Buildings Buzz

Did You Vacuum the Toilet?

Californians must cut back on water consumption by 25% and in some areas that have been very heavy water users over the years, up to 35%.  No one knows exactly how the water crisis in California will unfold but there are two things that are very likely to come out of this crisis:

  • More resources will go into developing and constructing desalination plants. Israel is one of the driest countries in the world but last year it experienced one of its driest years on record…without a shrug.  Today, Israel gets the bulk of its water through desalination plants and not from rainwater or snow packs
  • Restroom fixtures, where the bulk of the water is used in a commercial facility, will be using less and less water in the future and in many cases, no water at all.

We can add a third benefit as well and that is the technologies and procedures California develops to become more water efficient will be adopted in many areas of the U.S. which are also facing water shortages to varying degrees. 

However, some of these new technologies are already here waiting to be implemented. But do they work?  Because most of the water used in a commercial office building is for flushing toilets and urinals, we will examine some new options and consider the associated pros and cons.


Toilets account for a significant portion of the total amount of water used in a commercial office building, even after federal regulations that require toilets to use 1.6 gallons of water per flush (gwf).  New types of toilets are on the horizon, such as vacuum toilets, similar to the ones on airplanes and marine transportation.  With these systems, waste is evacuated from the toilet bowl through a vacuum generating pump.  It is macerated (softened) so that it can be directly discharged into a sewer. These toilets, which are already in use in parts of Australia, are virtually waterless.

Urine separating toilets, which also use very little water, are actually quite common in parts of Scandinavia.  Also known as urine diverting toilets, these units collect urine at the front of the toilet and pipe it away, where it is often recycled and used for fertilizer and other purposes.  Solids fall into a container at the back of toilet. It is diverted, thus the name, into a compost bin or some similar collection point where it is collected and removed from the facility.

In Sweden, Germany, the U.K, Ireland, and Australia it is not uncommon to see a compost toilet in a commercial office building. Both solid and liquid waste are collected in composting toilets. There is no separation of urine and solids. Moisture and nitrogen from the urine sustain bacterial life which helps in the composting process.

Are They for You?

Of these three options, the one that looks most promising and should be considered is the vacuum system. There are code issues building owners/managers must look into, and they do have a tendency to clog; however, the other two options tend to require significant maintenance, which can be a burden for managers in large facilities.

While vacuum systems are still an evolving technology, they do have a favorable track record, being widely used in U.S. office buildings, hospitals/clinics, hotels, as well as sporting arenas, correctional facilities, and detention centers. Due to plumbing issues and the installation of vacuum components, retrofitting them into an existing facility can become costly and so vacuum systems are probably best installed in new construction.


In the U.S. we do have urinals that use less than a gallon of water per flush, down from three or more gallons years ago.  However, in many dry parts of the world, that is still way too much.

One option is to install a valve system that regulates how often water is released into the urinal. However, widely used in commercial office buildings in Europe, Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand are waterless or no-water urinals.  There are several different manufacturers of no-water urinals but most work essentially the same way. A trap/insert is installed at the base of the urinal.  The insert includes what can be termed an “oil barrier” that prevents sewer odors from escaping thru the urinal – as would happen with any open pipe coming from the sewer – but allows urine to flow through to the sewer.  As the name implies, these urinals operate without any water whatsoever.

Are They for You? The valve option can prove to be a cost saver, however some building codes limit their installation.  They have a limited track record as well, so their performance over time is hard to predict.

Replacing standard urinals with low water or waterless units is a comparatively straight-forward task. Many managers opt to select urinals that use about 0.5 to one gallon of water per flush.  This usually involves removing the current urinal as well as the flush mechanism and replacing it with an entirely new low-flow urinal. However, because installing a waterless urinal also requires that the present urinal system be replaced, some managers consider “going all the way” and select a non-water urinal. 

Modifications to building codes in recent years have resolved issues and opened the door to non-water urinal technology. Few barriers exist to taking advantage of this water saving device.  The main problem reported is odor, but most odor problems are the result of improper cleaning or maintenance. A successful installation requires that maintenance personnel be properly instructed on how to clean and maintain non-water urinals.

Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless No-Flush Urinals. He can be reached at

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