Waterless Urinals For Home And Commercial Use – How They Work (And Why You Want One!)

The concept of a waterless urinal not a new one. The very first versions became available in the early ’90s, and have begun to gain widespread notoriety and acceptance. But in a time where water is becoming increasingly scarce – and expensive – ditching the flush is an excellent way to conserve water both residentially and commercially. More than that, though, waterless urinals aren’t some ill-advised attempts at eco-friendliness; they really do mark a significant improvement in urinal design, not just in your bottom line or for the planet, but for the user experience.

Kohler Steward Waterless Urinal K-4918
Kohler Steward Waterless Urinal K-4918

The differences between waterless urinals and traditional ones run much deeper than simply cutting off the water supply – you wouldn’t get the same result from simply not flushing an existing urinal. You see, traditional urinals, like toilets, use gravity-driven water to rinse out the basin and wash waste down the drain and through the pipes. But it’s actually the chemical interaction of water and urine that creates that funky pee-smell in a bathroom. Because there’s no water involved in a flushless urinal, you won’t wind up with any gross odors, and the surface of the urinal will typically stay dry (rather than perpetually moist like traditional urinals), which can help combat the growth of stinky and harmful bacteria.

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Urine Passes Through The Sealing Liquid And Is Forced Downward And Into The Drain
Urine Passes Through The Sealing Liquid And Is Forced Downward And Into The Drain (Illustrated by Peter Grundy)

But how exactly is a waterless urinal different? Like traditional urinals, waterless ones are shaped to minimize splashing and maximize gravitational pull, ensuring that the basin drains fully after use. However, instead of using a gallon or more of water to ensure that the waste makes its way down the drain, waterless urinals employ special traps that guide urine down the drain and keep sewage odors from coming up through the pipes. Most models come with replaceable cartridges that look a little like your average urinal filter once they’re installed. They’re filled with a blue liquid sealant made of biodegradable oils and alcohols. Because this sealant is lighter weight than urine, it always floats to the top, creating an odor-proof barrier.

The Sealant Liquid Forms An Air-Tight Layer To Prevent Odor
The Sealant Liquid Forms An Air-Tight Layer To Prevent Odor

As the urinal drains, the urine filters through the cartridge and then the sealant.  The trap helps retain uric acid and naturally occurring urine sediment, which reduces crystallization in the plumbing line. It also prevents the urine  (or any air from inside the pipes) from finding their way back up the drain. As urine enters the main chamber, the sealant floats to the top, guiding the urine downward through the trap’s interior and into your plumbing. Every company has a slightly different design, but the shape is designed both to guide urine down the drain and also to prevent the sealing liquid from being disturbed, ensuring that, once drained, neither urine nor sewage odors will find their way back out.

Even Without A Replacable Cartridge, The Bouyant Sealant Maintains An Air-Tight Layer
Even Without A Replaceable Cartridge, The Buoyant Sealant Maintains An Air-Tight Layer

One of the largest complaints about this design is that it’s a supposedly eco-friendly solution that requires the repeated use and disposal of a plastic component. Kohler’s line of  Steward residential waterless urinals addresses this problem, eliminating the replaceable trap while keeping the liquid sealant technology. Basically, instead of having a cartridge, the same shape is built into the urinal drain, the sealing liquid is poured directly into it, and a standard filter is placed on top. The process and functionality is the same, but you won’t have to buy (or throw away) any plastic parts – just the liquid. That said, because there’s no cartridge to be removed, the liquid sealant will have to be flushed out with routine maintenance in a residential setting, and be replaced much more often, especially in a commercial setting. The main drawback of not having a removable trap to filter out sediment is that, without careful attention and frequent cleaning, urine sediments will eventually cake and slow or close the drain.

Kohler Steward S Waterless Urinal K-4917
Kohler Steward S Waterless Urinal K-4917

Maintenance is really the key issue with waterless urinals because upkeep differs slightly from those of traditional urinals. Changing the type of urinal you have without changing your cleaning methods can cause a variety of issues, from odors to clogged drains to damage to your plumbing system as a whole. In a commercial setting, the maintenance staff should be thoroughly educated on the care and cleaning of the new urinals, as the most common problems with waterless urinals are caused by improper maintenance and are very easily prevented with proper care. As with all urinals, waterless ones should be periodically sprayed with a mild cleaner and wiped down, especially if it is being used in a commercial setting. Maintenance of the cartridge and sealing liquid differ somewhat by manufacturers, but generally replacing the liquid sealant will keep your waterless urinal odor-free.

Following Your Manufacturer's Maintenance Instructions Ensures Your Urinal Will Stay Odor Free And Your Pipes Clean
Following Your Manufacturer’s Maintenance Instructions Ensures Your Urinal Will Stay Odor Free And Your Pipes Clean

While ostensibly waterless urinals are designed not to use any water, the rest of your plumbing probably isn’t. Waterless urinals should NOT be used with copper drain pipes, as urine is very corrosive to copper. But because urine is typically pH neutral, it can be used safely with any other kind of plumbing. In fact, it’s only when water and urine combine that the mixture becomes acidic – the source of the bad urinal smell in the first place. Water and urine can also build up in pipes, creating a hard limestone crust inside the pipes, whereas pure urine leaves only a soft sediment that can be easily rinsed out with regular maintenance. Each manufacturer will have their own set of instructions (these happen to be for American Standard‘s Flowise waterless urinals), and accompanying cleaning products, replacements, and refills, but typically when the cartridge is being changed, you want to either empty the cartridge into the drain or flush it out with water, remove it, then pour one gallon of hot water into the urinal as quickly as possible without overflowing, before installing a new cartridge and filling it with sealant.

Waterless Co Urinal Maintenance
Waterless Co Urinal Maintenance

A good middle of the ground option and one of the least expensive systems are those from the Waterless Company. These were among the first waterless urinals invented, have been in use the longest, and are often easier to maintain because the sealing liquid can be replaced without replacing the cartridge. For an average home, new sealant should be added to the cartridge once every 1,500 uses (about once every 2-3 months, or every 2 weeks in a commercian setting – no rinsing needed). The trap cartridge itself acts like a filter, and should be replaced once every 7,000-10,000 or so uses (about once a year for an average family home, or quarterly in a commercial setting). Most cartridges are recyclable, and ones from Waterless tend to be a little less expensive as well as needing to be replaced less frequently.

When properly maintained, waterless urinals pose no threat to your plumbing, and are completely odor free and absolutely hygienic, not the least because they’re totally hands free. They work equally well in commercial and domestic applications – whether you have a very high traffic restroom or just a few men in the house, waterless urinals are an excellent way to cut down on water consumption, and reduce that awful bathroom smell – all without having to ever touch a flush valve.