7 facts about portable toilets at races

We lift the lid on portable loos, those malodorous cubicles that runners are, nonetheless, always relieved to see.


by Rachel Swaby
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Runners have a complicated relationship with portable toilets. We’re happy to see them before, during and after a race (especially when we’ve been downing liquids and glucose), though the time we spend in their odoriferous confines can yield some memorable (not in a good way) moments. However, rather than turning up your nose at them, we suggest cutting the portable toilet some slack. Everything from the mysterious blue liquid to the height of the drop to the placement of the urinal has been calibrated to make the best of a fairly crappy situation. In short, there’s a lot more to these things than we thought.

What happens to everything?

Workers run a hose from a truck that sucks waste from the abyss. If the toilet is staying, it’s cleaned and refilled with the blue stuff/precharge. Trucks can carry up to 5,600 litres of waste and 1,900 litres of precharge or fresh water precharge mix is added once water is in). If the unit is leaving, it’s pumped out, put on a truck, and pressure-washed.

Why do they always run out of toilet paper?

A race’s budget often determines the quantity and quality of toilet paper, which costs about 15-30p per roll. How much each unit needs depends on the breakdown of men vs women – more women means more paper – and the type of event. The industry standard is two to four single-ply 1,000-sheet rolls per stall. ‘The number of rolls doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they are,’ says Ron Inman, vice president of Honey Bucket, the company that services the Hood to Coast relay in Portland, Oregon. ‘You can get rolls with 500 sheets or 1,500 sheets. Our rolls are 1,500 sheets, single-ply.’

What’s the life span of a unit?

‘Portable toilets will easily last 10 years,’ says Steve Brinton, vice president of sales and marketing at Satellite Industries, a portable-toilet manufacturer. ‘There are toilets more than 30 years old.’ The secret of their durability is high-density polyethylene. The plastic is ‘relatively pliable’, he says, a key quality when you’re continually hauling the frames on and off trucks. ‘You want toilets that will absorb impact so they won’t crack and leak – a problem with a lot of the old fibre-glass tanks.’

What’s that smell? (Not that one. We know what that one is. The other one…)

Manufacturers deploy several methods of distracting your olfactory senses, including hiding deodorising disks behind hand sanitisers and adding scents to the tank. Cherry and bubble gum are among the aromas used. ‘In part, it’s because they can be easily produced in-house, unlike many fragrances, and they’re particularly good at masking odors,’ says Dean Carstens, deodorisers general manager at Satellite Industries. Mind you, unless you’re the first person to use a portable loo on race day, you may not be aware of the manufacturer’s efforts to keep things fragrant.

How is the user-to-toilet ratio determined?

‘There’s one toilet per 60 people at a concert,’ says Brinton, ‘but at a race it’s one for every 10 people because of the way they’re used.’ What that means is that an awful lot of well-hydrated runners create heavy traffic over a condensed time period. In fact, after an informal study of race participants, Ron Crosier, president of Crosiers Sanitary Service, found that 80 per cent use the loo in the hour before the start. Companies such as Crosiers do provide recommendations, but the race director’s budget guides the quantity and quality of the selection.

Why is everything so, you know, wet?

A survey by Brinton showed that users prefer to hover. In fact, 95 per cent of women and 93 per cent of men won’t make contact with the seat. Since maintaining a successful, steady squat (especially with trembling quads) over those things is to ask too much, it’s no wonder things get messy. So why not just put a normal toilet over the tank to encourage better aim? Because making room for ergonomic porcelain would shrink the tank and lower its capacity. ‘All that waste has to be contained within a 44-by-48-inch footprint,’ says Brinton. ‘So you need more tank than seat.’

Are they set up to make queuing chaotic?

The placement of toilets is up to the race director. Sometimes, space constraints mean a line of portable toilets – as opposed to the U-shape, which lets runners choose from more at a time – is the only option. In that case, banks of 10 toilets should be separated by a 20-foot gap to limit chaos. One queue per bank, rather than per unit, is ideal. By promoting one queue with signage or tape, one out-of-service toilet won’t stop the traffic. But the U-shape is the way to go. ‘There’s something aesthetically pleasing about them,’ says Crosier. ‘You have a courtyard that’s surrounded by doors, so when you’re walking in, you can see very quickly which unit is open.’


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