San Francisco has doubled its number of pee-proof walls, but do they repel urine as advertised? Mission Local investigates.

The urine-repellent coating at our two testing sites did not repel streams of piss. It may be that our jets of urine were not sharply angled enough. Or the walls could have lost their reflective effectiveness because of age, though they were coated in July and the paint distributor said they should last about a year.

For Osage Alley at least, the graffiti may have been a problem: If the urine-repellant coating is then covered with a layer of spray paint, it may not work as well.

“It depends on how heavy [the graffiti is],” said Mark Shaw, CEO of UltraTech, the producer of the liquid repelling paint. “If it’s a light graffiti, it might still work because it wouldn’t have completely coated the nooks and crannies of the top coat [of urine-repellant paint].”

The Department of Public Works acknowledges there’s a problem in the alley.

“One area where we saw continued problems is Osage Alley in the Mission,” said Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for the department. “We had to go in there and steam clean it,” adding it’s the only place that still receives an equivalent number of service requests as before the urine-repellant came in.

Otherwise, Gordon says, the pee walls do work. She based this on a decreasing number of complaints for areas where they have been set up and by real-life smell tests. 

“We’ve seen good success in terms of there not being regular urine smells and puddles,” said Gordon. In addition, the department monitors the sites by sniffing around to test for any emanating urine odor.

“We do a smell test. When crews are doing their regular rounds, they’ll go by and see if there’s public urine, if we see pee puddles” Gordon said. “We keep track of it and we do weekly reports.”

Given our tests, it may be that the on-site signs reading “Hold it! This wall is not a public restroom” are a more effective deterrent than the anti-pee coating itself, which is not advertised on the signs and, if the repellent worked, would surprise any unknowing urinator.

The walls are part of a pilot program Public Works began in July. Nine walls were initially coated with the paint, mostly in the Tenderloin, Mission, and SoMa areas, and eight more were added this week.

And the pee walls aren’t just for public property: Homeowners can request that Public Works paint their property with the reflective coating if there has been a history of public urination near the building.

“We want to have [the walls] where we know it’s a problem area, a urine hot-spot area,” Gordon said. It costs “a couple hundred dollars” for Public Works to spray paint a wall, and the department has rolled out 17 so far. Given that the department received 375 requests city-wide to steam clean urine during first half of the year, however, “the savings are going to be pretty great,” Gordon said.

If the program becomes wildly popular and the department receives more requests, Gordon said people should look to purchase the reflective coating on their own.

“We’re not going to keep doing this in private property indefinitely,” she said. “People can buy this themselves,” adding that the city’s experiment has sparked interest regionally and nationally.

“The distributor of this product said that once the story broke, the demand has been incredible. Other public agencies, a lot of transit agencies, and recreation and parks from across the country wanted to know about the product, is it working, is this something we should try.”

Given the program’s success, Public Works plans on coating 11 sites in the Tenderloin soon, and may roll out more batches before the pilot ends in December.

“We’re not going to coat the entire city with this,” Gordon said. “But if we know the real hot-spots, we could go and put repellant there. There’s nothing really stopping us from going forward.”

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