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TMB - Plumbing Engineer - Features: April 2007: ADA In public Restrooms

ADA in Public Restrooms:

Avoiding Common Design Mistakes

By Jason Renner, Bradley Corporation

Approximately 54 million Americans live with a disability. In fact, as estimated one in eight children ages 6 to 14 are disabled. There are many types of barriers that may prevent those with physical limitations from easily navigating a building. For example, building entrances with stairs, the wrong signage and narrow doorways all impede accessibility for Americans with disibilities.

More than 15 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to grant these individuals equal civil rights, stipulating that public facilities may not discriminate on the basis of disability.

Yet, restrooms remain a significant problem with regard to accessibility.  

In an effort to improve compliance and accessibility, the Access Board released new ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) in 2004, which align with the Architectural Barriers Act and are more consistent with the International Building Code and other industry standards. While the Department of Justice is not currently enforcing these guidelines, it is wise for facilities to implement them to ensure future compliance.

It is essential for plumbing contractors and specifiers to evaluate all aspects of restroom design such as the nature of the business or organization, traffic volume, budget constraints, local codes, as well as the more recent ADA guidelines. Cost and durability are important considerations, but above all, public restrooms must be functional and user-friendly for all users. Understanding key elements of the ADAAG and identifying the products that comply will enable specifiers to recommend the best solution for each application.

Creating an Accessible Route

To remove barriers in the "toilet room," the ADAAG provides specific dimensions that help create an accessible route. These specifics include adequate floor space for maneuvering wheelchairs, maximum reach ranges and a limit on how far fixtures can protrude from the wall. In addition, the guidelines cover counter surface, rim height, and knee and toe clearances.

Rather than recapping the specific dimensions outlined in the ADAAG, this article will investigate the 10 most-common pitfalls associated with restroom accessibility.

Pitfall 1: Not Creating All Restrooms to Be Equally Accessible

According to the ADA, if restrooms are provided, each must be in compliance. When only certain public restrooms are handicap-accessible, those with disabilities may be forced to travel long distances to reach the next accessible restroom, while nondisabled persons can use any restroom. All areas that are considered "common use" must be ADA-accessible, including locker rooms, employee restrooms and food service areas. 

During renovation projects, cost may prohibit a facility from upgrading all of its restrooms at once to meet ADA compliance. Encourage building owners and facility managers to develop an ADA transition plan, which provides written documentation of their intention to make necessary changes and provides an actionable timeframe.

Pitfall 2: The Entrance Is too Narrow

Noncompliant public restrooms often do not have enough clear floor space or an accessible route with unobstructed turning space. The problem generally begins at the entry door. The door cannot be fully opened if someone in a wheelchair is using a handwashing station or hand dryer. For this reason there are clear floor space requirements for each element - if the space overlaps, the door cannot be completely opened and users will bump into one another.

Pitfall 3: Forgetting the User's Age

It is critical to know if the restroom will be used primarily by adults or children? If the answer is children, what are the age ranges? This distinction can make a difference in many aspects of restroom design -- what is accessible for an adult may not be accessible for a child.

The ADAAG provides alternate specifications for "children's use" facilities, meaning those used primarily by those ages 12 and under (facilities with older children should comply with the adult standards). ADAAG specifies how far a child must have to reach forward or to the side with specific measurements for vaarious age groups. This ensures that children in wheelchairs and students with physical disabilities are able to reach lavatories and hand dryers, as well as lockers, coat hooks and other building elements. 

To meet these requirements, look for ADA-compliant plumbing fixtures such as juvenile-height washfountains, or install wall-mounted solid surface lavatory systems at the appropriate height. Also, keep in mind reach requirements for other products within the restroom such as soap dispensers, toilet partitions, hand dryers and waste receptacles.

Pitfall 4: Not Having Enough Accessible Stalls

According to requirement 4.23.4 for water closets, if toilet stalls are provided, then at least one must comply with ADA. The section further states that where six or more stalls are provided, in addition to the stall complying with 4.17.3, at least one stall 36-in. wide with an outward swinging, self-closing door and parallel grab bars shall be provided. In many cases, too few accessible stalls are available for people with physical disabilities, and the facility lacks the 36-in. wide "ambulatory" toilet stall.

