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A powerful plumber's union in California is trying to block efforts to promote water-saving urinals in the state. Plumbers warn the fixtures are potentially unsanitary, which has not discouraged water agencies from promoting them.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
In the desert southwest, authorities are always on the lookout for new ways to conserve water. That's led to low-flow shower heads and drip-irrigation, and the latest frontier in water conservation, now on display at the San Diego Zoo.
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HORSLEY: Zookeepers here know a lot about handling waste. Associate director Bruce Thurston says the elephants, pandas, and other animals at the zoo fill two big dump trucks every day. And that's not counting the human visitors.
Mr. BRUCE THURSTON (Associate Director, San Diego Zoo): Human waste is as big a concern here as the animal waste.
HORSLEY: Every year, more than three million people come to the San Diego Zoo, and most make at least two trips to the restroom. More if they buy a big drink at the Flamingo Café. It adds up to a lot of flushing.
But not as much as it used to, since the zoo began installing water-free urinals in some of its men's rooms. Thurston point out four in a restroom near the monkey exhibit. Each one is expected to save some 40,000 gallons a year.
Mr. THURSTON: We're a conservation organization. That's what we're about. And 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.
HORSLEY: The urinals are wiped down by cleaning crews each day, but there's no flushing. Waste flows down by gravity, and a chemical cartridge at the base of the urinal keeps sewer gas from coming back up.
The manufacturer, Falcon WaterFree, says there are about 25,000 of these no- flush urinals around the country, most in the southwest. The county water authority here in San Diego would like to see more.
Spokesman Bill Jacoby, who keeps a toilet-shaped bowl of jelly beans on his desk, says the authority will pay customers $400 for each water-free urinal they install.
Mr. BILL JACOBY (Spokesman, San Diego County Water Authority): 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.
HORSLEY: 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 a sharp protest from the powerful plumber's union.
The union warns that poor maintenance and periodic changing of the urinal's chemical cartridges could allow dangerous sewer gasses to escape. David Otterstein, of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local #230 adds, without regular flushing of the urinal, hazardous bacteria could build up.
Mr. DAVID OTTERSTEIN (Plumbers and Pipefitters Local #230): It's plain and simple. Washing down the inside of a urinal with a flush is just a sanitary practice. You wash your hand when you're done using the restroom, why would you not wash down the urinal?
HORSLEY: 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 are not 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's plumbing code, at least for now, though 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 plumbers' jobs.
Mr. OTTERSTEIN: 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. Is this is the smartest thing we can think of to conserve water?
HORSLEY: 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 waterless urinals, the water saving toilets can also be used in the women's room.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.
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