Restrooms: Green From Top to Bottom

Those untrained in the field may think that developing sustainable restrooms involves mainly the installation of water-saving features. In reality, there are green or sustainable alternatives for every product used in a restroom from the ceiling to the floor, including those components that are located behind the walls. Designing a sustainable restroom requires the same approach that must be used for other spaces within a facility. Carefully evaluate all options, including overall building systems, calculate life-cycle costs, and don’t forget maintenance requirements.

Save the Water
Optimizing sustainable features in a restroom requires a comprehensive approach, according to Amanda Savercool, communications and marketing manager for Acorn Engineering Company. “It’s important to take a whole building approach to sustainability,” she said. “Starting with waterless or low-flow plumbing fixtures is important, but there are technologies and systems that factor into huge overall water, energy, and cost savings.”

Savercool added that a college’s or university’s budget, design constraints, and durability requirements are all part of the bigger picture. Challenges can arise when looking for sustainable options, especially when an existing building is being renovated.

Consider the Plumbing
One example involves the installation of conventional gravity plumbing verses vacuum plumbing, an alternative that can offer savings in water use, materials, and construction costs while also providing flexibility in building design. Vacuum plumbing systems require 0.5 gal. of water per flush, verses the average low-flow toilet in a conventional system that requires 1.28 gal. of water per use. However, while vacuum plumbing is appropriate for use in a number of installations, in some cases older buildings that are being renovated may not be able to accommodate the installation of vacuum plumbing systems.

Low-flow fixtures may cost slightly more than conventional bathroom fixtures to install. However, over time, low-flow fixtures, when combined with electric controls on water use, more than justify the higher initial cost. Conservative estimates state that low-flow toilets can reduce annual water costs by as much as 70 percent per toilet. The Environmental Protection Agency, as one of many sources, maintains a list of Watersense-certified toilets and sink faucets that meet high standards for water conservation.

Recycled Content
Another consideration involves the recycled content of all products. “There are many products on the market that feature recycled content and that can one day be recycled and/or that will reduce waste in landfills,” said Savercool. As one example, she noted that stainless steel partitions and fixtures are contemporary in design and are virtually maintenance-free.

Ceiling tiles that are made from sustainable materials are also available, and dozens of options for sustainable flooring are on the market. When it comes to flooring, pay extra attention to maintenance requirements and durability. A sustainable floor that requires extensive cleaning or that is not designed for heavy use is probably not the best choice for restrooms.

Recycled solid-surface materials for countertops and washbasins are offered by a number of manufacturers. One example is a natural composite material that looks like granite but that costs less than the real stone.

Designing for the Long Term
Kris Alderson, senior marketing manager with The Bradley Corporation, agrees with Savercool that a long-term view is critical. “Our company has manufactured restroom plumbing fixtures for 90 years, and we encourage our customers to evaluate their future needs as thoroughly as analyzing what is needed today,” she said.

Evaluating a product’s content is also a component emphasized by Alderson. “Solid-surface countertops that are manufactured from recycled materials help ensure long-term durability, and ease of cleaning and long-term maintenance,” she said. “Solid plastic toilet partitions made from 100-percent post-consumer recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is one example of a positive green product.”

In addition to water-saving toilet options, Alderson says that hand-washing products that curb water use should be installed. Sensor-activated units can reduce water use by up to 70 percent and group hand-washing stations, when the installation is appropriate, are attractive for their water-saving benefits.

The Electrical Side
The energy-efficient lamps and fixtures that can be specified today can dramatically reduce electrical costs. Colleges and universities can save even more when energy-efficient lighting is combined with sensors that are tied into lighting controls. A system equipped with motion sensors can turn the lights off when a room is unoccupied. When restrooms have exterior windows, consider installing lighting level sensors that will signal lighting controls to adjust light levels based on natural daylight to further maximize electrical savings.

Many people still prefer using paper towels to hand dryers, but dryers provide significant savings opportunities. “Bradley manufactures touchless, adjustable-speed hand dryers that reduce electricity by 80 percent, and other manufacturers offer similar products,” Alderson said. “Hand dryers eliminate paper products and waste in restrooms.”

Alderson foresees a continuing effort to manufacture materials designed with regard to recycled content and end-of-life considerations, which addresses how the product parts will be recycled or reused in other ways. She also believes that water and energy efficiency will continue to drive product innovation on all fronts and that facility personnel will continue their quest to seek out ways to reduce overall water use — such as using green roofs to catch potable water that is, in turn, used for flushing toilets.

Greening a restroom requires a comprehensive approach that evaluates system options and individual products. Thankfully, thousands of environmentally friendly products are available for use to create a sustainable restroom from top to bottom.