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Air base reduces water use with microbial cubes

Nov. 18, 2012 - 10:28AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2012 - 10:28AM  |  
Microbial waterless urinal cubes are placed in the base of a urinal and the water supply is turned off.
Microbial waterless urinal cubes are placed in the base of a urinal and the water supply is turned off. (Senior Airman Tiffany M. Grigg / Air Force)
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The folks at RAF Lakenheath, England, got tired of flushing money down the toilet, so they came up with a novel solution: urinals that don't need to be flushed.

These "waterless urinals" use microbial cubes, which feed on the salt in urine. But don't expect to cozy up to one of these marvels of technology in the near future. Costs and technical issues may prevent them from being fully embraced by the Air Force.

Lakenheath turned to waterless urinals beginning about two years ago because higher utilities costs and the currency exchange rate in Britain meant that the base's water bill was 15th in the entire Air Force, even though it had one of the lowest water consumption rates in the service, said 2nd Lt. Lyndsey Horn, a spokeswoman for the 48th Fighter Wing.

"Before implementing the waterless urinals, the 48th Fighter Wing was flushing 8 percent of its water down the urinals, which equated to 20 million gallons a year," Horn said in an email.

Apparently, the no-flush urinals work well, even though they can emit an odor for the first four weeks after being installed as the cubes unclog years of buildup from the pipes, said Sean Cockrell, 48th Civil Engineer Squadron base energy manager.

"The smell's not coming from the urinal you are using today; it's coming from years and years of buildup that the solo-cube is cleaning out," Cockrell said in a 48th Fighter Wing news story.

"If you start with clean pipes, there won't be any smell," Horn said. "For normal pipes, replacing the p-trap for a few dollars will accelerate the process."

Smell or not, the waterless urinals are a big hit at Lakenheath, said Kelly Jaramillo, energy manager for U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

"Lakenheath loves it," she said. "They've put these in to some of their squadron commanders' urinals. They went straight to the top and they're not having any problems. They like it."

USAFE liked the idea too, so the command asked all of its bases to look into the possibility of installing waterless urinals, Jaramillo said.

"This idea came up in March, that Lakenheath had started and so from that point, we were like, ‘We need to do this commandwide; what do we need to do to make this happen; what is feasible, what is not feasible — and oh, by the way, let's look at some other initiatives while we're at it,' " Jaramillo said.

But USAFE found waterless urinals don't work well in low-traffic bathrooms because a membrane within the urinals can dry out and won't function properly — causing a bit of an odor problem, she said. Maintenance and other expenses also make waterless urinals a little too pricey for some bases.

So far, Lakeneath and a Defense Department school in Heidelberg, Germany, are the only USAFE installations to use the waterless urinals, she said. Other bases have opted instead for "low-flow" toilets, which use less water than conventional fixtures.

The waterless urinals can be found outside bases in Europe. Since 2008, the Air Force Weather Agency and the 97th Intelligence Squadron have opened new headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., that use waterless urinals, said weather agency spokesman Ryan Hansen.

While the Defense Department has not mandated that the services implement waterless urinals, the system is being used as part the department's effort to reduce its water consumption by 2 percent each year as mandated by a 2009 executive order, department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan said in an email.

Waterless urinals need to be cleaned more often than their flushing counterparts, said Steven Cummings, research and development manager for GWA Bathrooms and Kitchens, an Australian company that introduced the dual-flush toilet to the U.S.

Another issue is when standard urinals are converted to waterless ones, urine sits in the water trap for a long time, and that can lead to a buildup of salts that may require cleaning the pipes out, Cummings said.

With so many other options available to conserve water, the Air Force has not recommended that bases servicewide use waterless urinals, Air Force spokeswoman Tonya Racasner said.

"The system in use by RAF Lakenheath is currently not available outside of the United Kingdom and therefore has not been thoroughly tested/utilized by other U.S. commercial/industry/municipal entities or the Air Force for implementation," Racasner said in an email. "The Air Force does not have an inventory of waterless urinal installations, and does not have a plan for requiring their use Air Force-wide at this time."

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