Cleaning up

David Meacock looks at the options for schools wanting to bring water use down but keep hygiene standards up

School washrooms are typically central to any improvements on the school’s premises. The provision of clean and hygienic facilities is rightly considered important for the wellbeing of pupils and staff, as well as helping to set the standard of cleanliness for the whole building. But there are a number of other factors that also need to be considered when washrooms are being planned or refurbished. These include budget responsibility, regulatory compliance and, just as importantly, environmental impact in terms of minimizing mains water use – something now considered almost as vital as carbon reduction within the built environment.

If lowering water use and providing hygienic facilities seem at odds with one another, that’s not surprising. After all, nearly a quarter of all water consumed in schools is from the simple act of staff and pupils washing their hands after visiting the washroom.

Is it feasible to use less water while ensuring such good behaviours are continued and effective? Because there is little doubt that the financial cost of wasting water can also be huge.

The average volumetric cost of water is around £2.42 per cubic metre, which can mean a hefty annual bill for schools where the washrooms are in regular use. The older the building and its washroom facilities, the higher the likely water use; if the WCs don’t have partial flush controls, for example, they can account for up to three-quarters of the overall water consumption within a school. Any WCs installed in the 60s use a whopping nine litres per flush. By the 1980s things had improved slightly, with cistern capacities of around 7.5 litres. But the worst culprits of all remain the older urinals. With no fitted flush controls, they run continuously, regardless of the number of visitors to the facilities.

Set against this is the fact that children are at particular risk of contracting and transmitting infection in school environments where there is close contact with others pupils and shared communal facilities. In washrooms, there are particular risks with infection being spread from hand-to-surface contact and from unhygienic practices and behaviour. Cleanliness is important in this regard too, and young people need to be educated in areas such as routine toilet flushing and hand washing.

One very effective way to address both issues is through the choice of good quality (not necessarily high-cost) fixtures and fittings within the washroom.

Not that upgrading washroom facilities should place too much pressure on budgets. There are a range of simple-to-install options available to schools that maintain or improve hygiene standards and lower water wastage and which don’t necessarily mean replacing and refurbishing all their washrooms.

The good news is that investing in nicer washrooms has been shown to have positive effects elsewhere. As David Miliband said: “If you get the toilets right, you get the teaching right.”

Control valve technology

Reducing water use in a building is rarely simple. Sanitary ware, the style and type of flush and the taps can quickly be updated, but as has already been highlighted, fixtures and fittings also need to consider the types of user, ‘user behaviour’ and the likelihood of school-age users being able to interact with the new technology.

Waterless urinals might appear to be the most intuitive solution to reduce water use. But they still require water for cleaning and maintenance – which rather defeats the object – not to mention hefty doses of chemical treatments.

Meanwhile, flush control products – ranging from entry-level products right through to washroom management systems – are relatively easy to install and all deliver significant water savings. Which solution is chosen depends on a range of considerations such as age/type of user, frequency of use and budget.

In terms of entry level, a neat and inexpensive option would be simply to fit a hydraulic control valve to the pipe filling the urinal cistern. Activated by water pressure, the valve remains closed if there is no washroom activity (halting the constant flush-fill-flush cycle of the urinal cistern) until a tap is turned on. At this point the water pressure drops, the valve opens and the cistern refill cycle continues.

It may be simple, but it can still be hugely effective in terms of conserving water. Water usage can drop dramatically from some 157,000 litres for a urinal with no flush controls to just 28,000 litres per annum with a control valve – equating to financial savings of more than £300 per year per urinal.

The addition of infrared technology delivers even greater control. Here, a sensor detects user presence and triggers solenoid valves to open delivering water into the washroom system as required. This system alone can save up to 134,280 litres per year, reducing costs by around £313 per year per urinal – and when used on a WC there are even greater savings to be made. It has been calculated that an infrared sensor-operated WC cistern flush valve which can part-flush as little as 2 litres, can save some 403,000 litres of water per year (based on 50 users flushing five times per day, 260 working days of the year). The financial savings in this instance, on average, would be around £975 per year per WC cistern.

An infrared sensor-operated WC cistern flush valve can save some 403,000 litres of water per year (based on 50 users flushing five times per day, 260 working days of the year). The financial savings in this instance, on average, would be around £975 per year per WC cistern.

And there are other benefits. For buildings such as schools where pupils may not always be relied on to flush, installing infrared sensor-operated flushes will help to significantly improve washroom hygiene standards. And when the washroom isn’t being used the water supply is shut off, meaning there is no risk of taps left running unchecked or flooding caused by damaged outlets – deliberate or otherwise.

Energy and water conservation

Infrared sensors can also be used to control both water and energy output. Visitors to the washroom are detected by a system which then automatically switches on the lights and ventilation as well as the water supply.

There are some important considerations in the design of such a system that installers need to bear in mind to ensure it operates effectively to deliver the required control and therefore projected savings.

An interface module can control lights and fans from up to 100m away, while valves can be positioned up to 30m away, with sensors installed no more than 10m from the furthest valve. Up to ten sensors can link up in one system, controlling up to three solenoid valves. The positioning of both sensors and valves is vital to ensuring effective washroom coverage so working with a washroom control specialist manufacturer to design the system can be very helpful prior to its installation.

For large buildings with two to three washrooms on each floor (gents, ladies and disabled), or for larger campuses such as schools, hospitals and universities, the ability of such systems to control individual washrooms across different floors – simply switching the facilities on and off remotely – can be a major selling point.

David Meacock is technical director for washroom products specialists Cistermiser W: www.cistermiser.co.uk

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