What kind of fool?

P1080013 (Medium)What kind of fool would drive 70 miles to see a park restroom?  On Oct. 22, despite feeling low with the flu, I hit 580 East and found my way to Lathrop, a western suburb of Manteca, in the Central Valley, just to have a look at the new restroom built by Green Flush Technologies.  I’ve blogged about this new toilet technology before, but this was my first chance to see one in action.  But I wasn’t the only one drawn to this innovation.  Two city officials from Sausalito, one from Public Works and the other from Parks and Rec, had driven even farther for the same purpose.  And a foursome of city agency folk from Tracy also showed up to inspect the new installation.

Poised next to the small dog section of Lathrop’s dog park, the new restroom looked neat, tidy, and unremarkable.  The casual viewer might confuse it with your standard campground potty, the kind where you hold your nose and hope nothing precious falls in because, as the sign says, “it is extremely difficult to remove.”  But inside it’s a different universe.  There’s no smell.  There’s a regular-looking flush toilet, a waterless and odorless urinal, and a sink to wash your hands.  Decent.  Civilized.  Respectful of park visitors’ humanity.

Ken Reed, the city of Lathrop’s project manager, said that when the proposal for a permanent restroom at the dog park came before city council,  to replace the plastic porta-potty, the council members were “adamant about the smell issue.” They did not want the typical forest service open vault potty with its flies and its stink.  But they also did not want to spend a mint hooking the restroom up to the sewer line, which was far away and would have required a long trench and a substation.

Reed had the answer.  He’d installed park bathrooms all over California and read about Green Flush Tech in a trade journal.  The GFT system is a hybrid.  It has the economy and versatility of a vault toilet with the human decency of a flush toilet.

Campground toilets are vault toilets.  The waste drops into a reservoir underneath the housing, and piles up there until a vacuum truck (a “honeydipper”) comes and cleans it out.  It’s the same basic idea as the porta-potty, except the drop is longer, there’s no blue juice, and the reservoir is bigger.  It requires no sewer hookup.  It doesn’t need a septic tank.  It can be installed anywhere there’s solid ground for a truck to service it.  Maintenance is cheaper than for a porta-potty because the interval between pump-outs is longer.  But the vault is open to the air through the toilet cone, which is large enough to drop a baby through. Vault toilets stink and draw flies.  People drop all kinds of garbage in, despite the sign that says it’s difficult to remove.

GFT toilets are also vault toilets.  They require no sewer or septic tank and can be installed anywhere there’s an access road.  The model in Lathrop, GFT’s smallest unit, holds nearly 6,000 uses and will probably need to be pumped out about three times a year.  (GFT also makes larger units.)

There’s no smell with the GFT vault because the toilet is sealed.  When you hit the flush button, an electrically operated valve opens the bottom of the toilet and about a quart of water cleans the bowl.  As the valve closes, a small amount of water comes to rest in the bottom, just as you expect to see in a regular indoor toilet.  Note that older standard flush toilets may use up to seven gallons and a modern economy toilet uses 1.6 gallons per flush.  The GFT toilet uses one quart.  No garbage or debris larger than two inches in diameter can fall in.  The valve is powered by a standard boat-type battery that’s charged from a solar panel on the roof.  The solar setup also powers an internal light and an external light over the door.

There’s a floor drain used for cleaning, and that’s sealed with a simple membrane valve.  Bottom line, no vault smell in the unit.  This unit had been operational for ten days and had clearly seen some use but there was no hint of odor in the cabin.

This model also has a waterless, odorless urinal, of the kind you see in the most modern commercial bathrooms.  It also has a sink with cold water for washing your hands.  All in all, this is a highly functional, civilized restroom that shows respect for people’s sense of decency.

Ken Earlywine shows off the GFT installation
Ken Earlywine shows off the GFT installation

Ken Earlywine, co-owner of GFT with his son, was present to show off the installation to me and the city folks from Sausalito and Tracy, and to discuss the various options that his firm makes available.  You can get the structure in three versions:  cast concrete, masonry, or wood frame.  The Lathrop installation was cast concrete, built like a bomb shelter, and could be the safest place in Lathrop to be in a nuclear attack.  The masonry and wood frame versions run about $10,000 cheaper.  This installation used a city water hookup (water was already piped in to the drinking fountains at the dog park), but GFT can also provide units with water storage tanks and rainwater recovery systems.  There’s a variety of security options to deal with the problem of vandalism and homeless people using the cabin as shelter, which has been a problem at other parks in the area, according to reports in the Manteca Bulletin.

Total cost of this unit including shipping to the site was $47,000.  The city spent an additional $4,200 to grade the site, dig a hole, build a concrete pad and walkway, and run the water hookup.  Including the cost of a crane to lower the unit in place, the total cost came to $54,000.  Maintenance, according to a city statement, will cost less than the standard toilet because it uses no electricity and much less water per flush.  Maintenance is also cheaper than a porta-potty because it needs to be pumped out only a few times per year, instead of several times a week.

So was I a fool to drive 70 miles to see this restroom?  Maybe.  But what kind of city official would be fool enough to spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on a park restroom now that something like GFT is on the market?  The combination of  vault economy with flush decency is a revolutionary technology in an area ripe for disruption. Ken Earlywine and his son have built a better mousetrap, and city officials from all over should be beating a path to their door.

On this topic see also related stories:  http://viva-cesar-chavez-park.org/reconsider-the-600k-windsurfer-bathroom/  and http://viva-cesar-chavez-park.org/600000-would-buy-ten-better-bathrooms/ and http://viva-cesar-chavez-park.org/a-better-bathroom-green-and-flush/

See also the 45-second YouTube video on this topic.

P.S. I also enjoyed looking at Lathrop’s dog park, where the bathroom is located.  They have a separate area for the small dogs and the large.  Each area is enclosed with a six foot high fence.  Separation and fencing are standard dog park design requirements in the city, Ken Reed told me, and the design enjoyed input from dog owner groups and from animal control people.  The park is popular and draws dog owners from surrounding cities, especially now that it has a decent bathroom for humans.

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