Greener Public Restrooms

Whether installing a new restroom facility, renovating an existing one, or placing one in a remote location, you have several options to make it greener. Solar panels, solar-updraft tubes, micro-hydro generators, composting toilets and well-insulated buildings are only a few of the ways to improve the green rating of a park’s outdoor facility.

One example of green technology is at the well-known and photographed Maroon Bells twin-peak mountain, located in the White River National Forest in Aspen, Colo. The mostly below-ground restroom is at a popular destination spot at the end of a dead-end road and the beginning of several hiking trails. The 14-hole facility utilizes micro-hydro and solar-powered generation and composting toilets.

Reining In The Power Of The Sun and Water

Solar panels can provide a significant source of energy--enough to power the lights and well pumps, and run exhaust fans. The solar panel collects the energy, transfers it to a charge controller, and then the energy is stored in batteries. It is more efficient to run equipment off the direct current from the batteries rather than convert the energy to alternating current.

“Don’t worry about making the solar panels look pretty, and don’t place the panels flat on top of the building,” advises Jim Krischvink, realty specialist for the United States Forest Service in Aspen, who was involved in the installation of the Maroon Bells facility. “Position the solar panels where they won’t collect snow, and they’ll produce the most energy.” If you are in an area that has snow, Kirschvink advises wiring the panels horizontally, because if snow does build up on the lower panels, the upper panels still will be producing electricity.

In addition to solar power, add a micro-hydro generator to aid in developing electricity, especially during the winter months when solar-energy generation is typically lower. “We have a pipeline that goes 300 feet up the hill and generates one kilowatt of power,” says Kirschvink. “The solar unit produces about one kilowatt of power so there are about two kilowatts coming into the facility. This power runs all the equipment and lighting, and keeps the battery charged.”

Even in this remote area, water is available via a well located at a distance from the facility. “We filter the water and chlorinate it,” says Kirschvink. “We have drinking stations and a place where you can wash your hands.”

Composting Toilets

“Do a thorough job of designing the facility,” says Kirschvink. “The substructure foundation has to be solid, which means the prep work must be done properly.” Part of that pre-design work includes determining what the potential load will be on the facility, and getting a composting vault that can handle more than the expected load. The unit at Maroon Bells is touted as the largest composting toilet in the United States.

To increase air flow and decrease associated odors, several fans literally suck the air out of the vault. This air travels through a tube and exits several hundred feet away from the facility. Another way of creating an air current in a facility is to incorporate a solar-updraft vent. The large-diameter black tubes extend for several feet above the building. As the sun heats the tubes, natural convection currents occur as the hot air rises, and pulls the cooler air from below into the tubes to be heated by the sun. This also pulls along any noxious odors from the restroom. But it is wise to have another means of creating an air current, as on cloudy or rainy days the air currents will not be as strong.

The Maroon Bells composting vault doesn’t have a tumbler or way of directly increasing the levels of oxygen literally mixed into the waste material. It sits on a field of lava rock, and since the waste is about 90 percent water, the fluids drain through the lava rock and into a leach field, much like that of a common septic system. The solid waste is left to decompose in place. The decomposition is accomplished by bacteria that consume the waste and break it down into basic elements.

Small Venues

But not every location is going to need a facility as large as that in Maroon Bells. For example, seasonal cabins or remote locations that only receive a handful of guests each year would be better off utilizing one of the composting toilets that is small enough to fit inside a cabin and collects the waste material inside a drum.

“It is important to mix everything together to allow the air to penetrate the entire pile,” says Fraser Sneddon, sales manager at Sun-Mar, which designs and develops composting toilets and garden composters. “Oxygen and water thoroughly mixed into the pile along with peat increase aerobic decomposition. The toilet paper breaks down in a few days, and the waste is gone within a few weeks.”

“The volume of material drops because it is being converted into basic elements,” says Sneddon. “Putting a septic system in a remote location or adding new plumbing to a house can be expensive. A composting toilet makes a lot of sense.”

Composting toilets also make sense for secondary structures that you might not want to have plumbed. Barns, woodworking shops, tool sheds, airport hangers, oil rigs, mobile homes, recreational vehicles and boats are only a few structures where composting toilets have been installed.

A septic system has the potential of polluting the ground and surface water. “You need to protect the water sources,” says Sneddon. “If you are near a lake, you really don’t want the waste from the septic system having a chance to pollute the water that your children are playing in.”

Urban Applications

If you have an urban application, consider the strides being made by Portland, Ore. The Portland Loo is a pre-fabricated restroom powered by solar energy, and is tapped into both sewer and water lines. Inside the utilitarian-style restroom is the toilet, toilet paper dispenser, hand-sanitizing gel and a motion- and time-regulated overhead LED light. Outside the restroom is a place to rinse one’s hands and an exterior LED nightlight. The walls are louvers at the top and bottom with replaceable steel panels in the middle. Everything has been pre-treated with an anti-graffiti coating, making cleanup as easy as hosing down the structure.

“Inside the Loo people feel like they are under a microscope. You have a sense of less privacy because people outside the building can see your feet,” says Anna DiBenedetto, spokesperson for the Loo project. “It has decreased unwanted activities such as prostitution, drug usage and homeless people washing their hair or doing laundry.”

Greening Up and Safer

Whether a facility is located halfway up the side of a mountain or smack-dab in the middle of an urban park, you can create an off-the-grid restroom facility that incorporates green solutions, and makes the facility cleaner and safer.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for recreation businesses. Her upcoming book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cincinnati, is due out May 2009 and can be pre-ordered through You can reach her at