A Test of 7th-Inning Stretch Proportions, Flush by Flush

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

It was an important, if not highly skilled, job required of 175 volunteers yesterday at Nationals Park. They were present for a synchronized swooshing, a choreography of commodes to test whether the new stadium's plumbing could handle the nearly steady flushing of more than 500 toilets and urinals.

From a deck near the top of the ballpark, Jim Howard readied his walkie-talkie and cellphone and eyed a series of schematic drawings, highlighted with Post-it notes showing where the dozens of volunteers were deployed. He laid his wristwatch in front of him for the timing of "Super Flush," as the day was proudly billed on the ballpark's massive scoreboard. The operation had to be meticulous.

At 11:48 a.m., he keyed the walkie-talkie with his command "to begin flushing." Then every 90 seconds, Howard, project executive for the John J. Kirlin mechanical contracting company, ordered the next level's crew into action. "Level 3 coordinator, instruct your people to begin flushing. Two-hundred level, continue flushing."

Each bathroom had a code number, and the reports came crackling back over the walkie-talkie as Howard moved level by level through the 41,000-seat ballpark nearing completion on South Capitol Street SE. "Five-hundred-two flushing. Five-oh-three flushing."

"Please instruct your people: every toilet every 10 seconds, every urinal every 15 seconds," Howard reminded over the radio. "No more, no less."

An office building under construction doesn't need a test like yesterday's Super Flush. Office workers answer the call of nature whenever nature calls -- or when the boss permits. But sports arenas are different, and fans tend to want to make room for more beer and soda all at the same time during breaks in the game. Yesterday's test would tell whether the sanitary system would overload and if pumps sending water to the upper decks could keep up with demand.

"It's to simulate the seventh-inning stretch," said Gary Grandchamp, president of the mid-Atlantic region for Kirlin, which installed the ballpark's plumbing. "When we did FedEx," he said, referring to the company's work on the Redskins' stadium, "it was to simulate halftime."

Engineers work out how frequently each toilet and urinal should be flushed for the test to make it close to real conditions, thus the precision timing.

And the volunteers took their jobs to heart. Inside a ladies' room on the 300 level, Emily Harris, 24, kept a steady eye on her watch. "Five, four, three, two, one," she counted off as she and her mother, Kit Harris, 54, and another volunteer, Morgan Dodd, 56, alternated their way down the row of stalls, flushing one toilet every 10 seconds.

Volunteers included Kirlin employees and their families and friends. The Gonzaga College High School crew team, which includes Grandchamp's son, was there with many parents, such as Dodd. The Harrises are Grandchamp's neighbors.

At his command post, Howard began to receive reports. "We've got hot water coming out of a urinal." Sign of a mixed water line. Trouble fixtures were marked with orange stickers. But overall, things were going smoothly.

The ballpark has 526 sinks, 568 toilets and 218 urinals. The test focused on 503 toilets and urinals in public restrooms. The volunteers flushed, working from the lowest level of the ballpark to the highest, flushing for five minutes before slowly working their way back down.

The toilets are designed to use less water than typical commodes so that the ballpark will use about 6 million gallons of water each season, about 3.6 million gallons less than a stadium this size would without low-flow toilets. The designation may help Nationals Park win special environmental recognition from Major League Baseball.

And of particular note to female fans who frequently complain of long waits, each ladies' room has the same number of toilets as the number of toilets and urinals in the nearest men's room.

"We were nowhere near straining the system," Kirlin project engineer Tony Giampapa said happily as he handed out commemorative T-shirts after the test.

Indeed, reports from volunteer flushers were encouraging. "We had one urinal that wouldn't stop" running, said Doug Stewart, a Gonzaga father decked out in school purple. "But no geysers."

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