Regulation

Plumbers Unions vs. Waterless Urinals

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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.

NEXT: "The lesson of the Three Little Pigs isn't to avoid straw. It's that you don't let a pig build your house."

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  1. plumbers protect the health of the nation

    Clearly, then, all plumbing activities fall under the General Welfare clause, and Obama is the Plumber in Chief.

    1. “plumbers protect the health of the nation”

      But can they figure out a way to keep men from peeing on the floor beneath the urinals? The womenfolk of this nation would be shocked if they knew the truth. And they would never let our shoes into the house again.

        1. Yola, a 25-year old Swedish trainee psychiatrist, says she dumps boyfriends who insist on standing. “What can I do?” said her new boyfriend, Ingvar, who sits.

          Well, Ingvar, you could grow a pair, for starters. And why does it not surprise me that your master is training to become a psychiatrist?

          1. The Vikings and Norsemen have become pussies who submit to the will of others.

          2. We have no obligation to protect doormats from themselves.

            Now, if you happened to be in the men rooms and witness this guy go into a stall, take a leak, and daintily wipe his VaJayJay (you can listen for those parts, visual confirmation isn’t necessary), then by all means, be standing outside ready to give him the full on Nelson Muntz treatment.

            Hell, giving that guy a wedgie should be legally protected.

    2. It’s called the “Good and Welfare clause” dummy.

      And yeah, it do fall under it.

    3. Well he is adept at pushing crap around.

  2. “But the reality is that plumbers protect the health of the nation. That’s how we think of our job.”

    I’ve known plumbers. That is most assuredly not how they think of their job. You don’t want to know what plumbers think about their job.

    1. I am a pipefitter. We call plumbers “turd chasers”

  3. The story doesn’t pretend waterless toilets are a troublefree plumbing panacea either.

    It doesn’t mention that within hours of “maintenance” they reek like a piss-filled Hindenberg crashed into the whole side of the building where the bathroom is.

    That’s pretending.

    1. they reek like a piss-filled Hindenberg crashed into the whole side of the building where the bathroom is.

      That’s a good description of the WA state ferries as well.

    2. Really? They put them in at my workplace a couple of years ago and the bathrooms (which were pretty clean to begin with) immediately smelled better. I think it was a combination of design (there’s really no surface for liquid to pool on) and the fact that flushing actually stirs things up.

      Some models must be better than others, I guess.

      1. We have Falcon’s in my office, too, and they don’t smell at all. No urinal cake smell, and no “I-don’t-believe-in-flushing-urinals” guy smell.

        They create a slight mist of sprayback, though.

        1. A dance club I frequent installed them about a month ago, and the smell in the restroom is much better.

          1. And my little brother just told me that when he dunks the Nerdy kid’s heads in them at school, they don’t complain as much.

            1. It’s just not a swirly without water. **sob** I miss the olden days…

              1. We have to call it a swirly though, because a “i smeared your face in a toilet-like device” doesn’t have as good a ring to it.

  4. 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.

    With a nod to former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, every house that has one of these will now have a “pipe to nowhere.”

  5. “People think we’re a bunch of dumb plumbers, but we’re actually quite sophisticated.”

    I’ve known plumbers. I wouldn’y call them dumb but I certainly wouldn’t call your average turd chaser “sophisticated”.

    It’s a skilled trade, which is nothing to be ashamed of, they earn their money. That said, plumbing does not require vast stores of knowledge or in-depth reasoning skills.

    1. It does, however, require a well-presented butt crack.

      1. You don’t say? Please, tell me more!

  6. I’m an equal opportunity pisser. If those union goons want to run around with their mouths open, they better not complain when they get golden streamed.

    1. We don’t. With our pensions, we’re laughing all the way to the bank!

  7. It doesn’t take a whiz to figure out that plumbers will always make enough money to take golden showers.

    1. It doesn’t take a whiz to figure out that plumbers will always make enough money to take golden showers?

      Pun Intended? if so, very nice!

