'Green' Experiment at City Hall Stinks

Sunday, Feb 7, 2010  |  Updated 3:16 PM CDT
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'Green' Experiment at City Hall Stinks

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There's been a stench coming from the second floor of City Hall -- and it has nothing to do with the steady stream of Chicago aldermen convicted on corruption charges.

Waterless urinals installed to promote water conservation in the public men's room outside the City Council chambers have turned into a stinky mess. The odor got so bad that the "green" urinals are now being ripped out and replaced with the old-fashioned kind at a cost City Hall has refused to disclose.

The problem is that Chicago's building code requires commercial buildings to use copper pipes in indoor plumbing. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifically states that drainpipes for waterless urinals "cannot be made of copper pipe, which corrodes."

That's what's happened at City Hall, with the corrosion causing urine to build up in the wall behind the men's room.

That's the source of the stench wafting through the second floor, which includes the City Council chambers and aldermanic offices.

The men's room is now closed while the marble wall is removed and new urinals are installed.

Environment Department spokesman Larry Merritt said copper pipe was used in the February 2006 installation of waterless urinals donated to the city "to take advantage of existing infrastruction and minimize the cost." The Illinois Department of Public Health authorized "this experimental installation with copper piping," he said.

Merritt estimated that each green urinal saved the city 1.5 gallons of water "per-use" or 50,000 gallons a year. But he acknowledged that they "didn't perform as expected" and are being removed.

"While we don't know for certain, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the heavy traffic, combined with the disposal of additional liquids, such as juice, coffee, etc. being poured down the urinal drain that caused issues that were unforeseen," Merritt said.

"When working with this emerging field, it is important to test out new technologies and rework their use with experience."

Sources said the waterless urinals were the idea of Mayor Daley's former chief environmental officer, Sadhu Johnston. Now assistant city manager of Vancouver, Johnston did not return calls.

In 2005, five waterless urinals also were installed in O'Hare Airport's Terminal 2, only to be removed three months later.

"The pipes clogged with fluids," Aviation Department spokesperson Karen Pride said. "The cartridges placed in the urinals to abate odor failed prematurely as people poured coffee and chemicals in the urinals and destroyed the plastic."

The cost of the failed O'Hare experiment was pegged at $20,000. Every time a cartridge is blown by dumping extraneous liquids, it cost the city $75, sources said.

Waterless urinals are also installed in the men's room outside Mayor Daley's office on the fifth floor of City Hall and at the Chicago Center for Technology. There are no plans to remove those. They get less traffic and haven't had problems, Merritt said.

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