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The proliferation of hands-free plumbing products — already a growing interest before the COVID-19 global pandemic brought the importance of hygiene into sharp focus — has become a veritable tidal wave over the past year.
Studies have shown that public restroom surfaces become inhabited with as many as 500,000 bacterial cells per square inch within one hour of normal use, as Live Science notes (http://bit.ly/2YnvV22).
Since ceaseless cleaning isn’t a feasible option, one available solution for improving overall hygiene is installing touchless devices to cut down on the number of frequently touched surfaces. Though options are available for a number of restroom devices, including even light activation and door operation, the most commonly upgraded products are sensor-operated flush valves and faucets and hands-free soap and paper towel dispensers.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the public emphasis on better and more frequent handwashing, more facilities, particularly those heavily trafficked, have turned to these technological solutions to reduce possible contamination, improve hygiene and boost their safety bona fides in the eyes of users.
Advantages of Going Hands-Free
There are three primary benefits to adopting hands-free technology in commercial applications: cleanliness, conservation and public perception.
Sensor faucets improve hygiene in some obvious ways — primarily by eliminating a touchpoint in restrooms — as well as some less-obvious ones tied to human behavior.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows food workers washed their hands only about a third of the time they should. Limited time and sink accessibility were listed as factors in failing to wash hands appropriately (http://bit.ly/3qZtdMn).
Sensor faucets streamline basic water access, making turning on the water as easy as stepping up to a sink. This ease of use may boost hygienic behaviors, particularly in applications such as foodservice and health care, where cleanliness is critical to preventing the spread of pathogens.
From a conservation perspective, electronic sensor faucets are a serious water saver. By running water only when needed, they can save up to one gallon of water per handwash over traditional manual faucets. Multiplied by the number of sinks in large public facilities and the individuals using them, the overall impact can be dramatic. Add in sewer expenses and the associated energy to heat the water, and the ramifications increase further.
Perhaps more important than both of those in today’s environment is the public perception. Manual faucets are increasingly falling out of favor with both users and facility operators. Sensor faucets boost public confidence in the cleanliness of restrooms.
The reality is that if users don't feel comfortable and safe in restrooms, they're less likely to want to return. An industry survey conducted near the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that 91 percent of Americans believe it's important for public restrooms to be outfitted with touchless fixtures, notes Aviation Pros (http://bit.ly/2NKeN4x).
But while the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus was a catalyst for the surging demand, a growing interest in sensors existed before the pandemic and has been nudging more and more facilities toward the technology for the past several years.
Industry experts believe the increased value placed on hands-free fixtures by users is likely to be permanent. For example, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that 76 percent of restaurant consumers say cleanliness and food safety will always matter more to them now than it did before the pandemic (http://bit.ly/2Ynb2UF).
Where Hands-Free is Ideal — And Where It’s Not
Hands-free devices have shown up in busy places such as airports for decades. They continue to gain traction in similar high-traffic environments and in locations where hygiene is of utmost importance, such as health-care facilities.
But not all plumbing needs are created equal. Products suitable for a busy kitchen or hospital restroom are not the same as what might be preferred for a school bathroom or a college dorm.
The general public can be quite hard on plumbing, either from apathy or unfamiliarity with their surroundings. In heavy-use settings such as stadiums and airports, sensor faucets reduce breakage opportunities since users are not turning knobs or pushing handles. And they remove the chance for water to be left to run unattended, either out of malice or negligence.
Even in less intensive installations such as hospitals, offices or hotels, a steady stream of users can wreak havoc on plumbing day after day. It’s not uncommon for users to kick toilet flush valves to prevent touching the flush handle, but this action is damaging to the valve over time. Sensor-operated fixtures support both cleaner and longer-lasting function.
On the other hand, students in K-12 facilities may be more prone to vandalize or misuse plumbing. School-age users may try to damage sensors by scratching them, making the faucet or flush valve less effective at sensing when to activate. And very young students may have trouble activating a sensor faucet and abandon any attempt at handwashing, an undesired outcome.
In situations like these, it might make more sense to pursue alternatives to sensor faucets that can still provide an efficient, hands-free clean. These include knee or foot pedal valves or self-closing metering faucets that can be activated with a forearm or elbow.
What to Choose in Hands-Free
Regardless of the features or style desired, the most important criteria is selecting rugged, commercial-grade products. Pairing appropriate products with the environments they’ll serve is critical for long-term durability in high-traffic installations.
Fortunately, many commercial plumbing manufacturers offer a wide array of options to meet modern needs.
• Operational options. High-quality sensor faucets are typically outfitted with several adjustable settings that allow users to customize the fixtures to their needs.
A water shut-off delay setting controls the number of seconds the water runs before shutting off during normal activation. A too-brief setting can cause frustration when a user must reactivate the faucet midway through rinsing. A too-long setting wastes water unnecessarily.
An auto time-out option turns the water off after a programmed period of constant activation so that attempts to cover or interfere with the sensor don’t result in unlimited water flow.
In applications where Legionella or other microbiological control is a concern, a built-in auto-flush capability may be preferred. This setting automatically turns the water on in inactive faucets to prevent water stagnation.
An adjustable sensor range also is a valuable addition to ensure smooth operation regardless of sink size, shape or material.
All these settings should be customized in accordance with the needs of the facility and its typical users. Selecting electronic faucets that do not include these controls can decrease performance, negatively impact user experience and result in wasted resources.
For even more advanced control, consider going high-tech. IoT-connected fixtures are becoming increasingly available. These can alert maintenance personnel when batteries need replacing, a leak is detected or soap is low, allowing operations to function more efficiently by dispatching workers when and where they’re needed.
• Power options. Sensor faucets require a power source to operate, but a number of options exist for how to provide the needed energy. They are typically powered either with batteries or via an electrical connection.
For retrofits, battery power is often the default choice where adding electrical connections to an existing environment is too expensive or too unwieldy to be done effectively. But bear in mind that this option will require ongoing monitoring and regular battery changes to ensure uninterrupted operation.
Tapping into AC power reduces maintenance needs but can be challenging in retrofit situations when adequate outlets aren’t readily available. Some faucet manufacturers make it possible to connect several faucets to a single existing outlet. Wiring is installed under the counter and does not require an electrician so that it can be accomplished during a retrofit.
More traditional hardwiring, in which the wiring is completed by an electrician and is hidden behind the walls, is typically reserved for new construction or complete remodels.
Another option, which reduces maintenance needs and also boosts sustainability, is through hydrogenerators. These devices use a turbine to harness water flow and convert it to energy, which is then stored for later use. Hydrogenerators reduce maintenance needs, ensure reliable faucet operation even in the event of power loss and provide a clean source of renewable energy.
High-quality hydrogenerators require very little use (as little as five seconds) to generate needed energy. They can store energy for months without faucet cycling and last up to 10 years.
• Design options. While functionality and durability will typically top the list of needs for engineers and maintenance staff, designers and architects often demand fixtures that look good and align with the overall décor, particularly in public venues such as offices or hotels
Today’s sensor faucet manufacturers offer a number of aesthetic designs and options to meet this need, from the sleek and modern to the sturdy and classic.Engineers should seek to balance looks and function to provide the best experience for both operators and users.