Services & Maintenance: Keep It Clean

Germ concerns boost restroom automation in some facilities.
Germ concerns boost restroom automation in some facilities.

Services & Maintenance: Keep It Clean

Services & Maintenance: Keep It Clean

By Jack Vresics

Published in the August 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Today’s hygiene conscious public is more concerned than ever about coming in contact with germs, particularly in public rest rooms. People have become more vocal about this topic, considered too unpleasant to discuss until recently. More than ever, the public expects rest room facilities to be sanitary.

In a 2003 survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation International, nearly two thirds of the respondents (61%) admitted to using paper towels and a variety of foot and elbow maneuvers to avoid touching virtually anything in a public rest room. Ninety percent of the respondents said they preferred rest rooms with automatic flushers and touch-free faucets, soap, and towel dispensers.

These responses represented a dramatic increase from the findings in a similar survey conducted by the same research firm in 1999. In the earlier survey, 57% of respondents said the presence of touchless features was the hygienic improvement they would most want to find in a rest room of the future.

Such public sentiment has prompted facility managers in all types of buildings to modernize rest rooms with automated flushers, automated faucets, and soap and towel dispensers that do not require the user to touch them.

A Clean Getaway 

The surfaces of automatic flushers, faucets, and soap dispensers are less likely to be contaminated and to transmit germs when the number of people touching them is minimized. The National Center for Infectious Diseases, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. However, many people fail to wash because they are reluctant to touch faucet handles. With automation, people can lather up, wash, rinse, and dry without touching anything but a clean, disposable towel.

Standing water and soap around sinks are viewed as breeding grounds for germs. Water is less likely to settle around the faucet if users do not have to lift their hands to turn the handle or to pump out more soap. Soap dispensers that are installed in the wall and extend over the sink prevent soap from dripping onto the counter or floor.
A spotless, fresh smelling rest room is perceived to be free of germs and bacteria. With automation, there are no wet or smudgy faucets handles on the sink. The toilets and urinals are flushed after every use, which reduces odors and stains. Automatic cleaning devices deodorize while providing constant cleaning to improve sanitation and eliminate the task of scrubbing stains off toilets and urinals.

“Automation really improved the image of our restaurant,” says Chris Margol, general manager of Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que restaurant in Vernon Hills, IL. “After renovating, the negative comments we had been getting about our rest rooms virtually disappeared. We improved the health and wellness of our customers, simplified our maintenance, and reduced costs. In our business, all these factors are important.”

The Tech Behind The Scenes 

Early generations of automated rest room fixtures were often unreliable. New technology has helped decision makers and patrons to overcome resistance to automation. In the past, for example, automated products were powered by low voltage hard wiring, which required someone with plumbing and electrical skills to install them.

Now, products are smaller, have fewer parts, and are more aesthetically pleasing than earlier versions were. In general, they last longer and are less expensive to operate and maintain.

“We installed battery powered flushers in all 95 of our schools and administration buildings,” says Chris Hudgins, the bond architect for Independent School District 1 in Tulsa, OK. “In two years, we haven’t had to replace or service any of them.”

Pat Caplan, general manager of Cadillac Fairview’s Yonge Corporate Centre in Toronto, Canada, is also pleased with her experience. She automated the rest rooms in her three building office complex in 2000.

“They are amazingly dependable,” says Caplan. “We installed 164 faucets, 254 flushers for toilets and urinals, and 152 soap dispensers. Over the last five years, we’ve only replaced five units.”

Both the Tulsa school district and the Yonge Corporate Centre installed fixtures with an operating system that employs cam gear components, proprietary microprocessors, and optimal sensors. One advantage this technology provides is that the cam gears have replaced solenoid valves, which are sensitive to moisture and can corrode. Cam gears are housed in a manner that keeps all the electronic components away from moisture.

In addition, since fixtures with this new technology are battery powered, there is no need to shut off the water or to make electrical connections during installation. As a result, it takes about two minutes to install a single unit in new construction or to replace an existing fixture.

“It took our distributor, Cannon Hygiene, only one week to install all 570 units in our buildings,” says Caplan. “The batteries last a couple of years. A small light flashes in the unit when the batteries are low. When that starts happening, we change all the batteries in all the fixtures at the same time to ensure they remain functioning.”

The newest faucet technology for sinks not only eliminates the frustration of trying to find the right spot to activate the flow of water, it also conserves water. Called Surround Sensor Technology (SST), it uses capacitive sensors that create an activation zone around the faucet. Water flows as soon as hands approach the top, bottom, or any side of the fixture. The water stops as soon as the hands are removed.

Saving Money and Resources 

Prices vary among manufacturers of touchless products and systems. While the initial cost of automated faucets and flushers can be twice or three times the price of manual fixtures, some automatic devices provide a relatively quick return on investment and continuous savings.

Automatic faucets, for example, save water by operating only when hands are present. After factoring in the costs of energy, sewage, and maintenance, these faucets can decrease water and energy usage by up to 70%.

Soap dispensers that are automated can generate savings through portion control. One shot of condensed soap from the dispenser is often sufficient to prevent users from pumping an excessive amount of soap that takes longer to rinse off.

Automatic paper towel dispensers are also available for controlling the amount of paper needed for a thorough hand drying. These controls reduce the frequency of replacing soap and towels. They also prevent users from spilling soap and leaving extra towels on counters and floors.

Automated fixtures also reduce rest room abuse, carelessness, and other bad habits. When flushing the toilet in a public rest room, for example, some people prefer to use their feet rather than their hands to depress the handle. Occasionally, an aggressive kick damages a valve and puts the toilet out of commission until it can be repaired. This problem, and the repair cost, is eliminated with automatic flushers.

Other Benefits 

Automation resolves a more common problem—the failure to flush. Unflushed toilets in elementary schools are what prompted the Tulsa school district to install automatic flushers. Even when a toilet goes unused for a long period of time, such as during Christmas or summer vacations, the automatic flushers installed in the schools are programmed to activate every 24 hours.

“This feature not only guarantees clean water at least once a day, but also prevents rings of calcium deposits,” says Bob Wood of the Tulsa school district’s plumbing department. “It also keeps the drain trap full, blocking the seepage of sewer gas into the rest room.”

The Yonge Corporate Centre further enhanced its rest rooms by installing air fresheners, an effective and low cost automated rest room feature. The enormous size of the home bathroom fragrance market reveals just how important the public finds a fresh smelling rest room.

Automatic rest room devices exceed the guidelines presented in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which require rest room fixtures to be operated with “one hand and with a force to activate of five pounds or less.” With no sink or urinal handles to push or pull, and no difficult to reach handles in bathroom stalls, self-activating fixtures simplify the process.

With advancements in touchless rest room devices, facility managers can better meet the expectations of tenants and visitors and reduce costly problems. The worldwide emphasis on health and germ avoidance continues to drive demand for automation. It should be safe to assume the bathroom of the near future will be cleaner, fresher, and more inviting because of automated fixtures.

Vresics is president and chief executive officer of Mundelein, IL-based Technical Concepts, designer and manufacturer of touch-free systems. He can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 837-4100.

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