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Simple fix for the big flush

One of the biggest challenges of the drought is finding ways to stop flushing perfectly good drinking water down the loo, especially if you’re a woman. The Sustainability Institute near Stellenbosch has come up with a novel yet affordable solution.

Because most plumbing in public spaces is based on outdated water-borne technology, one of the biggest challenges is to find ways to limit flushing potable water down the loo while keeping things squeaky clean, especially if you're a woman.

While puzzling over this problem Bradley Bergh, with the technical help of Faan Swiegers, came up with a novel idea for a waterless urinal for women made from a retrofitted bidet using off-the-shelf plumbing equipment. The prototype has been installed at the Sustainability Institute near Stellenbosch which is also where WWF South Africa has its Stellenbosch office.

From the outside, the urinal looks like a perfectly ordinary toilet but if you peek inside, a collection of brightly coloured deodorant balls surrounding a non-return valve alert you to the fact that this is no ordinary loo. The only difference is that there’s no flush and you have to dispose of your toilet paper in a bin.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Bergh explains the reason for developing the waterless women’s urinal was the very real possibility that the dams in Cape Town would either run dry or water would be switched off for large parts of the day. On some days the Sustainability Institute has between 100 to 200 people on site and everyone needs to use the toilet at some point.

“Urine is sterile so there are no health issues to worry about but most people are used to a high degree of cleanliness at home and don’t like the idea of using a toilet that is not constantly being flushed,” he says. “But this mind-set belongs in the wasteful past. The undeniable presence of climate change and the volume of people needing to use a toilet several times a day means that the days of using potable water to flush toilets have to come to an end.”

How did they do it?

Not that common in South Africa but popular in Europe, a bidet is a bowl-shaped, porcelain bathroom fixture used to wash the nether regions after using the toilet. The bidet’s plug hole was the perfect receptacle for fitting a non-return valve similar to those used in men’s urinals. Also required was piping to reduce the size of the outlet at the back from 110mm to 50mm and to fit the top of the bidet with a proper toilet seat (they glued it on).

What did it cost to install?

Outside of some plumbing and retrofitting which was handled in-house by Swiegers, the cost for the parts came in at R1650. These consisted of
  • A stock-standard, bottom-of-the-range bidet from Bathrooms 4 U in Stellenbosch – R600
  • A toilet seat from Builder’s Warehouse (attached with Sticks Like) – R400
  • A Lilydome Waterless Urinal Valve – (http://www.planetsaver.co.za/) – R350
  • And various other plumbing materials, connectors and piping  – R300
What about the pong?

To keep the toilet smelling fresh, they use standard industrial urinal deodorant pellets from G Fox in Paarden Eiland. Because the urinal is waterless, the pellets last a long time and dissolve very slowly and so do not upset their septic tank system.

“We also have a courtesy spray bottle containing a mix of water and essential oils. We encourage people to give the bowl a couple of squirts to ensure the bidet always smells pleasant,” adds Bergh.

A couple of deodorant balls also go into the bottom of the toilet paper bin which is emptied once or twice every day. Making use of slightly more expensive compostable toilet paper also means the paper can be disposed of in a compost heap. 

Lots of signage

Key to the success of the waterless urinal is clear signage to explain to people how to use it.  “We find that once people start using the waterless urinal, they find that it is no problem at all. We have yet to receive a complaint in our anonymous suggestion box,” says Bergh.

What else is the Sustainability Institute doing to save water?

In the adjoining eco-village the houses make use of reclaimed water. All water used in the houses (including the toilets) is collected in septic tanks where natural bacterial action decomposes human waste while the overflow water is recycled and purified through a constructed horizontal wetland.

Grey and black water produced by the Institutional buildings is passed through a series of Biolytix Tanks where worms process the human waste before this water is also passed through the horizontal wetland. This recycled water is then pumped back into tanks and reused for flushing toilets and watering the gardens.
A non-return valve is used inside the bidet
Installing a non-return valve into the bidet
Waterless urinal for women
The women's waterless urinal looks very much like an ordinary loo.

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