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In recent years, commercial restroom standards have been a moving target for the plumbing industry. Then again, innovation and greatness can emerge out of change and uncertainty. As Wayne Gretzky once said:
“I skate to where the puck will be, not where it has been.”
The design and functionality of commercial restrooms in 2023 are light years ahead of where they were only a decade ago.
Today’s influences — smart technology, the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability, accessibility, gender neutrality and privacy — have changed how people use restrooms and reshaped expectations for them. These impacts have also altered how designers specify these spaces and how facility owners and managers maintain them.
While people have always valued clean and stocked restrooms, public standards remain elevated for enhanced restroom maintenance and ease of use. The public not only wants restrooms to look and smell clean, but they seek appealing and welcoming spaces that are easy to use for all physical capabilities, ages and genders.
According to the 2023 Healthy Handwashing Survey by Bradley Corp. (www.bradleycorp.com/handwashing), Americans are so aware and sensitized to the cleanliness of restroom environments that almost 60% make it a point to stop at a business — and willingly spend more money there — if they know it has “good” restrooms.
Conversely, bad restrooms have the opposite effect. More than half of Americans say an unclean or unpleasant public bathroom shows poor management and causes them to lower their opinion of the overall establishment. Moreover, 52% say a negative restroom experience causes them to vow not to return in the future or think twice about doing so.
While a variety of restroom maintenance issues turn off customers, the most common ones include clogged or unflushed toilets; an overall appearance that is old, dirty or unkempt; unpleasant smells; and empty or jammed dispensers for soap, toilet paper and hand towels.
In addition to meeting end-user expectations for hygiene, operational efficiency is another key goal for restrooms. Over-stretched maintenance staff are on the lookout for restroom products, technologies and features that improve maintenance, save time, cut costs and make their jobs easier.
Sustainable product designs, such as all-in-one handwashing models that reduce maintenance and paper towels, can help maximize efficiency. Restroom products with maintenance indicators, Internet of Things connectivity, AC power (vs. batteries), simplified maintenance capabilities such as top-fill soap, and vandal-resistance features greatly improve and streamline maintenance.
In response to elevated expectations for washroom cleanliness and maintenance, as well as performance specs, today’s products, materials and layout strategies continue to be upgraded.
The following are trending commercial restroom design strategies.
Touchless Restroom Fixtures
Due to germ aversion, ease-of-use and convenience, people simply prefer not to touch fixtures while using them — especially right after they have used the toilet. In only a few years, touchless technology has become the gold standard in restrooms.
Another research finding underscores how people go out of their way to avoid germs in public restrooms: 67% use a paper towel to avoid touching toilet flushers, faucets and door handles; and 43% operate the flusher with their foot (much to the dismay of plumbers).
The restroom “ick factor” also may be why 82% of adults believe including touchless fixtures in a public restroom is important. Sixty percent say they are likelier to return to a business offering no-touch capabilities in its restrooms.
The top touchless restroom features considered most important are faucets, flushers, soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers and restroom entrance doors — in that order.
The good news for plumbing engineers, restroom users and building staff alike is that the mechanicals used in sensor technology have been improved over the past several years. Specifically, faucets incorporate highly sensitive sensors and options for ultra-low flow demands.
While some older touchless models include sensors delivering unreliable soap and water activations, today’s designs incorporate advanced sensing technology, ensuring continuous washing and fewer soap splotches left in and around the basin.
From an operational efficiency standpoint, touchless fixtures are easier to keep clean, maintain and service than manually activated fixtures. While automated technologies may require some modifications to the existing plumbing and electrical systems, they are often relatively straightforward for retrofitting into a current restroom space.
All-in-One Handwashing Designs
Completely touchless handwashing models combining soap, faucet and hand dryer improve hygiene, maintenance, accessibility and sustainability. One popular handwashing system houses touchless soap, water and hand dryer in a sleek and durable cast-metal fixture on top of the sink, eliminating the need to install separate handwashing components.
This all-in-one handwashing concept also improves water containment inside the washbasin, as the hand dryer is engineered to work with the basin to keep water in the bowl. This prevents water from dripping from hands onto the user, walls and floors, which is maintenance-intensive and can cause slips and falls.
This integrated design also improves accessibility and convenience for users while saving on maintenance time and costs with fewer soap refills, the elimination of paper towels, less wet floor clean up and less time emptying waste bins.
A new top-fill, multifeed soap system used with all-in-one models features a 1.3-gallon tank that supplies soap to up to three handwashing units at once, helping to save time and money.
Sustainable Materials and Fixtures
For sinks, using smooth and nonporous materials with seamless construction, such as solid surface and natural quartz, are durable, hygienic and sustainable. These durable cast-formed materials help prevent bacteria and mold accumulation and growth, and can be easily cleaned, disinfected, repaired, reused and last the life of the building. Natural quartz and solid surface materials can be UL GREENGUARD Gold-certified.
For soap and faucet fixtures, physical vapor deposition coatings are a more sustainable way to finish metals than traditional electroplating. These popular and attractive finishes are produced with an advanced process that creates a molecular bond to the fixture, creating a resilient coating that will not corrode or fade. Colors adding modern accents and character to restroom designs include brushed black stainless, bronze, brass and nickel.
In the future, expect to see more water-saving fixtures such as sensor-controlled faucets with adjustable low-flow rates, low-flow toilets, waterless urinals and energy-efficient hand dryers.
Accessible and Inclusive Layouts
Commercial bathrooms will be increasingly designed with personalization and accessibility in mind. This may include features such as adjustable-height fixtures, more spacious layouts for wheelchair accessibility, grab bars for people of all sizes and abilities, and integrated charging stations for electronic devices.
While separate men’s and women’s restrooms will continue, the concept of gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms has gained traction in recent years and is expected to continue. Adequate floor space is often needed to accommodate all-gender restrooms. Some design options for inclusive restrooms include individual rooms with locking doors or a larger communal handwashing space with separate stalls.
One popular layout is based on European restroom models, with gender-neutral layouts forming a perimeter around communal washing stations to facilitate one-way traffic and minimize cross-traffic. Corridor concept entries and exits, as well as automated doors, are also design considerations.
User privacy is essential for bathrooms designed for use by all genders. The IAPMO/ANSI/CAN Z124.10 standard specifies the level of privacy and security for the users of water closets and urinals. This standard addresses the need for partitions to minimize the open space between stalls, using occupancy indicators on stalls and lockable doors to support privacy.
The International Plumbing Code and Uniform Plumbing Code have accepted the concept of all-gender restrooms, meaning we are universally moving away from men’s and women’s restrooms. Still, while building designers and code councils are working toward more inclusive, private, accessible and ADA-compliant restroom spaces, in general, the process has been slow going. Many local building codes have not yet caught up to these changes.
Today’s product innovations and design strategies are clearly being driven by cleanliness, functionality and inclusivity. Going forward, product manufacturers will be closely monitoring and anticipating where the puck is headed to help plumbing engineers score wins for their clients’ restroom projects.
Jon Dommisse is vice president of marketing and strategy for Bradley Corp., a global manufacturer of commercial restroom equipment.