Electronic fixtures are thoughtful additions for a public increasingly concerned about public health issues. Housekeeping managers say these fixtures lighten the load on their cleaning staffs, and more and more organizations are turning their restrooms into touchless environments. Is there any down side? Or is touchless, faultless?

The Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport was on the cutting edge of touchless restroom fixtures, first installing them in 1984 — primarily to prevent the spread of germs, discourage vandalism and eliminate the possibility of flooding accidents. Today, nothing but touchless fixtures service the airport’s 3 million monthly visitors. The organization has realized many benefits from the technology, and discovered a feature or two that might be improved upon.

Tom Hunter, the director of custodial services (a department contracted with American Building Maintenance) supervises about 160 housekeepers and is a big fan and an advocate of touchless technology. But he admits the technology’s not flawless.

Electronic sensors aren’t foolproof. They burn out, and aren’t discovered until an unwitting traveler is unable to flush, the housekeeper discovers the cleaning solution won’t go down, or the red light is out. “It’s like a light bulb,” says Hunter. “The [housekeeper] calls it in and it’s fixed within 24 hours by maintenance.”

Then there’s also the opposite problem — inadvertent flushing or faucet operation. Hunter says he trains his cleaners to work around infrared eyes so they don’t flush their cleaning solution down the drain before they’ve had a chance to scrub. “With toilets you have to stand to the side and reach around,” he advises. “At first we set the system off, but now we’re used to it.”

Tim Fox, general foreman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, says the technology has also accidentally deployed — triggered by light reflected from stainless-steel partitions or mirrors. “Sometimes electronics will have an effect, too,” he adds. “Two-way radios used to turn the faucet on and off. [But] I think manufacturers are perfecting that more and more.”

Airport management discussed installing automatic paper seat liners, but decided against it. “They’re a nice idea,” says Hunter, “but they can stick together, or if the seat is wet, even from cleaning, they wouldn’t dispose properly.”

Hitches aside, airport management wouldn’t have its restrooms any other way.

Airport Director Steve Wareham says plumbers can access the water closet to push an override button to flush as well as check equipment and perform biweekly tune-ups, all without interrupting public use. “All electronics are back there so they’re not in the public eye,” he says. “When the public can mess with it you can run into problems.”

Hunter says with touchless technology, the airport janitorial staff has fewer calls and emergencies to deal with. “The public doesn’t flush steadily, regularly. With that [automation] they can’t make a mistake.”

He also says the airport is currently testing some automatic soap dispensers, adding that they’re hoping to find a model they can link to a large reservoir, instead of depending on separate bottles requiring refilling or replacing.
Fox says, overall, the airport really likes its touchless technology, adding there are many benefits that aren’t readily measurable.

“It’s really pertinent for public areas, and I think you’ll find that pretty much across the globe,” he says. “There are so many cultures and countries here — people are real attentive to germs and don’t want to touch anything.”

“There are fewer things to touch in a public restroom now,” says Hunter. “We clean every hour and fifteen minutes. A lot of people can use that restroom in one hour. The less I have to touch the better. I’ve cleaned a lot of restrooms and I know what kind of dirt’s in there.”

An investment in touchless and electronic automation also helps create a public perception that the facility is cleaner, which makes visitors feel more inclined to keep it cleaner themselves. “If the restrooms seem cleaner, they tend to not make a mess right then,” Hunter says.

Last, but by no means, least, programming fixtures to conserve water saves money on the airport’s water utility bill. Fox says they’ve realized substantial cost savings by putting faucets on timers — a 15 percent savings is his conservative estimate.

“Water consumption has definitely gone down, for a big cost savings,” says Fox. “These erase human error and waste.”

“Up front, they’re expensive, but if you look at operating and maintenance costs, it’s worth it. That’s where you’ll save money — life-cycle costing.”

District Keeps Vandals’ Hands Off

“Dennis the Menace” isn’t as menacing at the Los Angeles Unified School District these days, thanks to touchless technology.

Deputy Director of Maintenance and Operations Robert Hamm says the district’s “smart restroom” program, now in effect for almost six years, includes automated hand dryers, automatic flush valves and automatic shut-off sinks that give nuisance makers less opportunity to flood restrooms. Although it’s a tiny percentage of students that amuse themselves in this manner, the act can be demoralizing for schoolmates and disruptive and expensive.

“The automatic sink will turn itself off,” says Doug Dunivan, Hamm’s counterpart on the maintenance side. “It’s adjusted for 10-12 seconds and can’t be outsmarted because it’s spring-loaded. Also, you can’t run out of electricity for the hand dryer, where if a paper dispenser is filled at 9 a.m., and vandalized at 9:05 a.m., you’re without towels.”

Even the electric hand dryers were vulnerable in the beginning. Troublemakers would turn the nozzles up and pour water down them, shorting the equipment. (Since then nozzles have been anchored into the downward position.)

Winning small “battles” like preventing bathroom flooding can have a big impact on a school district. The Los Angeles Unified School District is currently experiencing the biggest building boom in its history. Over the next six years, it will complete construction of 159 projects to accommodate 76,871 students with 7,100 student restrooms.

“Our budgets for maintenance and operations are limited, so the fewer repairs the better, and the less paper supplies to buy, the better,” says Hamm. “This cuts on our supply needs. Now it’s toilet tissue only. We think, over the long haul, it’s worth the investment. And I think it provides a more sanitized restroom. You’re always able to wash and dry — it’s a cleaner and safer environment.”

With fewer reports of vandalism, fewer maintenance calls, and sizable, if unmeasured, utility savings on water, it seems like Hamm and Dunivan have succeeded in building a better mousetrap.

— Lori Veit

Lori Veit is a business writer based in Madison, Wis.