Public Restrooms

By Randy Gaddo

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Public restrooms are among the most challenging facilities for maintenance staff members; most of the restrooms are heavily used—and often abused—at parks and sports complexes, day and night, week after week, all year long.

While it is natural to focus on sports-field turf, rink surfaces, courts, and special-event venues, equal attention should be allocated to the restrooms that support them, as well as those that serve passive recreation areas. One of the best ways to ensure getting torrid—and justifiable—complaints is to have a dirty, smelly bathroom at a heavily used park or at a special event.

A Look At Paper Products
Making sure paper products are well stocked is a great first step to successful restroom management. There are many effective products available to ensure ample stock without exposing the products to vandals, such as jumbo-sized, sealed, and locked toilet-tissue holders, or those that hold multiple, rotating rolls.

Paper hand towels are helpful when used and disposed of properly; however, they can also be scattered on the floor, stuffed down toilets, or used to plug up sink drains. There are some hand-towel dispensers that allow only one sheet at a time, which makes it more difficult for would-be vandals.

However, parks and rec pros may find it best to do away with hand towels completely and use hand dryers instead. There was a time when hand dryers were slow and low-powered, and never really dried one’s hands. Today, there are high-powered hand dryers on the market that will seemingly flap the skin back like an astronaut pulling G’s and dry one’s hands in about 10 seconds. These devices get the job done while removing the paper from the hands of potential vandals.

Regardless of how parks and rec maintenance staff members make it easy for people to clean up after themselves, public restrooms remain a nasty place to clean. Anyone—whether a paid employee or a volunteer--knows how true that is.

Self-Contained Cleaning Units
However, there are tools available to help make this job more of the “hands-off” rather than the less desirable “hands-on” method.

Different companies offer a self-contained cleaning unit, complete with an indoor pressure washer, a vacuum system, and a drying unit that enables thorough cleaning without a human’s ever having to touch anything. The all-in-one systems, which came into wider use in the mid-1990s, promote this no-touch approach using “green” chemicals or none at all.

The original model was designed specifically for the public restroom, which is not only the number-one source of maintenance complaints, but also the most health-hazardous area within a building, according to leading manufacturers and environmental scientists.

People who have used the hands-off systems report they are easy, make cleanup faster, and keep the crew from having to deal with hands-on, nasty situations better left un-described here; the result is a happier crew, cleaner restrooms, and more satisfied patrons.

“It is the most effective and efficient tool we have for cleaning our restrooms,” notes Lance Perry, manager of facilities and operations for the Lakota school district, the seventh largest in Ohio, with 22 schools. He says the district has 27 of the units and has used them for about 7 years in school and sports-complex restrooms.

“The maintenance crews love it,” he notes. “There was some early resistance to using it, but once we trained them and they learned how to use it, they discovered they can get restrooms very clean, much quicker, and without having to touch the surfaces of the facilities.”

This writer can personally attest to the morale-booster these machines are to the cleaning crew, and to the improved cleanliness of restrooms. When I was director, the department purchased a couple of the machines, and every time I saw the restroom cleaning crew, the employees thanked me, and patrons began giving us compliments instead of complaints.

Graffiti Happens
Although graffiti are a problem everywhere, public restrooms tend to get more than their fair share; most of the graffiti contain unsavory messages totally inappropriate for young people, who generally use parks and rec restrooms. This problem needs to be eradicated quickly.

Preventing graffiti is the best policy. Restrooms that are monitored, either by paid staff, volunteers, or park users, will normally be more graffiti-free.

Keeping restrooms locked when parks aren’t in use is another graffiti-busting technique. But that doesn’t always serve the needs of the general public that uses passive parks throughout the day and early evening. Since these restrooms need to be open, what to do when graffiti appears?

Rapid removal of graffiti is one way to deter future vandalism, according to Arnold P. Goldstein in his seminal book on vandalism, titled The Psychology of Vandalism. When vandals realize their graffiti is being removed immediately—and the facility is being watched by someone who cares—they will generally move on, Goldstein writes. Unfortunately, vandals often move into someone else’s backyard.

Catching these vandals in the act is the best deterrent: employing quality cameras connected to a digital recording device will help identify perpetrators so police can track them down and prosecute them. Once word gets around, other would-be graffiti artists will stay away.

Of course, all of the above requires funding—for staff, materials, equipment, and supplies. Describing the need and importance for clean restrooms to elected or appointed officials who provide funding is critical. While an articulate staff member may be effective for this purpose, it is often more compelling to have citizens who actually use the facilities be the messengers. After all, they are served by both staff members and elected officials.

Pictures can help tell the story, too. For example, in order to justify funding, a picture before cleaning with the machine and after will present a vivid image. A video showing the machine being used is better; on-camera testimonials from satisfied users can also be of benefit. Or, even better yet, arrange to let the decision makers use the machine so they can see for themselves.

Having a secondary request is a good idea as well. If the self-contained, powered cleaning unit cannot be purchased, perhaps obtaining upgraded hand tools for cleaning crews can be justified. Anything one can do to improve work conditions in restrooms will serve the double-purpose of raising crew morale and delivering better service to patrons.

If PRB readers have any other secrets to keeping public restrooms clean and healthy, or if you have any stories to share, contact me or the editor, and we’ll spread the word.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .