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The Phantom Flusher

In super-dry California, reporters for a local television station believed they had uncovered a real “exclusive” when walking through the city’s LAX International airport.  They found that some of the toilets and urinals in the restrooms were auto-flushing on their own.  Believing they were onto something—after all, a toilet that flushes on its own wastes at least 1.6 gallons of water per flush and for a urinal, at least one gallon—they brought in a restroom fixture expert to check out their findings.

According to the expert, what the reporters uncovered is actually quite common.  He explained that auto-flush toilets and urinals often flush on their own when no one is using the fixture or even around.  Shadows, light changes, or even someone walking by can trigger a phantom or unintended flush.  While it is not the ground-breaking story the reporters had hoped for, it is revealing nonetheless. 

Each year, millions of gallons of water are wasted as a result of phantom flushes.  And with Californians asked to scale back at least 25% of their water consumption, and many other states in the country also facing serious, if not critical, water shortages, this blatant unnecessary waste of water is something building owners and managers need to be aware of.

History

It appears the first patent for automatic flushing fixtures was filed in 1988. (U.S. Patent 4941215)  Often referred to as flushometer toilets and urinals, by the early 1990s they were installed in restrooms all over the U.S.  Why? By the early 1990s, people were becoming very concerned about “touching” anything in public restrooms, including door handles, flush valves, and especially flush handles.  This is also when facility managers in public buildings like airports, malls, office buildings, and other facilities started redesigning entrances to their restrooms, removing doors and installing maze-type walkways.

As a result of this heightened concern for hygiene and protecting human health, automatic flushing fixtures were the right restroom technology at the right time.

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes there are more than 27 million such toilets in the U.S.  An estimate of how many urinals have auto-flush systems was not found.  In addition, there is no exact estimate as to how many millions of gallons of water are wasted every day as a result of phantom flushes.  One water expert compared it to residential water sprinklers that not only irrigate someone’s front yard, but also sidewalks and streets, causing water to rush down into gutters.

And we should mention that not only can faulty auto-flush systems waste water, but they also may actually consume more water than manual flush restroom fixtures.  This was pointed out in a study prepared by Bill Gauley of Veritec Consulting Inc. and John Koeller of Koeller & Company, in a Tampa, Florida, office building over a 23-month period and reported in 2010.  After comparing water consumption of auto-flush systems and manual flush operated toilets and urinals, they concluded “there was a significant increase (emphasis is in the original) in water demands when manually-operated plumbing fixtures…were converted to sensor-operated models.  The total average daily demand of the men’s and ladies’ washrooms almost doubled from 654 to 1,243 gallons per day when all faucets, urinals, and toilets were converted to sensor-operated units.”

What Building Owners and Managers Should Do

Even if water consumption is not a concern in your state, building owners/managers should know that phantom flushes can increase water rates.  If these systems are installed in your facility, you should also know that the older the flushometer system, the more likely it will be a “phantom flusher.”

However, because even newer flushometer systems can have phantom flushes, owners/managers should do the following:

  • Make building users aware of the problem and ask them to report any restroom fixtures that appear to be flushing for no reason at all.
  • Ask building engineers and custodial workers to be aware of the problem and also report such findings.
  • In some cases, adjusting lighting in the restroom or the solenoid (sensor) can end this problem
  • Check any newly installed auto-flush toilets or urinals.  These can be improperly installed and the result is unintended flushes.
  • If the fixture is newly installed and phantom flushes are indicated, contact the installer or manufacturer immediately; these fixtures will have a warranty period of a few months to at least a year
  • Check water consumption rates over a three to five-year period.  If approximately the same number of people are using the facility, but water consumption has increased without explanation it could be the result of phantom flushes. Along with phantom flushes, other reasons for unusual increases in water consumption include leaking pipes; leakage in landscape irrigation systems; malfunctioning HVAC systems.  In such cases, an engineer may need to be called in to find the problem.

If phantom flushing toilets and urinals are found in your facility, building owners/managers have three options: fix them; replace them; or look for alternative restroom fixtures.   

While many faulty auto-flush systems can be repaired, the older the unit, the less likely this is possible because their parts and components are slowly being phased out.  This leaves replacing them or looking into alternatives as the remaining options. 

To eliminate the problem entirely, as it applies to urinals, a non-water using urinal may be a welcome alternative.  They have no flush valves, manual or automatic, and use no water.

As to toilets, newer flushometer systems are more dependable but also costly.  The best option might be to not replace faulty units on a case-by-case basis, but replace all older systems at one time.  The benefit here is that the manufacturer and installer may offer discounts which will help lower costs and many states now offer rebates on such purchases which can further lower costs.

Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co., reach him at Klaus@Waterless.com.

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