      1. If the first pun wasn’t clearly hanging out, the second one should have flushed it into the open.

        1. Just don’t piss anyone off.

    2. Looking for job security? Urine luck.

      1. Job secuitry? Of course, you have to look out for number one in this world

  8. FYI, you can’t dump in it.

  9. “People think we’re a bunch of dumb plumbers, but we’re actually quite sophisticated.”

    He certainly is sophisticated enough to understand game theory.

  10. Can these newfangled waterless urinals handle fudge dragons? Brown rag dolls? Chocolate hot dogs? Mud monkeys? Mr. Hankey’s?

  11. “If it’s a traditional urinal, you should flush and run.”

    Who knew that the leading academic expert on toilets was such a cut-up?

  12. What the @@@@! It used to be that only articles from the magazine required an extra click to view the comments. Now every post on this blog requires an extra click. What gives?

  13. Power rodding is the health of the state!

  14. Urine is much “cleaner” than spit. They should be concerned about the sinks, not the urinals

  15. Interestingly, Guilds’ influence on this process wouldn’t measurably change in a libertarian society.

    It is pretty certain that in a world where the government didn’t demand compliance with “code” building purchasers would. There are very good reasons for at least 70% of the UBC book, and there is no way that I as an individual will be able to review all of this. So there will be private/non-profit/consortium entities to manage the recommendations for UBC, and Guilds will still have the incentive to have their interests served through capturing these pseudo-regulators.

    Mind you, this isn’t meant to promote government interference…Just to put a damper on others’ assumptions that this would be much better under a privatized scheme. No one is going to build (or buy) buildings that don’t meet some manner of certification.

    1. I think you are getting carried away by claimuing that no one is going to build or buy buidling that don’t meet some manner of certification.

    2. The problem generally isn’t so much with the UBC as with local building ordinances, IMO. Although, the unused water lines in this instance is f’n ridiculous.

  16. PVC pipe is unsafe and inferior to iron. Paint applied with a roller won’t stick — it should be oil-based and applied with a brush. Plywood is an inferior material that won’t last the test of time. Romex is a dangerous product; homes should be wired in EMT and Greenfield. Homes should be sealed tight — every square inch wrapped in Tyvek, poly, and stuffed with polyurethane foam — stud walls sweating internally and rotting out prematurely will be a small price to pay for a couple percent better energy efficiency.

    So goes the protectionist logic of the trades.

    1. My personal fave is, “replacing the old windows in your 100 year old house will equal huge energy savings.” Really? Because I thought the myriad tiny cracks and holes throughout the whole house through which the wind whips was a much bigger problem than conduction through the single glazed windows.

  17. Building codes originally established a minimum set of standards for safety but in the last 30 years they have changed to design standards with no basis in safety. So the end user pays for something if they need it or not. Typical over reaching by self promoting industry groups.

    1. This is exactly what pisses me off to no end when I’m at the Building Department. I have no problem complying with a code when life safety is involved. However when the eggshell sensibilities of some bitty are the issue, I feel the urge to kill rising, rising, rising.

      1. Reminds me of the bumper sticker “Make welfare as tough to get as a building permit”.

  18. Are these units really efficient? I’d like to see what their overall cost of ownership is, including product, installation and maintenance as opposed to a traditional flush unit. Is it a matter of replacing the cartridge, as their website says, every 3-4 months, or is it every so many uses?

    I’m betting these aren’t saving as much money as owners think.

  19. Women everywhere are rejoicing that the sight of fat, hairy buttcracks of plumbers will decrease.

  20. I have been reading about this product, lately and I don’t think that plumbers are going to lose too much money over it. Many people have removed them because they did not want to deal with the frequent stoppages you get when a steady stream of urine sits in your drain line for months on end, so the plumbers recoup their cost for urinal repairs by clearing the stoppages and removing the waterless urinals once people get sick of paying for the stoppages.

