Designing Restrooms for Sustainable Operation

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Sponsored by Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc.
By Alan Gettelman
This test is no longer available for credit

Lighting also can contribute to high energy costs in the restroom. In many commercial restrooms, the lights are always on, regardless of whether or not the restroom is in use, leading to high electrical costs. In addition, conventional, fluorescent, or incandescent light bulbs are extremely inefficient. In fact, with incandescent bulbs, 90 percent of the energy used goes toward heat, while only 10 percent is used to produce actual light.

High-wattage bulbs, which are common among incandescent bulbs, are gradually becoming less readily available and can be culprits of high energy usage as well. Fluorescent lights also can be inefficient because they throw light in all directions, which can be wasteful and a significant energy draw. Compared to conventional, fluorescent, or incandescent light bulbs, LEDs are drastically more sustainable and cost-effective. LED lights use 75 percent less energy than incandescent lights. The lower amount of heat produced with LEDs also reduces HVAC running costs.

While fluorescent lights throw light in all directions, LEDs are directional, so they throw light exactly where it is needed. LEDs can have up to 50,000 maintenance-free hours of useful life compared to a lifespan of around 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights. The useful life of an LED is defined as the time it takes for the light output to reach 70 percent of the initial output.

Finally, while fluorescent lights take time to get to full brightness, LEDs light up instantly. In addition, by utilizing occupancy sensors instead of manual lighting systems, facilities can increase energy savings by 30 to 90 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

LED Lighted Mirrors

Lighted mirrors are gaining in popularity in commercial restrooms due to their aesthetic appeal and cost-efficiency compared to traditional vanities.

Illuminated LED mirrors require less labor and material cost by using only one power outlet. They also eliminate the need for costly wall sconces and vanity lights. Additionally, LED mirrors create an elegant, modern aesthetic that enhances and simplifies vanity design.

Touchless Accessories

Specifying the right touchless accessories is critical to sustainable operation. No-touch accessories, particularly faucets, are gaining in popularity due to their hygienic function and ability to minimize water usage.

Note that many automatic accessories require batteries to operate. Batteries can be another contributor to excess waste and energy costs. Some fixtures may need to be hardwired, while other models may require an AC power source, which can contribute to high electric bills.

Also note that there are two primary types of hands-free sensors used in notouch accessories: infrared, which is most common, and fiberoptic, which is less common. Infrared sensors, despite their popularity, can result in wasted water or consumables, as they utilize an arc-shaped beam that does not always deactivate properly. Meanwhile, fiberoptic sensors are generally more reliable, leading to less waste. When deciding between automatic dispensing products, be aware that the sensor type can have an effect on operations.

To get the benefits of no-touch faucets without the associated energy costs, some newer automatic faucets generate energy from the pressure in the water lines using a hydrogenerator rather than from batteries or an AC power source. These typically offer the best balance of hygiene and sustainable operation.

Water Usage

Plumbing fixtures also can lead to excessive water use. For example, at the lavatory, patrons tend to use more water with liquid soap-dispensing systems compared to foam soap, which dispenses into the patron’s hand already lathered.

In addition, the type of faucet specified can have a significant impact on water usage. In some facilities that employ manual faucets, users may leave the water running even upon completion of their hand wash. Faucets also may feature inefficient flow, leading to excess water usage.

Similarly, the type of toilet and/or urinal can use a high volume of water. In particular, manual flushing systems can enable excess water use. However, with automatic flushing systems, faulty or ineffective sensors can be prone to premature “false flushes.” Inefficient flush valves, or flushometers, are also a consideration, as they use a large volume of water for each flush.


The type of faucet specified can enable significant water savings. Today’s faucets are available with various spray patterns and flow ranges as low as 0.5 gallons per minute, or GPM.

Metering faucets, which are engineered to prevent run-on by timing out after a short amount of time, are particularly sustainable, as they can reduce water use by as much as 50 percent. Other water-saving faucet features include adjustable cycle times, which are typically between 10 and 15 seconds—a 10-second cycle time is ideal for high-traffic and vandalism-prone restrooms—and automatic activation and shutoff, which studies show can reduce the amount of water required for an effective hand wash from 0.65 gallons to 0.2 gallons.

Toilets and Urinals

To address the problem of inefficient toilets and urinals, consider flush valves with low GPF figures.

For toilets, 1.6 GPF is industry standard. However, high-efficiency toilets, or HETs, can use less than 1.3 GPF, and newer models can use as little as 1.28 GPF. For urinals, 1 GPF is industry standard. High-efficiency urinals, or HEUs, use less than 0.5 GPF, with newer models using as little as 0.125 GPF.

Automatic vs. Manual Flushing

Automatic flushing toilets and urinals also can enhance sustainability. In fact, sensor flushometers can reduce water volume by up to 30 percent. In addition, automatic-flushing toilets also improve hygiene, odor control, and air quality.

To optimize auto-flush toilets, certain sensor features can help further minimize water usage. For example, some flushometers are engineered with a delay once the user steps away from the fixture to prevent false flushing. This promotes not only water savings but also a reduction in maintenance and operational costs. Some sensor flushometers also can adjust the flush volume based on the user’s distance from the sensor.

Waterless Urinals

Waterless urinals are also available, eliminating water usage completely. Since waterless urinals do not use water, splashing is eliminated, improving hygiene and offering superior odor control. Waterless urinals can help contribute to up to four LEED points for reducing water use. However, waterless urinals may be more difficult or time consuming to maintain and sanitize.

The Relationship Between Sustainability and Aesthetics

For the third learning objective, we will describe the relationship between sustainable operation and the preservation of the designer’s aesthetic vision.

When you fail to assess products correctly and specify inappropriate products, the restroom quickly will become difficult to operate. This can have several implications for your design vision.

Owner-Provided Products

For building owners, products that are difficult or time consuming to maintain equate to more labor hours, which translates to costs. For example, cartridge-based soap systems can be difficult to maintain. Not only do they require janitorial staff to bend under the counter, but the cost of proprietary soap cartridges also can add up over time. Even if the soap dispenser looks great, the owner may replace the system early in the restroom’s life cycle due to its inefficient or wasteful operation.

As the architect, you have no control over the product that the owner selects to replace your originally specified product. In the case of soap dispensers, it is not unusual for owners to replace the specified product with a hastily attached plastic wall- or mirror-mounted dispenser. This can compromise the overall design of the restroom and have a significant impact on aesthetics.

Meanwhile, a top-fill, nonproprietary bulk system can both look great and be easy to maintain. Roll towel dispensers are another prime example. If a stainless-steel towel dispenser with no ability to limit pull lengths is specified, the owner may soon realize that patrons are using more towels than desired, requiring the owner to buy more paper towels more often. This can lead to the stainless-steel unit being replaced with a plastic unit that may be more economical but ultimately compromises the architect’s aesthetic intent.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in November 2019