Your Next Race Might Have More Porta Potties


Everything you want to know about portable toilets, including how number-per-race is determined.

When Ron Crosier showed up early at the Charleston Distance Run in West Virginia on Saturday, he wasn’t there only to get ready for the 15-mile race. He was there to watch the action at the porta potties.

Crosier’s not just a runner. He’s vice president of the Portable Sanitation Association International, a trade association that, for the first time in more than 20 years, is reviewing the standards by which race directors figure out how many portable toilets they need at an event.

Runners may have different motivations for entering races, favor different kinds of footwear, and cling to different warm-up rituals in the start corrals. But they all share one thing in common: the porta potty.

Often that common experience is one of impatience. That’s because, at road races, unlike at other kinds of large events, everyone needs to use the portable toilets at the same time. Yet the number of “doors” at a race—the industry term for these ubiquitous plastic outhouses—is based on an antiquated formula.

Now, it seems, relief is on the way.

“What we look at typically, for other events, is how many times a toilet can be used before it needs to be serviced, and that’s around 150 uses,” Crosier says. “What we’re going to look at more closely under this new standard for road races is how many times it needs to be used in a certain period of time.”

That requires figuring out exactly how long it takes for each person to use the rest room. The rule of thumb—regardless of how slowly the time seems to tick by when you’re waiting in line—is that men take 90 seconds and women three minutes.

But no one had ever measured. That’s what Crosier was inauspiciously doing at the Charleston race. (“If you’re going to be staring at the toilets, you want to be in the background when you’re doing it,” he notes.)

A former traffic engineer, Crosier likens his research to counting how many cars at an intersection get through each green light. Among the variables still to be determined: whether athletes get through toilets faster than nonathletes, and if the race distance matters—that is, whether there is more demand for toilets at long races, for which runners show up early and drink more, than for short ones.

“That’s an interesting variable that I don’t know we’ve thought about,” he says.

The new standards are only the latest developments in the surprisingly robust evolution of the underappreciated porta potty, whose industry association is also launching an education campaign to promote such benefits of portable toilets as the fact that they save an estimated 125 million gallons of fresh water per day, worldwide.

“There’s a lot to it. It’s not just a plastic box,” says Mitch Mooers, marketing manager at Satellite Industries in Minneapolis, the nation’s largest manufacturer of what it prefers to call portable restrooms.

Satellite was the first to make these devices out of polyethylene rather than fiberglass, wood, or aluminum. The company was launched in 1957, the same year as Sputnik, and the name stuck. (As for which event has had a more enduring impact, Mooers says, “I think we’re winning.”)

Most of the improvements are out of sight—or smell. They have come in the form of time-released biocides that counteract odor-causing bacteria. More portable toilets also now have stand-alone sinks, and luxury versions—sometimes offered at races as a benefit to runners who pay extra or who buy a certain amount of merchandise from sponsors—have marble sinks, mahogany paneling, solar-powered lights, and flushing toilets.

“They’re as nice as your bathroom at home,” Mooers says.

Basic European portable toilets flush, but that idea has not caught on in the United States, and John Pausma, whose company supplies the toilets for the Chicago Marathon, doubts that road races will ever have flushing porta potties. That’s because flushing prolongs the time between uses.

Other trends include new colors; cancer walks, for instance, favor pink.

Today there are an estimated 3.1 million portable toilets in the world. Each can typically handle 720 uses before it needs to be pumped, though the average toilet is pumped out after 240. The vacuum trucks that treat them hold about 1,600 gallons, which they carry to waste treatment plants. The average person contributes eight ounces of waste per use.

To determine how many “doors” they need at events today, operators consider the event’s duration and the number of people. For example, for a 10-hour festival with 1,000 people, they would provide seven restrooms. If alcohol will be served, they would increase the capacity by 13%. The capacity would also rise as the ratio increases of women to men.

At a road race, however, “the challenge is the sheer volume of people in such a short period of time,” says Pausma. “There’s a lot of things that can go wrong at a race, and if the toilets go bad, that’s not a good situation.”

The new portable-toilet standards for road races are expected to be in place by next summer.

Largely prodded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, entrepreneurs are now creating for use in developing countries self-cleaning, solar-powered portable toilets  that convert waste to high-quality organic fertilizer. As domestic road races strive to become more green, some may eventually try these, industry insiders say.

“We don’t make the news, typically,” Mooers says. “But without what we do as an industry, America would be in bad shape.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]