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Specifying Accessible Bathrooms

March, 2014

In today's commercial bathrooms, universal design is virtually a given. Here's how you can ensure your specifications meet accessibility requirements.

By Lisa Bonnema


Odds are that if you have completed a commercial bathroom project in the last 20 years, you have specified an accessible product. Universal design is by no means a new concept. However, in March 2012, modifications to the latest version of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have made it standard, by law, for nearly every public bathroom to be accessible on some level. In other words, accessibility is no longer the exception, but is, in fact, the rule. Today's plumbing and specifying engineers need to be sure they are up to speed on what it means to design an accessible commercial bathroom.

Keep Codes Handy

Currently, there are two guidance documents engineers can reference when designing accessible commercial bathrooms. The first, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), is most commonly used in projects involving federal buildings, although it can be applied to any commercial bathroom project. The second document, ICC/ANSI A117.1 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, is an alternative option for non-federal projects. The choice of which guidance document to follow will vary by project and by firm, and oftentimes, both are referenced. In recent years, there have been efforts to harmonize the two guidelines to simplify compliance, but as of December 2013, some differences still existed between the two documents.

In most cases, architects will do much of the compliance legwork. This includes accessibility requirements such as mounting heights, clearance, quantity of fixtures (both accessible and standard), and spacing. However, it is important for plumbing engineers to have all code information readily available as they choose products and finalize their bathroom specifications.

Remember the Details

Manufacturers have made it fairly simple for plumbing engineers to identify accessible bathroom fixtures. ADA-compliant products are usually clearly labeled on cut sheets, and design features such as timed water shutoffs and infrared sensors have made fixtures more accessible for all users. However, there are some details engineers should know when specifying bathroom products.

Toilets and Urinals

According to Mitch Clemente, director of plumbing and fire protection at Westlake Reed Leskosky, most commercial toilets and urinals can be used interchangeably for both accessible and standard uses. The major difference is the mounting height. Clemente advises plumbing engineers to work in concert with architects to make sure wall-mounted toilets and urinals are at the proper elevation to be in compliance with accessibility guidelines. However, when specifying a floor-mounted model (tank-type or flush-valve), engineers must choose an ADA-compliant toilet with the proper seat height.

Although touch-free toilets are becoming more common, Clemente says both manual and infrared flushing mechanisms are acceptable options for accessible bathrooms. The key is locating the manual flushing mechanism on the accessible side of the toilet. “It should be on the side where a user would enter the fixture — not against the wall,” Clemente explains.

Lavatories and Faucets

Engineers should continue to work closely with architects to confirm proper mounting heights for accessible lavatories. Lavatory drains and traps need to be offset to provide proper clearance underneath the sink, and exposed piping should also be well insulated and protected. Stephen Ziga, co-owner of hpeGROUP, LLC, and Philadelphia chapter president of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, says that similar considerations need to be taken when mounting an instantaneous water heater underneath the sink. “Whenever I pick one of those water heaters, I do a triple-check to make sure I notate it to be out of ADA zones,” Ziga notes.

ADA guidelines dictate that users shouldn't have to exert more than five pounds of force to use lavatory faucets. Engineers should consider wrist-blade faucets with longer blades to make accessibility easier, as well as press faucets with timed shutoffs and electronic faucets that “sense” when someone is using the sink.

Consider the End User

For liability reasons, it is critical for plumbing and specifying engineers to know how to make a bathroom accessible for all users. This may mean suggesting additional features such as dual-level water coolers and, depending on the facility, accessible showers stalls. As Ziga points out, these types of projects should be about more than just meeting the code. “You don't want to see any facility that you are working on not providing proper amenities for every person that is going to enter and exit through that space,” he says.

Moen offers several ADA-compliant bathroom fixtures, including its new M•PRESS metering faucets that automatically shut off water flow. For more information, visit pro.moen.com.