Pitfall 5: Faucets Are Difficult to Operate

ADA-compliant faucets must be operable with one hand, without tight gasping or twisting, and should be activated using a maximum of 5 lb. of force. Hand-operated metering faucets must remain open for at least 10 seconds.

Among the best solutions for meeting this requirement are the latest generation of electronically controlled faucets, which provide easy touchless activation. New capacitive-sensor controlled faucets eliminate user frustration because the entire spout is an "omni directional" sensor field that detects a user's presence from any angle of approach. All users will appreciate this new technology, and many facilities are finding that reduced user frustration curbs vandalism.

Touchless faucets, soap dispensers, towel dispensers and hand dryers have another important benefit - they help reduce the spread of germs. In general, cross-contamination in restrooms is an issue, but germs may be of greater concern to those most impacted by ADA including seniors and individuals with health problems.

Pitfall 6: Objects Protrude or Hang into Paths

According to section 4.4.1, objects projecting from walls between 27 and 80-in. above the floor shall protrude no more than 4 in. into walkways. In restrooms, this requirement most often applies to warm-air hand dryers. Look for surface-mounted units that are less than 4-in. deep to comply with the protrusion requirement. In addition, electing dryers with infrared sensors that activate the dryer when hands are placed 3- to 6-in. below the nozzle eliminates excessive reaching. 

Pitfall 7: Garbage Creates a Barrier to Fixtures

In many instances, garbage cans are an afterthought in restroom design. Frequently they are placed below sinks or under the paper towel dispenser or hand dryer. The problem with this is that the garbage creates a barrier for users in wheelchairs and those with limited mobility. Recessed wall-mounted garbage receptacles and units mounted directly into the lavatory deck are good alternatives and also eliminate clutter in the restroom.

Pitfall 8: Exposed Pipes Are a Safety Hazzard

Knee and toe clearances are important for making hand-washing areas accessible, but the piping under sinks and lavatories is another critical factor. ADA requires that plumbing under sinks be protected or wrapped to keep users from burning themselves if hot water is supplied, and there cannot be any sharp edges under the fixtures. Specifying a complete lavatory system is a simple way to meet the guideline without spending time wrapping unsightly pipes under china sinks. 

Solid surface lavatory systems are wall-mounted and feature an integral trap cover below the sink area to conceal all of the plumbing and mechanicals. An added benefit of this design is that the lavatory systems can be specified with a built-in tankless water heater. 

Some solid surface lavatories are specifically designed for meeting ADA height requirements in an attractive, aesthetically pleasing design. Multiheight lavatories combine several sink stations in one unit and include a lower ADA-compliant sink with a standard height sink. The unique wave-shaped fixtures can be combined to create a wall of waves.

Pitfall 9: Soap Dispensers Are Installed Beyond Reach

Wall-hung accessories must meet ADA reach-range and mounting-height requirements. If adult users must reach more than a 25-in. depth, the item must be relocated.  Soap dispensers are usually the biggest red flag. If the dispenser is mounted to the mirror above the sink, users sitting in a wheelchair cannot reach it easily. Dispensers built into the lavatory system or immediately adjacent to the faucet are much more accessible and help keep soap messes to a minimum because excess soap drips into the bowl.

Pitfall 10: Not Consulting the Experts

The myriad of ADA requirements, along with local building codes and other restroom design elements can be overwhelming. As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. Don't leave possible litigation issues on the table for building owners and operators. Advise bringing an ADA consultant, as well as restroom product manufacturers, on board early in the project to help navigate the world of accessibility.

Jason Renner is a senior product manager at Bradley Corporation, a leading manufacturer of plumbing fixtures, washroom accessories, partitions, emergency fixtures and solid plastic lockers.  Renner can be reached at Bradley Corp., W142 N9101 Fountain Blvd., Menomonee Falls, WI 53052-0309. For more information, call (800) BRADLEY or visit

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