“The drops are fat and heavy,” my daughter observes.

“Yes, but sparse, despite the force of the pour, like you can’t possibly get soaked in it,” I respond.

We’re speaking of the rain, a rare phenomenon for a California summer day. More so in the second summer of a severe drought, going on at least four years now, depending upon whose calculations you check. Because a downpour, even one as short-lived as this one, visits us so infrequently, we curiously observe the drops as they touch us—a California thing.

The drought in California fills the news, blogs and minds of the state’s 38,802,500 population, sometimes daily, sometimes monthly, but rain—and water, generally—always rests in the consciousness of desert dwellers. And the country. Or at least it should.

According to the California Energy Commission’s website, California is suffering the worst drought in decades, including the lowest snowpack in recorded history since record-keeping started in 1895. As such, the measures Governor Jerry Brown ordered in place in January of this year to reduce water, including mandatory water rationing and updating or replacing water appliances with those that consume less water, was inevitable.

Executive Order B-29-15, the statewide water reduction mandate, requires, among many other restrictions, that buildings be equipped with water-efficient appliances, including urinals with a maximum of 0.125 gallons per flush to help reduce the 443 billion gallons per year flushed down the pipes of toilets, urinals and faucets.

So why aren’t there waterless urinals in every public bathroom throughout the state? I cannot count how many times I’ve heard my husband ask that very question. Probably as many times as he has used a public restroom. Waterless urinals in a drought-ridden state? Seems like a no-brainer.

Turns out to be a familiar story: sustainability of the planet and its inhabitants contests sustaining the interests of specific groups. In the war over waterless urinals that has waged over the last ten years, waterless urinal manufacturers have fought plumbers, plumbers unions and union lobbyists to get their products to market. Money, at the root of the battle—as it ever is—best spent in good conscience predominates over the battle.

There are approximately 8 million urinals in the United States servicing about 100 million people who flush 160 billion gallons (605 billion litres) of water each year down these urinals. Each urinal uses between 1 and 3 gallons of water per flush, depending on whether the urinal is old, water conserving or the traffic it bears.

So why not replace traditional water-flushing urinals with waterless urinals if doing so saves, by all accounts, at least half the current usage? Aside from sanitary concerns mostly resulting from misconceptions and mistreatments of the waterless urinal, the purported reasons have to do with safety, sanitation and special interests.

Waterless urinals cost about the same as traditional urinals, and some cities like Los Angeles and San Diego Counties offer rebates for installation, anywhere from $60 to 400 dollars. Cost effective and water efficient, waterless urinals were adapted by the U.S. Army in 2010 and in school districts and municipal government buildings like San Diego’s public schools, the Los Angeles Coliseum, Georgia Aquarium and even the Taj Mahal in India, to help green buildings.

The waterless urinal works by evacuating waste most commonly with a “trap cartridge” that’s filled with a sealant consisting of non-evaporating liquid partially made of vegetable oil that pushes the waste down the pipes. The urine goes into the trap that floats the urine until enough urine builds up to seep down the pipes. The cartridge of liquid sealant sits on top of the drain and urine sinks through it and drains out. The sealant also keeps any sewer gases from backing up. A cartridge lasts about 7,000 uses and costs about $35.00.

Manufacturers claim that waterless urinals are less odorous and cleaner, meaning less prone to build up bacteria than traditional urinals in which urine pools. However, some locations, including the city of Chicago, tore out waterless urinals, complaining they smelled and clogged pipes. Supporters of waterless urinals counter that the cartridges must be changed out four times a year and those unused to maintaining these new devices may contribute to the problem.

Other problems arise with improper air ventilation that has been built pre-waterless urinals as well as construction and building codes that have not been updated to new statewide green standards. So, depending on where the urinals are installed, the savings in water costs may be offset by the costs of building retrofitting to accommodate the urinals.

