By Kevin Meyer
James Krug is an unusual entrepreneur. Twenty years ago, he was a rising
star in the film and television business. He served as a vice president
of the Disney Channel in the 1980s and ran a distribution company with
members of the Disney family in the ’90s.
A business acquaintance of Krug knew that he was interested in
exploring new opportunities and arranged a meeting with Ditmar Gorges, a
German engineer who fervently believed that flushing a urinal was a
waste of water.
He explained that he had invented a water-free urinal and pointed out
that urine was already liquid—and a generally sterile liquid at that.
Gravity could drain it completely. No flush necessary.
Krug immediately grasped the implications: The German’s humble
innovation had the potential to save millions of gallons of water at a
time when demand for the natural resource was draining aquifers dry.
He formed Falcon Waterfree Technologies with Gorges and explained to anyone who would listen that the water-free urinal would save more than just water: In California, a fifth of the electrical output was consumed by processing and pumping water. Cutting water usage would reduce our carbon footprint.
Then the reality of innovation set in. Enter the regulatory and union roadblock.
As head of PIPE, a plumbing union advocacy group in Southern California, [Mike] Massey looks out for plumbers’ interests. And as far as he was concerned, the waterless urinal was a threat to public health. Diseases might fester because the urinals weren’t being washed down with every use. Sewer gasses might leak through the cartridge. Plumbing codes never contemplated a urinal without water. As a result, Falcon’s fixtures couldn’t be installed legally in most parts of the country.
Time to bring in the science.
Krug scrambled to counter the plumbers’ public health claims. He hired Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona. Gerba studies “filth, pestilence, and disease,” with an emphasis on the bathroom, and says he has done more field studies on the toilet than anyone else in academia. From his point of view, there was a clear explanation for the plumbers’ resistance: It drained their wallets. “Plumbers don’t like the waterless urinal because it cuts down on their work tremendously,” he says. “There’s no more piping to install, and the urinals have no moving parts to repair.”
To test the plumbers’ assertions, Gerba compared a traditional flush urinal with the Falcon waterless. He found that the Falcon urinal presented a less hospitable environment for germs than constantly moistened conventional bowls. The process of flushing could actually eject those germs into the air. “If it’s a traditional urinal, you should flush and run,” Gerba says.
So it saves water and actually prevents the spread of germs. You'd think that would create an easy path forward. Not so fast.
Opposition to the waterless urinal was making plumbers look out of step. They were being painted as antienvironmental at a time when builders increasingly wanted to go green. Massey concluded that he was on the wrong side of the argument. By the end of 2006, he decided to support the urinal’s inclusion in the Uniform Plumbing Code.
But there was a catch. When the code change was finally approved in 2009, it stated that water had to be piped to the waterless urinals. Standard plumbing still has to be done, but the water pipe is simply capped off behind the wall and never used.
Yes, really. One commenter on the article put it best:
With a nod to former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, every house
that has one of these will now have a "pipe to nowhere."
I guess that's just "the cost of innovation." Or something like that.