  21. My office plumbed them in the end because they kept blocking.
    But urine is STERILE…the plumbers know that right? Less germs than saliva…

  22. Someone should do an article about the electrical trade, specifically, arc-fault circuit breakers. A classic example of a solution in search of a problem. They add about $800 to the cost of a new home, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they don’t work. They trip out all the time for no reason at all.

  23. “And someone hovered over that urinal, mmmkay, pulled their butt apart, and squeezed out a chocolate hotdog…oh, you think it’s funny?! Mmmmkay, mmmmkay!

  24. As the CEO and founder of the oldest no-water urinal system company in the United States, I have had the pleasure and I must admit frustration to work with trade associations. I have always taking the tack that if something new enters the market?as was the case with our No-Flush urinals?it would take time for people and the trades to come to terms with the new technology.

    While still today there are even three States that, primarily due to trade associations, are not yet allowed to install waterless urinals, I am happy to say that most associations have taken the green banner and ran with it. Time has always been on our side. The awareness for conserving our country’s water resources certainly has started to make mental, if not financial, impacts on many people and organizations.

    What was frustrating to us and disingenuous of code bodies and trade associations is that for many years these groups banded together against non-water using urinals, but once they grabbed the green movement and knowing it wouldn’t go away, they took the banner of green and purported to have always promoted ways to protect the environment. While, at the same time, these associations and code bodies still did not promote waterless urinals.

    There were also a lot of misconceptions about these urinals. A primary example was that the plumber’s experience on flushed urinals over decades showed that flushed urinals always have hard drain line encrustations?the building of lime stone by combining water and urine. The assumption was that this issue may be worse in non-water using urinals. Our company successfully showed that no hard deposits were created in waterless urinals, if anything some soft sediment. In addition, our urinals no longer needed to be taken off the wall if any snaking was needed as the product has a full 2″ drain line and can be accessed by simply removing the trap insert.

    Another misconception in my mind was that plumbers unions believed these systems threatened jobs. With almost 8-9 million flushed urinals on the walls that can be retrofitted, what job threat could that be? Even on new construction, a water line to a urinal is what part percentage-wise of the job? Plus, it promotes water conservation.

    To be fair, from a service contractor’s perspective, there may be some jobs that might be no longer needed, such as fixing stuck or broken flush valves. These problems were always present as a result of pressure, the water could make a valve stick, or vandalism. Sometimes, overflow can cause damages. How much this will impact plumbers financially is unknown. I certainly have not heard of any plumbers “closing up shop” because water-using urinals have been replaced by waterless systems.

    From an owner’s standpoint, money is saved for the facility. The same holds true for plumbing professionals who are employed in schools or large facilities?in-house personnel. There is no need to mess with flush valves and water if you do not have to and staff can actually save that time for more pressing projects in the facility. Especially in these days of reduced budgets this is important.

    Fortunately, through the educational work of our company and that of some of our competitors, waterless urinal systems can now be installed in most communities throughout the country. Not only have they proven themselves over almost two decades now, but they are here to stay as a vital product offering to protect our ever more limited and costly water resources. This makes waterless urinal systems one of the most significant, sustainable technologies now available.

    1. I really think that your guy’s product is the tops. I talked to a bar owner recently that discussed that they are actually easier to clean because of your traps. Especially, when people puke in them. Thank you for addressing the unions.

      If you want to read more about your urinals in the field, check out this article. http://www.elephantjournal.com…..oe-yeoman/

  25. SO long that it had been tested and proven safe then there is no problem about that. I think women are all clapping their hands and praising for joy.lol

    Jacks Plumber

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  33. I’m an equal opportunity pisser. If those union goons want to run around with their mouths open, they better not complain when they get golden streamed.
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  37. I’m an equal opportunity pisser. If those union goons want to run around with their mouths open, they better not complain when they get golden streamed.

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