Potty Parity Act introduced in Congress; codes continue to address issue

May 3, 2010
WASHINGTON — The issue of potty parity has been around for decades but, so far, there has been no federal law relating to restroom parity regulations.

WASHINGTON — The issue of potty parity — an equitable ratio of women’s toilets to men’s in public facilities — has been around for decades but, so far, there has been no federal law relating to restroom parity regulations. That, however, could change in the near future.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus “Ed” Towns (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 4869, the Restroom Gender Parity in Federal Buildings Act, also referenced as the “Potty Parity Act,” March 18, 2010, to address the issue of insufficient restroom facilities for women in federal buildings.

According to the article, “Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms,” in the Journal of Planning Literature, issues of race and physical ability have been addressed through federal legislation regarding restrooms — the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. However, federal legislation has yet to provide equal access to public restrooms for women.

The bipartisan measure introduced by Towns is cosponsored by Ranking Member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Reps. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.). The policy would require any federal building constructed for public use to have a 1:1 ratio for toilets, including urinals, in women’s and men’s restrooms. The bill would impact future federal projects by mandating that preference for federal leasing considerations be given to buildings that meet this criterion.

Towns, who introduced similar legislation in the 110th Congress, expressed concern that “exasperating lines” and overall restroom accommodations for women were “an inconvenience seen in almost every type of public building.”

“When we look at this act, it’s great to address this because a lot of the old federal buildings are not proportioned correctly,” explained Jay Peters, executive director of the International Code Council's Plumbing, Mechanical and Fuel Gas Group.

“Any legislation addressing potty parity is a positive step forward,” said Lynne Simnick, director of code development, International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials. “Potty parity legislation is not the only means by which gender discrimination in public restrooms can be remedied. In fact, a more powerful means exists in the revision of building and plumbing codes that could set the standards for all buildings in the states.”

“The House and Senate office buildings as well as the Capitol lack restroom parity which is a main precipitant for this legislation,” said a spokesperson for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The primary reason for this deficiency is because women did not and were not expected to compose a significant portion of the federal workforce. And, these buildings were constructed well before any state enacted any kind of restroom parity legislation.”

According to the committee spokesperson, if it is passed, this legislation only affects new federal buildings.

“The only way in which an older building would have to be retrofitted is if the said building undergoes ‘major renovations’,” explained the committee spokesperson. “However, the definition of ‘major renovations’ has not yet been specified. This bill is more of a safeguard to ensure that buildings will not continue to be constructed in the same manner as the buildings where federal employees currently work.”

Plumbing, building codes

Even though there is no federal law for restroom parity yet, plumbing codes and building codes have been addressing this issue for sometime.

IAPMO’s Uniform Plumbing Code, Section 412.0-415.0, provides a ratio for the minimum amount of water closets to be used in male and female bathrooms depending on the different types of buildings or occupancies.

In the code, it is stated that the minimum number of fixtures shall be calculated at 50% male and 50% female, based on the total occupant load. It is also noted that the total number of water closets for females shall be equal to the total number of water closets and urinals required for males (this requirement shall not apply to retail or wholesale stores).

The UPC addresses each individual occupancy, based on research conducted by the American Society of Plumbing Engineers and the Stevens Institute of Technology. The research is based on the “Queuing Theory,” which provides a tool for determining the number of plumbing fixtures for a preferred level of service expressed in waiting times during peak periods of use, fixture utilization and the probability of locating a vacant fixture.

According to Simnick, a footnote to the Minimum Plumbing Facilities Table 4-1 does not apply to retail or wholesale (assembly occupancies), which provide a greater number of water closets for women.

“We have addressed these types of occupancies where a large number of people need to use the restroom at the same time,” said Simnick.

According to Peters, ICC has been involved in potty parity for a long time, and the IPC has as been addressing this as far back as when the Southern Building Code Congress Plumbing Code existed.

“When you suggest a 2:1 ratio, which has been suggested for years, the problem is you penalize some in some instances and then it might not be enough in other instances,” said Peters. “If you start thinking about smaller occupancies, such as a restaurant then you need one water closet per sex, but now you would require two for women and one for men even though there is not enough need for it. Codes have tried to address this through science and studies.

