There is a growing concern among Americans about sanitation in public restrooms. Building occupants appreciate touch-free fixtures including towel and soap dispensers, faucets and flush valves, as a way to prevent the spread of germs.

To stay competitive, building service contractors need to pay attention to what their customers’ customers — i.e. building occupants — want. If facility managers are remodeling or renovating a restroom, or just looking for new ways to reduce costs, BSCs should promote the use of touch-free fixtures. Implementing these products can enhance the cleanliness of the restroom and improve the public’s perception of the facility, as well as reduce costs for facility managers. Many facility managers who have already made the switch to touch-free have received positive feedback from their tenants.

Tenants drive demand
At the State Farm Insurance offices in Bloomington, Ill., employees started raising concerns about bathroom sanitation soon after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its Bloodborne Pathogens Standard in 1991, says Steve Spencer, facilities specialist for the firm. Initially, tenants requested paper toilet seat covers. In the mid-1990s, as touch-free products became more common in public restrooms, particularly in airports, employees started asking for those as well.

“Our motivation was to make a restroom that our employees felt comfortable utilizing,” says Spencer.

State Farm experimented with flush valves at the time, with limited success. Some units would flush too frequently, and others would jam. Batteries didn’t last very long, either.

“There were lots of things wrong with the early versions,” Spencer says.

The firm took another look at automatic valves in 2001 as it started remodeling restrooms in its regional offices. As before, employees were behind the push. Now, approximately 30 branch offices throughout the United States and Canada have touch-free products in the restrooms.

Similar success stories can be found in other facilities. At D&E Communications of Ephrata, Pa., employees were concerned about the possibility of picking up germs from others, especially during the winter. Since switching to touch-free fixtures, Doug Snell, vice president of facilities and purchasing for D&E, says he’s received a lot of positive comments from employees.

“Cleanliness is usually the largest reason our clients request [touch-free fixtures],” says Aimee D’Amore, vice president of asset management and customer service for Duke Realty Corp. of Dublin, Ohio. There is a general concern about the possibility of spreading colds and flu among employees, she says.

“Having fewer items in a restroom a person has to touch certainly keeps the spread of germs down,” she adds. Duke Realty has incorporated touch-free soap and towel dispensers, faucets and flush valves throughout the commercial properties the firm manages.

Cost savings
Not only do touch-free products reduce the potential for cross-contamination, but they also reduce costs for facility managers. Snell estimates D&E has saved approximately 25 percent on hand soap and paper towels since it started incorporating touch-free fixtures in 2001.

“We‘ve reduced the amount of supplies we purchase because we are wasting less,” he says. “That’s the key.”

Touch-free fixtures can also reduce water consumption. With traditional products, employees often leave the water faucet on while drying their hands with a paper towel and then use the towel to turn off the faucet, says Spencer.

Facilities managers says it’s difficult to gauge whether conventional fixtures wear out faster than touch-free ones, but there is some indication that they do.

D’Amore says she can’t recall any automated unit that has needed repair since they were installed three or four years ago. One reason for fewer maintenance issues is because users are no longer kicking or turning handles. The only maintenance, as it were, involves replacing batteries.

Battery life tends to vary greatly, says Spencer. Sometimes they’ll last only two or three weeks. Other may last three months or more. Snell likens replacing batteries in touch-free products to replacing them in smoke detectors.

“You’ve got to do that once a year anyway,” he says.

A good way to avoid dead batteries is to have a preventive maintenance schedule in place, D’Amore says. Replace batteries on a regular basis to avoid inconvenience to users and additional maintenance time. Her staff also looks for those models of toilets that have override buttons. That way the unit can still be flushed should the battery die.

Spencer says the lifespan of a fixture also depends on other factors, including the hardness of the water.

“If you have some really nasty water,” he says, “it can eat through your plumbing fixtures in really short order no matter what kind they are.” But the automated fixtures are holding up just fine, Spencer adds. The company has had touch-less fixtures for about seven years, and so far they’ve only had to replace batteries.

Enhancing perception
At Duke Realty, D’Amore says that overall they are very pleased with touch-free fixtures. While they haven’t tracked their cost savings closely — something they plan to do starting this year — she feels that they are saving on maintenance and product costs. But there’s a larger benefit to going touch-free.

“There is a lot of value to be added by using them,” she says. “Your restroom is perceived to be upgraded.”

With society becoming more global in nature, Spencer adds, people are traveling more, especially overseas. The outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003 and annual flu outbreaks have brought people’s attention to a restroom’s condition.

“It’s becoming an expectation of the public,” he says. “People don’t want to go into a dirty restroom.”

Touch-free products don’t have to be limited to the restroom either. At D&E, several touch-free dispensers for hand sanitizer have been added in the break room and kitchen.

“They’re really popular,” says Snell. “We’re thinking of adding more.”

Thomas R. Fuszard is a business writer from New Berlin, Wis.