped out once a month, regardless of its levels, so cleaning is the main regular duty. He said it gets inspected daily and sometimes twice a day.
"Clean restrooms are a must!" Crews said. "You will get few accolades for having wonderfully clean restrooms, but the minute they become unclean, or stinky, you will immediately garner complaints! This particular restroom gets cleaned on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday."
Planning and installation were pretty straightforward, said Crews. The restroom was designed over several conversations in the planning stage. Excavation made room for the vaults, the floor was placed over the vaults, and the pre-fab building was placed over the vaults. Plumbers installed all plumbing and electricians did the wiring. Carpenters completed the exterior of the building. Concrete was poured for sidewalks and a large patio area in front of the restroom.
Crews said the city installed battery-operated locks set on timers to open and close the restrooms for the day. Last summer, three years after installation, each restroom got hand dryers. Crews had some tips for those considering a more robust restroom option:
>> "Really think things through! Try to imagine every problem you think you might encounter and see if the company you choose can address it."
>> Use materials that stand up to vandals and require as little maintenance as possible.
>> Consider very large toilet tissue holders: "Two rolls of paper will not cut it."
>> Consider a large utility room
>> Make sure you have a locking system that allows you entrance even if the restroom is locked from the inside.
Prefab restrooms can be customized inside and out from size to unisex or separate gender to exterior colors or materials to combination buildings with other functions in addition to restrooms, like concessions or storage.
Greg Walenter, project manager in Planning and Land Preservation for the Lake County (Ill.) Forest Preserves, said the 19 restrooms that his organization uses are even customized by site. All the units for Lake County look the same on the outside—they arrive with unfinished cedar siding for on-site painting to match the other buildings and have a strip of boulder facing near the bottom.
But for a new dog park that will open in the coming year, the boulder facing will have a silicon coating to ease the cleaning of dog waste. The Michigan-based restroom manufacturer that supplies the facilities makes restrooms for both water and no-water situations, and its specialty is a patented dry solar or AC powered system that evaporates waste, reducing the frequency of pumping and eliminating odors.
Walenter said the units solve two problems with the old pit style restrooms they replace. "(There) was not a lot of privacy, not a lockable door, a holding tank, usually two stalls, a ladies' side and a men's side," Walenter said. "Over the years those tanks start to lose their integrity and leak and fill with water. And they're generally stinky. It's a wet system, so there was always fluid down in there so you got flies coming and going. They weren't generally attractive to the public. And say the picnic shelter happened to be downwind from them on a warm summer day—it wasn't real pleasant."
Walenter said the size of the units is based on the usage of the area and can typically be tied to the number of parking spaces in the area's lot. A 20-car lot for a trailhead or entrance to a small preserve will get a unisex unit with a urinal and a toilet, while larger lots in more popular areas get restrooms with men's and women's sides and more toilets and urinals. The highest-use areas get utility hookups and running water.
"There's different levels of development," Walenter said. "This evaporator toilet fits the low- to moderate-use preserve versus the high-intensity ones with a lot of high-end recreation opportunities and high usage rates."
He said the evaporation system means pumping must take place monthly, at most, and that's only for the units with multiple commodes and urinals. Another improvement from the old restrooms is privacy. Saloon-style doors and a large space from the ground to the bottom of the exterior walls left users of the former units more exposed.
"Even staff didn't like going in there," said Walenter.
Installation of the two-piece unit, from excavation to paving around the exterior to connect to parking lots, takes a couple of workdays, he said. The bottom, with the evaporator system tubing encased in concrete, is placed then connected to the floor and building piece. Because there is no running water, the only accessories necessary inside are toilet paper rolls and hand sanitizers.
"These are what we're doing going forward, for all developments without running water," said Walenter.
Jeremy Smith, products manager for a Virginia-based company that licenses precast concrete products, said parks has been the fastest-growing market segment in recent years. It licenses its designs to precast concrete manufacturers, who sell, make and install the buildings. The company also provides marketing help and sales leads.
"Our standard restroom is four walls, a roof and a floor," Smith said. "We'll erect that here at the plant, plumb it and go out and set it on a prepared pad and hook up to the utilities and it's ready to go."
When not hooked up to utilities, the restrooms are like concrete porta-potties, but fixed in place, with a vault that gets pumped. The main advantage is its sturdiness, said Smith.
"Vandal-resistant, bulletproof," he said. "They're used for high-value storage and military bases, too. If you're in a park setting, it's anything from a tree branch falling, where it would crush a normal roof, it would bounce off or break when it hits a concrete roof. It's essentially a set 'em and forget 'em, which when you have a lot of different parks that are remote and spread out you don't have nearly the amount of maintenance and upkeep.
"Day to day, month to month, year to year, it's really just the cleaning."
The doors are steel, and the toilets are porcelain or stainless steel, said Smith. The steel products are prison grade.
"They're not as comfortable or nice-looking as porcelain, so some places still opt for (porcelain)—especially if they don't have to worry about folks taking hammers to them," he said.
The dry restrooms have hand sanitizer or nothing, while those with water have flush toilets and soap dispensers. Lights and fans can be included as well, Smith said. Windows are Lexan with a pebble finish, to let in light without clarity. The vents are slanted to also not provide a view; one in the door and one in a wall for air crossflow.
Smith said potential customers need to be prepared when they pick up the phone. "Have an idea in their head and then we point them to different options," he said. "Some have drawn up plans and we say we have something similar because it's cheaper to use an existing design. Have an idea of how many people will use it and based on that we can determine how big it needs to be."
Earlywine said his company and its competitors can make their buildings as large as a customer wants, with some caveats.
"You can make the restroom as large as you want, but at some point if you're going to make the restroom really big, like the size of an airport restroom, you'd need to design it with modular in mind because if you didn't you could really blow up the budget or it would take too much in the way of resources and you would get lower-quality results," he said.
Earlywine said his pumping cost rule of thumb is 20 cents per use. Pumping frequency is based on usage but also where the restroom is and who's using it, he said. For example, at a golf course, the clientele is mostly men.
"They're mostly using the waterless urinal, producing less effluent, so the pumping charge and the water use cost is going to be a lot less than one next to a playground," he said.
Prefab manufacturers and dealers all have the goal of making ownership as worry-free as possible. The install is quick, the structure is durable and offers privacy, maintenance is designed to be limited, and the environment as odor-free as possible. Earlywine said yes, cleaning is the most labor-intensive part of featuring a prefabricated restroom in a recreational area, but again, consider the alternative.
"With a porta-potty or a compost toilet or a vault toilet where there's not nearly as much to clean, it's hard to quantify the benefit you get from a restroom that you have to clean," he said. "I tell folks, 'It's not that you have to clean your restroom, it's that you get to clean your restroom.'" RM
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