Since the dawn of time, the planet has sustained life with an abundant supply of fresh water. However, population pressures married to unsustainable and irresponsible consumption and unfettered environmental exploitation during the last several centuries have overtaxed dwindling reservoirs of supply of this once apparently infinite resource.
It may be no exaggeration to declare water is fast becoming the new petroleum — by the year 2030, almost half of the world’s population will inhabit regions of severe water stress, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
With many areas of the United States facing severe droughts and water shortages on an annual basis, government agencies, utilities and community, industry and environmental action groups entreat us to “Use Water Wisely,” “Conserve Today,” or “Save our Lakes,” and today, in many quarters of our society and economy, the unrestrained and short-sighted consumption of resources has begun to yield to the practices of efficiency and conservation and the imperatives long-term sustainability.
Although significant strides have been made in the residential and commercial sectors, and in several segments of the institutional sector, such as education and healthcare, the field of corrections, with its unique security requirements, has lagged behind in implementing water conservation measures and strategies.
While a typical single-family household may flush a single toilet 10 to 12 times per day, water-usage meters installed in inmate housing units at California’s San Quentin state prison show that inmates are flushing their toilets 35 to 65 times per day. Multiply the average number of flushes by the typical 3.5 gallon-per-flush capacity of the older WC’s found in most existing facilities and the water consumption numbers are shocking — even a small- to medium-sized correctional facility that incorporates several hundred cells can use the same amount of water as a small city.
What’s the Problem?
Why do inmates flush in-cell toilets so many times? Any correctional officer or maintenance professional knows only too well: Inmates use the toilet variously as a garbage can, a drinks cooler, a laundry facility, or as a means to dispose of contraband. In addition, flushing sheets, clothing or other items provides a quick, convenient and effective method of flooding housing units to disrupt facility operations or register dissatisfaction. Although many inmate movements, actions and liberties are controlled by the correctional officer, the in-cell plumbing fixture remains one of the last areas of control in many facilities — inmates can flush as much of whatever they chose as frequently as they like…and they do.
Rick Lewis of Willoughby Industries Inc. and Alec Mackie of JWC Environmental share their industry expertise on plumbing challenges and misconceptions.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about plumbing in corrections?
The installation of new plumbing fixtures requires extensive modifications to the facility. In fact stainless steel fixtures can be factory modified to match existing plumbing fixture rough-ins.
Stainless steel will not rust. Foreign particles that accumulate in water that is allowed to sit for long periods without being flushed can begin to rust on top of the bowl surface, causing pitting of the stainless steel surface.
Stainless steel plumbing fixtures are more costly than vitreous china units. The installed cost of stainless steel fixtures can be up to 50 percent of vitreous china fixtures.
Plumbing systems are designed to readily handle the contraband, trash and foreign objects frequently flushed into the systems by inmates. Protective measures and access solutions such as multiple clean-out traps, capture hooks, screens and a sewage grinder can limit costly back up and flooding problems.
A single chopper or cutter pump per sewer line is sufficient to handle the shoes, clothing and rags typically introduced into the system. Dual-shafted grinders provide greater cutting force for increased effectiveness and system lifecycle.
What is the greatest challenge posed by correctional plumbing systems?
Water efficiency: However, toilet and shower Advances in the fixture and system designs can reduce gallon-per-minute and gallon-per-flush levels for increased efficiency and reduced costs, while advances in electronic plumbing controls can limit inmates’ ability waste water and disrupt operations.
Inmate behavior: However, industry engineers are continually developing more reliable and robust plumbing and waste systems with improved clean-out access, screening solutions and alternative vacuum technology.
The flushing of inappropriate items and alien materials into the plumbing network wreaks havoc on the correctional facility’s system and can significantly impact the water and waste management system beyond the facility in the host community. Debris and materials clogging the facility’s plumbing and waste water management systems can cause ongoing problems that require maintenance personnel to spend time clearing clogs, replacing pipes and removing debris before it goes to the waste treatment plant. The unnecessary maintenance work, troubleshooting and emergency work results in significant time costs and diverts maintenance staff from other important maintenance tasks throughout the facility.
The cost factors and security issues associated with inmates flushing sheets, clothing and other items into the plumbing network and the consequent flooding of housing units are significant as debris can often make it to the first or second bend in the waste pipe and can clog the sewer line backing up the entire plumbing system. Once this occurs, the inmates can act in concert by flushing their toilet multiple times to flood the pod, dorm or other part of the facility. Flooding a large section of the facility places the safety of inmates and staff at increased risk and can hand more control to the inmates, who can file complaint about unsanitary conditions. Once flooded, management and staff choices are limited to moving the inmates or fixing the clogged piping network immediately. The security risks of moving inmates on flooded floors is immense, therefore the maintenance staff must stop what they are doing to address this emergency or return to the facility on overtime, further straining already overburdened operational budgets.
Exacerbating the problems created by excessive inmate flushing, is the condition and performance of aging flushometers found in a large proportion of toilets in correctional facilities throughout the country. Measurement and verification studies conducted by energy service companies during facility audits indicate that even flushometers that are several years old have worn valve diaphragms and sticking or malfunctioning mechanical parts that cause units to flush 20 percent to 40 percent more than their gallons-per-flush rating.
However, a number of proven solutions are available to correctional agencies to solve maintenance issues. Electronic controls technologies, which have been used for years to address cell flooding and plumbing system maintenance issues, can also be employed to solve the problem of excessive inmate water usage and waste. Removing control of the flush button from the inmate offers one simple, reliable and effective solution that can reduce inmate water usage and waste by up to 80 percent by limiting flush frequency, duration. Reductions in flush capacity can also be implemented to generate even greater efficiencies in water usage. During the last several years, such solutions have been successfully implemented to achieve significant reductions in water usage and waste on a wide scale by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, departments of correction from Florida to Alaska, Arizona to Indiana, and California to Missouri, and in county jails throughout the United States.
