Fairfax City evaluates usage, cost of high-tech portable restrooms

A Throne bathroom was placed by Old Town Hall in Fairfax City during the Asian Festival in May (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax City’s experiment with “elevated” port-a-potties may be coming at too high a cost to consider continuing it long-term.

During a meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 14), the Fairfax City Parks and Recreation Department provided the Fairfax City Council with a progress report on the high-tech, portable Throne restrooms that have been available around the city for the past seven months.

The department initiated the pilot this spring in response to calls for increased access to restrooms in the Fairfax Circle area, Old Town Square, and Van Dyck Park.

Parks and Recreation Director Stacey Sommerfield said they were looking for a vendor to provide a secure, accessible, clean facility that didn’t require any additional staff hours. The department chose local startup Throne Labs, which launched in 2020 and provides “an elevated experience” with solar-powered, touchless outdoor bathrooms.

“They feature running water, flushing toilets, climate control, they were ADA-accessible, provided changing stations, have secure access, and were cleaned every 50 uses,” Sommerfield said.

In May, one unit was placed in Old Town Square and in Van Dyck Park. Another unit was placed on Fairfax Blvd in the area of the former Hy-Way Motel (9640 Fairfax Blvd) in June. From their launch to Nov. 1, the Thrones have been used 11,356 times overall, according to Sommerfield.

“The Van Dyck unit is our highest-use unit, which is not surprising to us because Van Dyck Park is very well-used,” she said.

Usage of the Old Town Square unit fluctuated based on events and weather. The Fairfax Blvd location has been the slowest to catch on, Sommerfield said, adding that it may be moved in the future to garner more attention.

“Right now the only location that we have access to is the Hy-Way Motel, but we think we might be able to reposition the unit on the site in order to make it more attractive,” she told the city council. “Right now, it is very close to the road.”

In August, the department launched a voluntary survey requesting feedback through QR codes posted outside the units. The survey garnered 67 responses, which Sommerfield described as positive.

“We do have a 38% return rate for users of the Thrones, so we have a lot of people that return and use them again,” she added.

The units are priced according to a three-tiered system based on the average number of uses per day. The more they are used, the more they cost. Additionally, the artwork that wraps around the Thrones costs $5,500 each.

“As of November 1, 2023, $74,392 has been spent on wrapping and monthly fees. $175,608 remains for the continuation of the program through the remainder of the fiscal year,” City Manager Robert Stalzer wrote in a summary for the council.

Looking forward to 2024, Sommerfield said there will be a $50 increase to the monthly fee for units that are used less than 50 times per day — the low to mid tier.

“So, the status of the pilot program is that the parks department really views this as an interim option until we can build brick-and-mortar bathrooms,” Sommerfield said.

Concerned about the cost, Counilmember Jeffrey Greenfield suggested the parks department explore buying bathrooms.

“The cost continues to concern me, especially when Thrones is doing deals with other jurisdictions, doing pilots at no cost, and we’re paying a lot,” he said.

Greenfield acknowledged that some areas in the city will struggle to get infrastructure in place for permanent bathrooms, but said the option of purchasing bathrooms should be considered before deciding to continue with Throne.

The city council approved $250,000 for the pilot in April. That funding will cover the three restroom units through July 2024.