Issue: 10/01

Boredom, anger, revenge, defiance--whatever the motivation, vandalism is a growing problem in the U.S., and restrooms are often an easy target. Whether in schools, shopping malls or correctional facilities, plumbing fixtures can be subject to abuse much greater than the normal wear-and-tear of everyday use.

Most facility managers must deal with the aftermath of vandalism on a regular basis. In fact, U.S. schools currently pay out millions of dollars each year to repair buildings and replace vandalized equipment--and the numbers are increasing. In Federal and State correctional facilities, where damaging plumbing fixtures is a common pastime, the rising number of inmates has compounded the vandalism problem--nearly two million people were incarcerated in the United States as of midyear 2000.

As the amount of time and money spent to restore vandalized restrooms rises, facility managers have begun to realize that this recurring, expensive headache can best be cured with preventive measures. Advances in plumbing technology have led to an entire generation of vandal-resistant plumbing fixtures and electronic control systems. These types of products, combined with an innovative restroom design, can be extremely effective in deterring would-be vandals.

Integral toilet and sink combination-units with push-button controls minimize vandalism and promote water conservation in correctional facilities.

Design Strategies

Experienced facility managers put considerable thought into the physical layout of their restrooms for various reasons. "Maintenance is my number one concern when it comes to restroom design. Preventing vandalism is right up there, too," says Dennis Eash, director of facilities for School District 46 in Grayslake, IL.

Careful planning up front, explains Eash, saves on maintenance time and expense down the road--especially in prohibiting vandalism. Plumbing engineers know as well as architects and facility owners that vandalism prevention is a key consideration in school restroom design. Building trash containers, soap dispensers and towel dispensers into the wall helps discourage abuse, as does using wall-mounted hand dryers with tamper-resistant screws. Many schools are even opting to leave restroom doors off completely.

Other design options that can help discourage vandalism include using 15-minute motion sensors instead of light switches, applying protective coatings to restroom walls, and using ceramic tile or epoxy concrete block materials from floor to ceiling.

In correctional facilities, where design options may be more limited, greater emphasis is placed on the vandal-resistant capabilities of the fixtures themselves. When traditional plumbing is used in a prison, inmates have full control over lavatories, toilets and showers. This can lead to a variety of problems, such as intentional flooding through simultaneous flushing and constant running of showers and lavatories. Many of these problems can be prevented, however, if appropriate plumbing technologies and fixtures are used.

Full plumbing control can be gained through the use of a programmed system. This type of system allows a facility to remotely control shower and lavatory run-times and limits the number of toilet flushes within a specified time frame. All water within a specific location can be shut down from a computer, and pre-programmed parameters can be fully adjusted for specific applications. Fixtures can be activated from the computer, and any lockout incurred by the user can be overridden. The user will then remain in lockout until the programmed time expires (see "Prisons Gain Control with Programmed Plumbing Systems" below).

This type of system does not require adjustment, unlike mechanical metering valves. Push buttons are plugged into an electronic control box so that no mechanical failures can occur as a result of push button abuse. Programmed plumbing systems also offer reporting features, such as water usage by individual fixtures, and computer alarms to alert staff when and where water usage violations occur.

While programmed plumbing systems provide the ultimate in fixture control and vandalism protection, there is also a variety of other vandal-resistant plumbing products designed to fit almost any commercial or industrial application.

Full plumbing control can be gained through the use of a programmed system. The system uses controller/input device combinations utilizing ON/OFF/DELAY/STOP commands with plumbing fixtures to control the entire plumbing network for high use/abuse and vandal-resistant situations.

Plumbing Solutions

Hardwired, concealed flushometers, for example, are an excellent deterrent to vandalism in any type of facility because all the mechanical components are protected behind the wall to which the plumbing is adjacent. According to Eash, automatic concealed flush valves with infrared sensors top his list of preferences for plumbing fixtures because "they prohibit vandalism, and maintenance is easy--just remove the 10 x 12 metal plate on the wall and you have full access."

Flushometers that are equipped with specially designed stop caps offer additional vandal-resistant benefits. Control stops are a common target for restroom vandals who like to remove the cap from the flushometer and change the water pressure. No-hex stop caps are designed to spin freely after installation and are extremely smooth, making it difficult for vandals to grip and remove them.

A number of vandal-resistant features have also been developed for faucets that make them difficult to access and damage, such as below-deck electronics and metal-armored cable. Aerator spray heads that are secured with a key eliminate the possibility of unscrewing the fixture, and an all-chrome design can withstand high abuse. In addition to faucets, institutional showerheads are available with tamper-resistant screws and sleek designs that have no protruding objects that could encourage misuse.

If vandalism is not a top concern, plumbing engineers should consider the fact that many of the features and technologies designed to discourage vandalism also conserve water and improve hygiene by regulating water flow and providing touch-free fixtures. When building or retrofitting in a vandal-prone area, however, proper restroom design and vandal-resistant plumbing fixtures and systems are the best defense in protecting your restroom from costly damage and time-consuming repairs.

Sidebar: Prisons Gain Control with Programmed Plumbing Systems

Vandalism to plumbing fixtures is one of the many battles prison management must fight in today's U.S. correctional facilities. Problems can range from simultaneous flushing to fixture tampering, which can lead to flooding and even riots. Following are examples of how four separate facilities used plumbing control systems and fixtures to remedy this type of vandalism and simultaneously conserve their water usage.

  • Management at a northern U.S. correctional facility wanted to install showers inside the cells of segregated inmates, yet did not want the inmates to be able to take showers at their leisure. The showers were installed in the cells, but no push buttons were installed to activate the showers. Instead, showers were controlled from the computers managing the water network. The computer-controlled plumbing system also generated reports that documented the frequency and times of inmates' showers. The reports could then be reviewed whenever inmates registered complaints of not receiving showers.

  • In a similar application, a low-level security facility on the East Coast addressed the problem of regulating inmates who were able to walk into the showers whenever they felt like it. Facility management planned to install a water control system in the dormitory-style housing units, to ensure that showers were only active during hours posted by the facility.

  • One Midwest county jail had to deal with the massive problem of inmates flushing sheets and clothing down toilets. Once these materials were in the drain line, the original toilet would flood, as well as any other toilet on that same drain. A plumbing control system was installed. Now, whenever three flushes are attempted within five minutes, the third attempt locks out the toilet for one hour, and an alarm light is activated on the computer screen. When the alarm is detected, maintenance personnel go to that cell and remove whatever debris is trying to be flushed. As a result of the new system, full-scale floods were reduced to the occasional bit of water on the cell floor that can occur after two flushes with a clogged bowl.

  • As a preventive measure, a programmed water management system was included in the construction plans of a U.S. maximum-security facility located in the southwest. Since this type of facility conducts cell searches several times a month, the system was chosen for one feature in particular. The plumbing control system provides facility management with the capability of shutting off toilets before entering a housing unit, which helps in the control of disposed contraband prior to the cell searches.