Research, studies

“There are a lot of people who have sat in restrooms with stop watches and have timed people,” explained Peters. “We need to get to where we really understand the number, so we are not forcing people to spend more than they need to and at the same time providing the proper amount — the closest you can come to a balance.”

Studies used to further understand potty parity have been performed by Dr. Sandra Rawls at the University of Virginia; Stevens Institute of Technology; the National Restaurant Association and the ASPE Research Foundation.

“The studies consistently showed that the time required for a woman to use a toilet room was twice as long as the time required a man to use the facilities,” explained Lee Clifton, director of plumbing programs at ICC. “When the timing is related to the defecation process, the time required for the male population was more than twice as long as the female population. When the values were averaged, the time required for the male and female population was approximately equal. The problem with using the average value is that it is deceiving for a large population in an assembly building that has a high demand for use of the plumbing fixtures. This occurs in theaters during intermission or at football stadiums during halftime.

“In developing code requirements, the studies used the most demanding time factors to evaluate the waiting time required,” added Clifton. “Hence, the urination process was analyzed for determining minimum number of fixtures. If the female population requires twice as long to complete the urination process, they would need twice as many fixtures to have the same waiting period as the male population. Thus, Table 403.1 in the code reflects requirements for twice as many water closets in the ladies’ room when compared to the men’s room. While the number of fixtures required will not eliminate waiting time during heavy use periods, its purpose was to result in equal waiting periods for both the men and the women.

“The International Code Council recognizes the importance of continually reviewing the requirements for the minimum number of plumbing fixtures,” said Clifton.

Flexibility is key

According to Peters, flexibility in the code is key, so the right amount of plumbing fixtures for the right group in a facility is provided.

“In the IPC and IBC there is an exception for fixture calculation,” said Clifton. “We are the only code that has these exceptions that I know of. The total occupant load is not required to be divided in half.

“However, we do make sure that 50% of the required number of toilets is for men and 50% of the required number is for women,” added Clifton. “But there is an exception when you have statistical data that shows there is more than 50% of a sex, so you can address that. Each jurisdiction has this option. The perfect example is a women’s college. Even though we make sure that 50% of the toilets are allocated for women and 50% are allocated for men, this can be adjusted to make sure there are more fixtures for women.”

Existing buildings, such as older federal buildings, propose a challenge with potty parity since there are other issues that need to be taken into consideration when retrofitting. For example, years ago, retrofitting restrooms to include handicapped stalls created different restroom issues.

“I remember that they were eliminating toilets to accommodate the larger stall,” said Clifton. “What you are doing, in a case like that, is creating another nightmare. You have one regulation you are trying to adhere to, and while you are adhering to it, another issue is being created. Structural elements also play huge part in this when dealing with existing buildings.”

Some product solutions

Since potty parity remains prevalent, products are being created to help remedy it somewhat.

According to “Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms,” the Colorado Convention Center has moveable restroom walls, which is especially useful when there is a large amount of people of a specific gender needing to use the restroom, which often happens due to conventions and tradeshows at the facility.

Saniflo has a product that can be installed in a space that lacks below-floor drainage where a bathroom is needed. Instead of connecting through below-floor drainage lines to the sewer, an upflush toilet system moves waste and toilet paper to a macerator, which uses a fast-rotating blade to reduce it. The system then pumps the slurry under high pressure through small-diameter piping that can be installed in front of or behind a wall.

“We provide an easy solution to add an extra toilet or a complete bathroom, without breaking the concrete or the walls, said Regis Saragosti, CEO of Saniflo U.S.A. “Our products are installed above the floor and use a ¾-in. discharge pipe. It’s easy to install, you can create a bathroom or add a toilet anywhere without any major works.”

Saniflo U.S.A. is also hosting a Facebook page, inviting women and men to post images of public restroom facilities where women wait in long lines because of an insufficient number of toilets. Women and men are urged to nominate an arena, ballpark, concert hall, etc., that needs more ladies’ room toilets. Fans of the Facebook page can post photos of the long lines they observe or personally experience.

“Fortunately, our society has begun to recognize this situation as a serious problem and to do something about it,” said Saragosti. “Saniflo intends to do its part by drawing attention to the issue through our new Facebook page and by offering a reliable, affordable, easy-to-install solution for both residential and commercial spaces.”

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Contractor, create an account today!