Building service contractors agree that touch-free restrooms are the wave of the future. Touch-free alternatives to traditional commodes, urinals, faucets and soap and towel dispensers are increasingly showing up in restrooms. With the benefits of reduced cross-contamination, less waste and improved public image, it’s easy to see why so many building owners are retrofitting their old fixtures, or simply replacing them with new touch-free models.

Restroom patrons also appreciate the switch.

“People feel more comfortable going into a restroom where they don’t have to touch anything,” says Shaun Davis, vice president, R.B. Davis and Co., Salt Lake City.

BSCs like them too, because it makes their job a little easier. But the different fixtures do have some quirks that may require a little modification to a BSC’s restroom cleaning procedure.

A cleaner environment
Touch-free fixtures help maintain a cleaner restroom. Part of this is due to perception.

“Touch-free products give piece of mind to people who use the restroom,” says Davis. “They think the restroom is cleaner, so they’ll keep it cleaner. There’s no taking a towel to open the door and then throwing it on the floor.”

But it’s not all perception — the products do provide a more sanitary environment. Touch-free urinals and commodes are cleaner because they are flushing themselves. People who don’t like to touch handles simply won’t flush, leaving stool and urine to sit and create odor problems, says Jim Thompson, owner, A-1 Building Services Inc., Wyoming, Mich.

Or, people use alternative methods to flush, such as their feet, which leaves more soil on the fixture than hands do, says Tony Razo, regional manager for Gurnee, Ill.-based SCC Cleaning. This method also can cause serious damage to the fixture.

Commodes and urinals aren’t the only products that help out BSCs.

“Metal [touch-free faucets] last longer and maintain appearance better than their traditional counterparts because wet hands aren’t dripping water and soap on the faucet area while turning water on and off,” says Kim Jones, senior project manager at Sprint’s World Headquarters campus in Overland Park, Kan., a client of Woodley Building Maintenance Co., Kansas City, Mo.

With sensor-activated towel dispensers, towels are distributed only when users activate the sensor. This prevents towels from falling out of the dispenser onto the floor, helping to maintain a good appearance throughout the day — keeping up that perception of clean.

“If people see towels on the floor, they immediately think the entire restroom is unkempt,” says Razo.

Touch-free dispensers also require less frequent refills.

“With fold towels, people pull out four, five, six towels at a time,” says Thompson. “The time delay on touch-free dispensers prevents users from taking too much.”

Besides a savings on labor, using less consumable products can result in lower product costs — a significant benefit considering the current high paper prices, says Thompson.

If traffic is low, but cleaning crews are still frequently refilling dispensers, consider shortening the length of toweling being distributed. Users may be receiving a towel that is longer than necessary to dry hands.

Extra attention While touch-free fixtures may keep restrooms cleaner throughout the day, it doesn’t mean cleaning crews can ignore them. In fact, there are some aspects to a touch-free restroom that may require crews to give these fixtures more attention than traditional counterparts.

Staff especially needs to be diligent about cleaning the infrared sensors that operate the device, says Razo. If they get coated with dust or fingerprints, it can cause the equipment to malfunction.

Most touch-free equipment is battery powered. Even though some batteries are designed to last for multiple years, cleaning crews still need to be cognizant of when it’s time to replace them.

Some units feature sensor lights that alert staff when battery life is low. If towel dispensers start slowing down, that’s a good indicator that batteries are dying, too, says Davis.

BSCs can also keep a battery log to document when batteries were last replaced and when it’s time to change them again. No matter how crews monitor battery life, batteries should be changed before they die completely, says Razo.

“That would be the worst thing, to have someone wash their hands and then not be able to dry them because the batteries are dead in the dispenser,” he adds.

Creating the perception of a cleaner environment is a benefit to restroom patrons, but it could be a drawback to BSCs who are training workers. Often the staff assumes the restroom is cleaner and doesn’t do as good of a job, says Razo.

“It’s fairly easy to shortcut [touch-free fixtures], but you still need to spend time scrubbing them,” adds Thompson.

From Touch free to Waterfree

Instead of retrofitting urinals with touch-free flush valves, building service contractors may want to convince their customers to lose the flushing altogether. Aside from not requiring users to touch handles to dispose urine, waterfree urinals also have many other unique benefits.

Waterfree urinals hang on the wall like their traditional counterparts. However, they don’t require any feed piping or flush valves.

“Waterfree urinals use the simple laws of physics to eliminate flushing,” says Jim Allen, water conservation manager, Sloan Valve, Franklin Park, Ill. “Urine goes down the drain with gravity.”

The urine flows into a replaceable cartridge and passes through a biodegradable sealant and then into the drainpipe.

The most noteworthy benefit to this type of urinal is the water savings. A typical urinal uses a gallon of water every time it flushes.

“That’s overkill for flushing urine,” says Allen.

By replacing flushing urinals with waterfree models, building owners can save 40,000 gallons of water per urinal per year, says Randy Goble, vice president of marketing for Falcon Waterfree Technologies, Grand Rapids, Mich. With water and sewer costs rising in some areas of the U.S., this can be a significant cost savings for building owners. For green buildings, the water savings can mean points towards Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Besides water and cost savings, waterfree urinals also create a more hygienic environment. The water rinse down the back of the urinal and the pool of water at the base causes bacteria growth. Research shows that flush urinals harbor five times more bacteria because it’s a moist environment.

“Urine is sterile when it comes out of the body, you just need to get rid of it immediately,” says Goble. “It’s when it sits around and reacts with water that it becomes a problem.”

Bacteria can also be easily spread around the restroom. When urinals flush, it creates a flush plume causing bacteria to come out of the fixture, explains Allen.

Without water, there will also be less odor problems in the restroom. Urine is odorless until it reacts with water to cause ammonia oxide, says Goble.

BSCs may want to push for installing waterfree urinals because it’ll make their job even easier. Flush urinals experience occasional leaks in the piping and are also prone to vandalism. Paper thrown into the urinal can easily clog pipes, causing water to flood and pool onto the floor.

As for cleaning the urinals, the methods are a little different than what cleaning crews may be accustomed to, says Goble. Waterfree urinals don’t need to be cleaned with harsh chemicals because there is no hard mineral build up on the fixture. Also, too harsh of a cleaner could break up the sealant, says Goble. Since it’s a cleaner environment to begin with, workers only need to spray a mild anti-bacterial cleaner in the fixture and wipe out. Cartridges need replacing typically three to four times a year, or after 7,000 uses.