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Cleaning Low-Flow and No-Flow Toilets and Urinals

Written by  Klaus Reichardt


As the economy picks up, more facilities, especially privately owned buildings like offices, are expected to begin retrofitting and remodeling their restrooms. Most of this work was postponed during the worst years of the economic downturn, as many building owners and managers tightened up their budgets and categorized facility upgrades as a lower priority.

Saving water—and money
With the increased focus on sustainability, many building owners and managers will retrofit their restrooms with toilets and urinals that use far less water—and in some cases, no water at all. Surprisingly, many facilities still have toilets that use as much as three gallons of water per flush, even though all toilets marketed since the early 1990s are required to use 1.6 gallons per flush in new construction. This also holds true for many urinals; however, today’s urinals are required to use about one gallon of water per flush.

Some newer toilets, known as low-flow or high-efficiency toilets, top the regulations and use just 1.3 gallons of water per flush. Some urinals use about a half of a gallon per flush or no water at all. The goal, of course, is to save water and also money. When less water is used, and used more efficiently, a facility’s water, sewer, and even energy costs can be reduced considerably.

A smelly situation
It’s important to point out that while reducing water and costs is the objective, these new low-flow and no-flow systems can prove somewhat challenging for cleaning professionals. One prime example of this is the city of San Francisco, which has been actively encouraging business and property owners as well as homeowners to install low-flow toilets. Using rebates and regulations, the city estimates it is now saving more than 20 million gallons of water per year as a result of the low-flow toilets. However, as low-flow toilets gained popularity and acceptance, the number of restroom malodor complaints increased.

A big part of the problem is attributed to the city’s sewer system. Some believe these toilets are not releasing enough water into the sewer system, and as a result, sludge is backing up inside pipes, causing what has been termed a “rotten egg stench” in public restrooms. In other cases, restroom users believe it is the low-flow toilets and urinals themselves that are the source of the odor. There is not much cleaning professionals can do about a city’s sewer problems. But cleaning professionals can do their part in keeping these low-flow and no-flow fixtures clean and odor free. In most instances, there is little difference between cleaning low-flow, no-flow, and conventional fixtures. However, those variables that do exist can make a big difference in the level of freshness and cleanliness of your customers’ restrooms.

Proper cleaning of low-flow toilets
Before venturing into how these toilets should be cleaned, an overview of the different types of low-flow toilets is needed, since different systems can be easier or more difficult to maintain than others. For instance, dual flush toilets have two buttons or flush handles, instead of one. One button or handle flushes liquid waste, using less than 1 gallon of water, and the other button or handle flushes solid waste, using 1.6 gallons per flush. Another type of system is similar to what is installed in airplanes. These toilets make use of water and air pressure to discharge waste. These are often found in very dry areas, such as Las Vegas, and use the least amount of water of all.

The exterior of these fixtures are cleaned the same way as conventional toilets are cleaned. Wearing gloves and using an all-purpose cleaner, disinfectant, or sanitizer can sufficiently clean the seat and other areas. For the inside of the bowl, other procedures may be necessary.

"Restroom users often claim low-flow fixtures create odor problems, but invariably, once the problem has been analyzed, it’s discovered the toilet or urinal has not been cleaned properly."

While the performance of low-flow toilets has improved significantly since their introduction, some systems are not as effective as others at removing all solid waste. In some cases, waste collects under the rim of the bowl and as it does, an odor problem can develop. While some cleaning workers may turn to more powerful chemicals, including bleach, to remove this waste, there is another method that has less impact on the environment. In many cases, more elbow grease and an effective toilet bowl brush is all that is required.

Select a brush that is designed to make cleaning the rim of the bowl easier for the cleaning worker, but can still clean the rest of the bowl. In some cases, two different types of brushes may be needed. A brush with bristles that are too stiff may scratch the bowl; softer bristles, at least at the end of the brush, are preferable.

Proper cleaning of low-flow/no-flow urinals
Low-flow urinals present similar cleaning challenges and issues as low-flow toilets. While their performance is far better than they were a decade ago, some waste may build up on the interior of the urinal. And just like low-flow toilets, a brush will typically loosen and remove this buildup so it can be flushed down the urinal’s drain.

No-water, or waterless, urinals look very much like a conventional urinal. All that is significantly different is the missing flush valve or piping that normally sits above a conventional unit. Restroom users often claim these urinals create odor problems. But invariably, once the problem has been analyzed, it is soon discovered the urinal has not been cleaned properly. If anything, no-water urinals should have less odor problems than conventional urinals because the surface remains dry, which helps inhibit bacteria growth and odor. A drier surface also should make the unit easier to clean.

To clean no-water urinals, follow these steps:

• Wear gloves (and goggles) as usual
• Remove any foreign objects in the urinal
• Mist the urinal’s surfaces with an all-purpose cleaner, sanitizer, or disinfectant
• Allow for dwell time
• Wipe clean with a cleaning cloth
• Clean exterior surfaces as usual

Another difference with no-water urinals is the trap or cylinder placed at the bottom of the urinal. In most cases, cleaning professionals will be asked to handle the trap’s maintenance needs. These traps usually have a sealant, which helps prevent sewer odors from being released into the restroom as the urinal is used. Small amounts of the sealant are drained into the waste line and eventually the trap needs to be replaced (typically after 1,500 uses), while the sealant should be replenished regularly. Most no-water urinal manufacturers provide tools specifically designed to remove the trap. Once it is removed, excess water in the trap can be drained down the urinal and the trap should be placed in a bag, sealed, and disposed of.

What the future holds
Cleaning professionals should start to become more familiar with new restroom fixtures being introduced. It appears that even more advanced—and less water using—technologies are emerging. While manufacturers and building owners are focused on the water and cost savings of these new systems, less attention is given to cleaning them.

Fortunately, the steps discussed in this article will likely apply to these new systems as well. Ultimately, a bit more diligence is all that is required to prevent toilets and urinals from becoming a significant problem for BSCs or their clients.

Klaus Reichardt is founder and managing partner of Waterless No-Flush Urinals, Vista, Calif. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. Reichardt is a frequent writer and presenter, discussing water conservation issues. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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