In the desert Southwest, authorities are always on the lookout for new ways to conserve water. That's led to low-flow showerheads and drip irrigation. The latest frontier in water conservation is now on display at the San Diego Zoo.
The zoo has installed about 50 waterless urinals in its men's rooms. Each one saves an estimated 40,000 gallons of water a year.
"We're a conservation organization. That's what we're about," says Bruce Thurston, the zoo's associate director for facilities. "So we're saving in a lot of different ways. We're not only saving the water. We're saving the maintenance labor. We're saving the cleaning labor."
The urinals are wiped down by cleaning crews each day. But there's no flushing. Waste flows down by gravity. A chemical cartridge at the base of the urinal keeps sewer gas from coming back up.
The manufacturer, Falcon Water Free, says there are about 25,000 of these no-flush urinals around the country, most in the Southwest. The San Diego County Water Authority would like to see more, so it's paying users $400 for each water-free urinal installed.
"The water here is so precious and so valuable that we're willing to provide those incentives rather than import water from hundreds of miles away," says water authority spokesman Bill Jacoby, who keeps a toilet-shaped bowl of jelly beans on his desk.
More than two dozen states now approve of waterless urinals. But the fixtures are not specifically authorized by the California plumbing code. When the San Diego County Water Authority thought about trying to change that, it drew sharp protest from the powerful plumbers' union.
The union warns that poor maintenance and periodic changing of the urinals' chemical cartridges could allow dangerous sewer gases to escape. Union officials also say that without regular flushing, hazardous bacteria could build up on the surface of the urinals.
"It's plain and simple," says David Otterstein, business representative for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 230. "You wash your hands when you're done using the restroom. Why would you not wash down the urinal?"
The manufacturer and some academic researchers counter that waterless urinals are actually more sanitary, because there's less water for bacteria to grow in, and because users don't have to touch a flushing handle that others have touched before them.
But the plumbers aren't giving in. They're using lawyers and a public relations firm to help make their case. The county water authority has backed off trying to change the state plumbing code, at least for now. But it continues to reward those who install the urinals where local governments approve. Otterstein, who's a fourth-generation plumber, insists the union is not merely concerned with protecting plumbing jobs.
"I can install a flushless urinal just the same as a flushing urinal. It's not a work issue. It's a public health issue," Otterstein says. "Is this the smartest thing we can think of to conserve water?"
The water authority notes that low-flow toilets met similar resistance when they were introduced, but they're now commonplace. The authority is also encouraging users to install so-called "dual flush" toilets, which use more water for solid waste, and less for liquid. Unlike water-less urinals, the water-saving toilets can also be used in the women's room.