The U.S. Army in October 2007 installed waterless urinals but found problems with the plumbing. The city of Chicago removed urinals at City Hall and O’Hare airport because of concentrated urine damage to the pipes. However, manufacturer representatives counter that the urinal testing did not anticipate the coffee and drinks that were poured down the pipes.

Waterless urinals were ripped out and replaced with ordinary ones at several other locations, including the offices of the California EPA in Sacramento for stench and pipe clogging in the early days of the waterless urinal installations. However, the Hollywood Bowl and Staples Center, serving hundreds of thousands of stadium participants each year, use them and Staples saves seven million gallons of water every year.

Whether real or imagined, human error or manufacturing defect, the historically embattled waterless urinals suffered a fate worse than trial and error to work out the bugs: the absent consciousness of the global ramifications of local conduct.

The waterless urinal originated in 1991 in Germany by The Waterless Company but only came into widespread use in 2006 after the state and city Uniform Plumbing Codes were amended to allow them.

Initially, plumbers fought the legalization of the waterless urinal, claiming they were unsafe because toxic gases could escape from the sewer pipes. However, even after proven safety, plumbers unions and lobbyists still fought the waterless urinal as a threat to their livelihood. Waterless urinals required no pipe installation.

Falcon, the first to produce the cartridges for the waterless urinal, headed the fight for legalization. Thinking its product was ripe for a California drought, Falcon did not anticipate the resistance to its efforts to change the plumbing code.

When challenged with the code amendment, plumbers hired a water engineer specialist who, without testing the urinal, determined the Falcon urinal was dangerous as hydrogen sulfide could escape when the cartridge was being changed and kill someone. However, the plumbers eventually conceded, but not without a long fight.

And while building contractors applauded the waterless urinal and its anticipated plumbing costs savings and counted on the huge California environmental lobby to get the state building codes changed to accommodate them, they didn’t see Scott Wetch, a Sacramento lobbyist for labour unions, coming.

In the fight to protect plumbers, Wetch first argued the urinals would cause health problems by bacteria build up and toxic fumes. Then he played politics to Democrats who rely on labour votes for re-election, particularly his client, the California State Pipe trades Council and its 30,000 plumbers and pipe fitters.

He eventually brokered a compromise designed to appease all sides. The 2007 bill signed into law allowed for the installation of waterless urinals, but they would still have to be installed with pipes for the traditional urinal in case something went wrong. He successfully protected plumber jobs, though the builders’ costs savings that could have been spread to the consumer were lost.

Now waterless urinals are legal in every state. In California, they have to be installed with all the standard plumbing to retrofit a traditional water-using urinal, including some unnecessary pipes. Like those pipes, the road to waterless urinal ubiquity is paved with unnecessary delay, though not completely devoid of simple missteps and faltering conscience.

The psychological challenge has been the hardest, however, with the idea of a waterless urinal evoking disagreeably unsanitary, malodorous conditions in people’s minds. The flushing water of a traditional urinal gives a false sense of cleanliness. To address the sensibility issue, Falcon developed a hybrid model, which automatically flushes small amounts of water once a day to eliminate blockages and the human error factor in maintenance.

The manufacturer’s motivation to fix the urinals with the hybrid urinal is profit motivated. But money alone can never provide the larger fix. We need education, changed habits, and foremost, embracing the change that has potential for far-reaching effects for the planet.

Good conscience dictates that sacrifices be made for the greater goal of saving resources, something capitalism does not always foster.

However, capitalism slices both ways, the profit motive sometimes inspiring the technological development to conserve precious resources that benefit the planet and sometimes catering to special interests that benefit the few. Some claim that today’s capitalism works against sustainability and for a consumption that will destroy the Earth, but dire predictions aside, the solution ultimately lies in the consciousness of each person.

Along with technology, water conservation starts with informed, mindful habits, each flush, each running faucet, and each shower reminding us of our dedication to our children’s inheritance. It takes observing ourselves closely—with an open heart and mind—to examine our motives and behaviours, just like watching the rain as if it were the first time seeing the drops fall.


image: Indoor urinals via Shutterstock