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Plumbing Engineer - Features: April 2012: A Touchy Subject

A Touchy Subject

Hands-free technologies address hygiene, water efficiency

and cost savings

When you think of all the touchpoints in many public restrooms, there are easily five –10 commonly touched restroom surfaces that come to mind. Multiply that number by research recently published by Idaho’s Southeastern District Health Department stating that humans carry 10 million bacteria between their fingertips and elbows, that damp hands spread 1,000 times more germs than dry hands and that the number of germs on fingertips doubles after using the toilet.

Not surprisingly, the number of germs passed around in restrooms quickly becomes a large and cringe-worthy statistic, further compounded by people’s aversion to coming into contact with public restroom surfaces.

Designed to minimize cross-contamination, touch-free fixtures are increasingly becoming the norm in a variety of commercial restroom facilities. Hygiene is only one advantage linked with these fixtures: Enhanced savings associated with water, energy, maintenance and labor costs and increased sustainability, round out the benefit equation. Moreover, particularly in the last decade or so, manufacturers have made major strides in developing smarter and more durable designs that are easier to install, activate and maintain.

Due to these demonstrated efficiencies and to advances in hands-free technology, more than half of institutional and commercial facilities are now using touchless fixtures. But there are still a number of facilities that have opportunities to capitalize on the many benefits of these highly efficient restroom fixtures for retrofits or new construction.

Here’s how these fixtures prove to be an economical choice.

Faucets: Touchless faucets using infrared or capacitive sensors can reduce an average commercial facility’s water consumption up to 30 percent vs. non infrared/faucets with handles. These fixtures also save energy, because the faucet automatically shuts off after a user’s hands leave the sensor area. Activation settings can also be used to control water at peak times, further saving water and energy and reducing utility charges.

Metered faucets have a flow rate limit of 0.25 gallons per cycle (gpc), which is the amount of water used during each activation. Depending on local codes, water used by lavatories varies from 2.5 gpm to 2.2 gpm; however, many public restrooms use just 0.5 gpm. Some newer-generation touchless fixtures feature 0.38 gpm faucets vs. 0.5 gpm, and achieve over 20% water savings. In any case, fixtures using less than the 2.5 water conserving gpm standard can help earn LEED credit.

Toilets: Low-flow toilet fixtures using 1.6 gallons or less, or urinals using 0.5 to 1.0 gallons, have become the standard in commercial facilities. One-pint urinals and waterless urinals have made strides in recent years. Low-flow fixtures can be complemented with standard-flow fixtures such as dual-flush toilets, which conserve water by using different amounts of water for various flushing needs. Some newer technologies have sensors to determine the size of flush by measuring the time a user spends at the toilet in addition to the user’s distance from the toilet.

Photovoltaics: Photovoltaic cells integrated into the top of a lavatory system convert either normal restroom lighting or day lighting into energy that is stored and used to power valves and sensors in the units. Some fixtures even eliminate the need for batteries and electrical hookups, therefore cutting maintenance and operating costs and maximizing savings and environmental efficiency.

Vandal-resistance: Capacitive sensing uses an omni-directional zone to detect a user’s presence around the entire faucet spout in place of a small infrared sensor window under the spout, which can be punctured or covered with soap scum that can interfere with the sensor window. These units are virtually vandal-free and maintenance-free, since the mechanicals are safely concealed in a sealed control box.

Washroom Accessories: Touchless hand dryers, paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers also underscore energy and environmental efficiencies and convenience for users and maintenance staff. More recent automatic hand dryer designs have made some key advances. Some energy-efficient, sensor-operated hand dryers use 80 percent less electricity than other hand dryers. The energy to operate this new generation of hand dryers is generally less than 10 percent of the cost of paper towels, including eliminating labor costs for ordering, storing, replenishing dispensers, collecting and disposing of paper towels.

Touchless, forced-air hand dryers feature infrared sensors that activate the dryer when hands are placed three to six inches below the nozzle. Improved units dry hands in 15 seconds and are designed to automatically adjust voltage to all power conditions.

In general, electric hand dryers are an environmentally friendly choice over paper towels, because they conserve resources and use relatively little electricity, while offering the hygienic benefit of operating automatically and promoting a cleaner restroom appearance, since paper towel debris is eliminated.

Hands-free soap dispensers also reduce the number of germs on surfaces. If the soap dispenser is integrated into the lavatory, users never have to remove their hands from the bowl. That reduces the amount of water pooling on countertops and potentially dangerous drips on floors.

Employing the latest models of hands-free restroom fixtures gives building management and patrons alike the best of all worlds — from saving water, energy and money to providing healthier, more convenient and more hygienic environments.

Jason Renner is a senior product manager at Bradley Corporation of Menomonee Falls, Wis. A USGBC member and manufacturer of locker room products, plumbing fixtures, washroom accessories, partitions and emergency fixtures, Bradley serves the commercial, industrial, health care, recreation, education and corrections markets worldwide. Renner can be reached at Bradley Corp., W142 N9101 Fountain Blvd., Menomonee Falls, Wis., 53052-0309. For more information, call 800/ BRADLEY or visit

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