The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded everyone just how quickly bacterial and viral infections can spread through touch, especially “high-touch” surfaces in the restroom.
The disease-fighting power of handwashing and proper hand hygiene can be traced all the way back to 1847 with Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis. After observational studies from working in the obstetrics ward at Vienna General Hospital, he noticed that among students and doctors who regularly went back and forth between performing autopsies and delivering babies, rarely washing their hands between tasks, they and their patients became sick or died at much greater rates than midwives who only worked with expecting mothers. As a result, he mandated handwashing across the department.
Flash forward to more than 160 years later, and hand hygiene is once again at the center of conversation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded everyone just how quickly bacterial and viral infections can spread through touch given poor handwashing practices. And this is especially the case in “high-touch” surfaces in the restroom such as flushometers, faucets, and soap dispensers.
Flush handles and manual faucets can be breeding grounds for germs and bacteria. Touching manual faucet handles after handwashing only re-contaminates hands and reverses much of the good that comes from handwashing in the first place.
While many believe flush handles to be the dirtiest touchpoint in the restroom, it’s actually faucet handles that are more germ-laden, as this is where bacteria are shed from hands before and during the handwashing process.
In fact, while toilet handles have 107 germs per 10 square centimeters, faucet handles are home to 17,976 germs per 10 square centimeters.
An integrated sink system—with a sensor-operated faucet, soap dispenser and hand dryer all within arm’s reach— helps make the handwashing process not only more efficient, but also more hygiene-friendly.
Like touch-free faucets, sensor-activated flushometers for toilets and urinals also use infrared technology that emits a continuous, invisible light beam from the center, to allow users to flush without touching anything.
Additionally, sensor-operated soap dispensers are available either hardwired or battery-operated and deliver a pre-measured amount of liquid or foam soap “on demand” to reduce waste while delivering the convenience of touch-free operation.
Similarly, automatic, high-speed, and super-energy-efficient hand dryers can dry hands in 8 to 15 seconds, saving 80 percent more energy than traditional hand dryers and 90 to 95 percent in paper towel costs. A HEPA filter can also be used to eliminate 99.7 percent of bacteria as it passes through the hand dryer.
Another hygienic element of sensor-activated fixtures is that their simplified designs, without the need for manual handles, makes them easier to clean. Their reduced surface area cuts down the area capable of harboring bacteria, and leaves fewer nooks and crannies for germs to hide.
Automatic restroom products are appealing specifications for more than just their hygienic benefits. The technology inside these sensor-operated products is leading to innovative changes for facility maintenance teams.
Building owners are implementing automatic, smart commercial restrooms so that facility managers can identify and resolve issues before they occur by receiving real-time data on demand via Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Data-driven restroom management systems can include a network of physical devices that collect and exchange data, including flush monitors, sensors embedded into paper towel and soap dispensers, sensor faucets, and traffic counters.
IoT is used to remotely monitor these restroom systems so that facility managers can extract relevant technical data. IoT can also alert facilities management to issues such as low battery power, run-on toilets and faucets, and loss of communication, thereby controlling water usage and optimizing maintenance.
Additionally, some plumbing product manufacturers offer a mobile app that allows facility managers to adjust settings wirelessly without having to disassemble the deck or perform below-deck work for faucets, reducing maintenance time and cost.
Facility managers can simply connect to the app to monitor, adjust and configure Bluetooth-connected fixtures from a smartphone and review how the fixtures are performing. They can choose on-demand or metered activation, set faucet timeouts, activate line flushes to clear supply lines or drains, measure and report water usage, check battery strength and more.
Changing to touch-free
Retrofitting these restroom products is simple. Manual faucets, soap dispensers, and hand dryers can be replaced with new sensor-operated products, while existing flushometers can be retrofitted.
While sensor-operated products may have higher up-front costs, they are cost-efficient in the long-term. Choosing touch-free products with Bluetooth technology allows for smarter management, which results in water conservation, energy reduction, and streamlined maintenance.
Flushometer retrofit kits are the fastest way to convert manually-operated flushometers to touch-free sensor operation, and these flushometer retrofits can be either top-mounted or side-mounted. Top-mount retrofit flushometers are considered more attractive as they replace the cover and diaphragm assembly.
During retrofit installations, water shut-off is required, but the conversion still only takes five to seven minutes. The flush volume can be changed on top-mount flushometers, and retrofit installation steps include:
- Shut off water
- Remove outer and inner cover and diaphragm assembly
- Install handle cover
- Install retrofit assembly
- Turn water back on
Updating manual restroom products to sensor-operated technology can significantly improve hygiene, water conservation, the data available to facility managers, and much more.
A COVID Outbreak Stemming from Manual Restroom Products
One of the first documented “super-spreader” events attributed to the use of manual products in a public restroom was recently reported in Tokyo.
A number of employees working on the Toei Oedo subway line were stricken with COVID-19 because they shared a single manual faucet in the employee break room. The Toei Oedo subway line is operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation and prior to the pandemic had almost a million riders daily.
In December 2020, it was reported that 39 subway drivers on the line were contaminated after one person who was ill likely contaminated by a manual faucet handle with their saliva while brushing their teeth in the break area.
The subsequent illness and number of sick drivers led to a 30 percent loss in productivity almost immediately across the 38-station subway line. To rectify the situation, the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation publicly committed to converting the restrooms in all 38 of the stations along the line from manual to touch-free sensor operation.
Considering this case and similar other potential outbreaks, commercial facilities across the US are replacing manual fixtures with touch-free, sensor-operated products to create a more hygienic restroom environment. In fact, sales of sensor faucets are expected to grow 28 percent by 2024, with sales of all motion-sensing technology set to grow 37 percent by 2023.
Improving hygiene is certainly the driving force behind these growing numbers, but there is also a wide range of other benefits to touch-free specification, ranging from water conservation to innovative technology and more that contribute to this rise in popularity.