Plumbers Unions vs. Waterless Urinals


A very interesting, pretty well-balanced feature from Joshua Davis in Wired about the rise of the waterless urinal that gives a vivid example of how professional opposition to interesting innovations allegedly rooted in legitimate safety fears can be largely a cover for occupational protectionism. Some details:

As head of PIPE, a plumbing union advocacy group in Southern California, [Mike] Massey looks out for plumbers' interests. And as far as he was concerned, the waterless urinal was a threat to public health. Diseases might fester because the urinals weren't being washed down with every use. Sewer gasses might leak through the cartridge. "People take plumbing for granted," Massey says. "But the reality is that plumbers protect the health of the nation. That's how we think of our job."

Plumbing codes never contemplated a urinal without water. As a result, Falcon's [a company trying to sell waterless urinals] fixtures couldn't be installed legally in most parts of the country. [Falcon co-founder James] Krug assumed it would be a routine matter to amend the model codes on which most state and city codes are based, but Massey and other plumbers began to argue vehemently against it. The reason the urinal hadn't changed in decades was because it worked, they argued. Urine could be dangerous, Massey said, and the urinal was not something to trifle with. As a result, in 2003 the organizations that administer the two dominant model codes in the US rejected Falcon's request to permit installation of waterless urinals. "The plumbers blindsided us," Krug says. "We didn't understand what we were up against."

Krug scrambled to counter the plumbers' public health claims. He hired Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona. Gerba studies "filth, pestilence, and disease," with an emphasis on the bathroom, and says he has done more field studies on the toilet than anyone else in academia. From his point of view, there was a clear explanation for the plumbers' resistance: It drained their wallets. "Plumbers don't like the waterless urinal because it cuts down on their work tremendously," he says. "There's no more piping to install, and the urinals have no moving parts to repair."

To test the plumbers' assertions, Gerba compared a traditional flush urinal with the Falcon waterless. He found that the Falcon urinal presented a less hospitable environment for germs than constantly moistened conventional bowls. The process of flushing could actually eject those germs into the air. "If it's a traditional urinal, you should flush and run," Gerba says.

The plumbers reject the contention that their opposition was an attempt to protect their livelihoods. "We just weren't so sure this was a good product," Massey says. "People think we're a bunch of dumb plumbers, but we're actually quite sophisticated."

Krug's company hired a lobbyist and began winning over specific city governments and some military bases, and by 2006 got at least one professional plumbing code to allow them. By then:

Opposition to the waterless urinal was making plumbers look out of step. They were being painted as antienvironmental at a time when builders increasingly wanted to go green. Massey concluded that he was on the wrong side of the argument. By the end of 2006, he decided to support the urinal's inclusion in the Uniform Plumbing Code.

But there was a catch. When the code change was finally approved in 2009, it stated that water had to be piped to the waterless urinals. Standard plumbing still has to be done, but the water pipe is simply capped off behind the wall and never used.

Krug thought the new code's requirement was unnecessary, but he decided not to oppose it. He had been fighting for eight years and was ready to move on. "It's the cost of doing business in the real world," he says.

Massey argues that the condition makes sense. If a building owner decides to go back to flush urinals, he'll blame the plumber if the water isn't already there.

The story doesn't pretend waterless toilets are a troublefree plumbing panacea either. Davis acknowledges the tradeoffs they represent (for one, they require previously unnecessary maintenance actions, such as replacing cartridges that keep sewer gases from coming up even as urine passes through to pipes) and presents the new urinals as a choice that allows specific building owners to make their own best decisions in balancing pluses and minuses.  But those are the kind of decision they wouldn't have been allowed to make had the plumbing guilds had their way all along.