In 2007, officials at Putnamville Correctional Facility, is a 2,460-bed medium-security facility in west-central Indiana, initiated an aggressive water efficiency and conservation program that included steam production and distribution to high-pressure, low-volume shower heads fitted with metering devices. In September 2009 (following the implementation of various water efficiency and conservation measures), the facility used approximately 7.6 million gallons of water, compared to almost 14.5 millions gallons in September of 2007 (prior to the implementation of the efficiency initiative).
The Tennessee Department of Correction implemented a conservation initiative at the Riverbend Maximum-Security Institution in Nashville, which is generating savings of almost $300,000 in annual water and sewer charges. Measures including electronic plumbing system controls have reduced overall water usage at the 714-inmate facility, which incorporates 20 buildings with 320,000-square-feet of operational space, by more than 2 million gallons per month.
The 900-bed Alachua County Jail in Florida initiated a water conservation program that included the replacement of existing 3.5 gallon-per-flush pneumatically controlled toilets with new controlled 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilets containing security lock out controls, the installation of waterless urinals, and the replacement of lavatory and shower controls and valves throughout the facility with tamper-resistant, automatic-shutoff, timer controls. The initiative reduced the facility’s annual water usage by approximately 50 percent from 36 million gallons per year to approximately 17 million gallons per year, an impressive 62 percent reduction in overall water usage.
Clearly, improving water efficiency and reducing waste can positively impact overall water usage in correctional facilities and ultimately deliver substantial savings on the utility bills of corrections agencies, while significantly improving the environmental sustainability of facilities and agencies.
However, as with any technology, correctional facility maintenance staffs unfamiliar with the technology frequently express concern about system reliability. While routine maintenance and intermittent repairs are unavoidable with any system, improvements in the engineering designs of electronic valves, including the removal of metering diaphragms — a valve component prone to failure — have increased the reliability and longevity of systems that have been tried and tested in correctional facilities for some 15 years.
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Simple to install and easy to troubleshoot, electronic systems are designed to adapt to existing equipment for retrofit projects and allow for a range of control over the lavatory flush valves and shower valves. Once facility staff can exert control over these fixtures, excessive flushing, contraband disposal, protest actions and flooding fall by the way side. A small controller in the plumbing chase monitors inmate water usage and will automatically lockout flushing of the toilet if the controller determines the inmate is flushing too frequently. With the touch of an icon on system control GUI screen, which displays the facility floor plan, staff can halt all water flow to and from a single cell, a specific group of cells, a whole pod or an entire housing unit for contraband searches or any other operational necessity. Many systems offer additional features and options, such as alerting correctional officers that an inmate is repeatedly flushing a fixture and identifying the location of the cell in question.
When talking about water conservation in correctional facilities, perhaps the greatest area from which to generate water savings involves replacement of older inefficient 3.5 gallon-per-flush toilets with new, low-consumption units with a maximum capacity of no more than 1.6 gallons-per-flush, and the replacement of older, outmoded mechanical flushometer valves, which are likely inefficient and problematic, with electronically controlled, high-efficiency, high-velocity, flushing devices. Such measures will help facilities meet modern low-consumption plumbing code requirements, while still meeting the specific needs and imperatives of the correctional environment. Many solutions, which can be retrofitted to existing stainless steel toilets in minutes, are designed to produce a high force flush using the momentum of the water, working in a similar manner to the pressure-assisted flush devices found in the tank-type toilets of many hotels. This particular conservation measure can reduce water consumption on each toilet by almost 50 percent.
Electronic plumbing controls solutions also generate water savings by allowing staff to limit the number of times an inmate can flush an individual toilet. This solution removes mechanical control over the plumbing fixture from the inmate via a small electronic controller located in the plumbing chase adjacent to the cell monitors usage. This feature allows the inmate to flush the toilet for its intended use but prevents the flushing of sheets, clothing and other bulky items to prevent the flooding of cells. If the inmate attempts to flush the toilet too often, say more than twice in a five-minute period, the controllers will lockout the fixtures for a fixed period of time, such as 1 hour. The lockout feature, which can reduce water usage by 10 percent to 30 percent, even work to condition inmates to be more water-efficient and to conserve flushes for when they need to use them rather than flushing whenever they feel like it. This Lockout feature reduces the number of times the inmate flushes per day.
Federal, state, and county agencies recognize electronic plumbing controls as an energy conservation measure and energy service companies frequently link the technology to performance contracts, which are becoming increasingly common in the corrections field as agencies struggle to implement capital improvements in an environment of deep budgets cuts. Performance contracts allow correctional agencies to upgrade and update older infrastructure and major buildings systems with newer, more efficient buildings and equipment without any upfront capital outlay. The agency essentially funds the improvements through the cost savings generated operational efficiencies.
By integrating water conservation measures into performance contracts, corrections agencies can upgrade a facility’s entire water system at one time rather than squeezing incremental upgrades from tight budgets over an extended period of time. Such strategies can quickly produce water savings in the millions of gallons per month and generate significant cost savings immediately. With today’s shrinking budgets, the opportunity to upgrade facilities and major building systems with no up-front investment or future negative budget impact future, while reducing water usage and waste and improving sustainability makes going green on H20 a win-win scenario for the environment and your bottom line.
Shawn Bush is the president of I-Con Systems Inc., which is headquartered in Oviedo, Fla. He has more than 15 years experience designing and manufacturing control systems for the corrections industry.