Reducing the spread of germs and illness is a top priority for the cleaning staff. That mission has become even more important in recent years following highly publicized outbreaks of H1N1, MRSA, avian flu, Norwalk virus and more. As public concern for cleanliness grows, so does the demand for touch-free restroom products.

"Touch-free products are becoming very popular," says Marty Jelinski, president of Bay City Supply in Bellingham, Wash. "We have more and more customers that want to go hands-free so they are eliminating as many touch points as possible. The push comes from the general public. They want to be in-and-out of the restroom while touching as few things as possible."

Two critical touch points in any restroom are the soap and towel dispensers. Manufacturers of these products now offer a wide variety of touch-free systems, which continue to improve in terms of aesthetics and maintenance.

With so many options available, choosing among touch-free dispensers can be overwhelming. Finding the right product for a facility depends on a variety of factors, including budget, traffic levels and aesthetics.

Dollars And Sense

The price of a touch-free towel dispenser depends largely on whether it is mechanical or sensor-operated. The former uses roll, center-pull, or even folded towels and mechanically advances paper without requiring the user to touch the unit. The latter has sensors (powered by batteries) that, when activated by motion, tell the machine to dispense product.

The least expensive option is almost always a mechanical dispenser. Buy-in for sensor-operated versions is often higher because of the technology involved.

But, not all facility managers have to worry about the costs associated with dispensers themselves. Often, dispensers are included as a value-added perk when a facility purchases large quantities of paper products.

This is not true, however, for smaller organizations unable to meet product-usage requirements or for housekeeping managers who aren't willing or able to sign a long-term contract for proprietary product.

For instance, a manager who wants the freedom to purchase generic soap or towels cannot use brand-specific dispensers. And government facilities that award annual contracts and frequently change vendors can't earn free dispensers for a long-term proprietary agreement. At the same time, a single-restroom office might go brand specific, but won't use enough towel or tissue in a year to justify a free dispenser.

"At the end of the day, dispensers are filled with towels or soap — nobody makes money off the dispensers," says Ronnie Kent, president of Associated Paper in Conyers, Ga. "If distributors aren't getting enough volume from the soap or towel purchases, then end-users will have to pay for the dispenser."

When freebies aren't an option, housekeeping managers must absorb the cost of new dispensers. In these cases, choosing between mechanical or sensor-operated systems may come down to volume.

"For example, in a school where you have so many dispensers, it can be cost-prohibitive to go to a sensor-operated hands-free system," Kent says. "The mechanical ones make it more affordable when purchasing for a large number of bathrooms."

If forced to pay for dispensers, distributors say mechanical dispensers are a touch-free solution at an affordable price. This is the case for large facilities such as airports, stadiums and similar facilities with high-volume traffic.

Managers in Class-A office buildings also tend to prefer mechanical towel dispensers over sensor-operated versions because many are designed to work with existing recessed cabinets.

"Facility managers are hesitant about having that box coming off of the wall when they have the public coming in there," Kent says. "Manufacturers are trying to come up with some dispensers that are going to fit in there and look better."

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Sensor-operated dispensers are well suited for housekeeping managers who have a particular towel or soap brand preference or are able to sign a long-term contract for that product. As mentioned previously, facilities with enough traffic to go through many cases of product in a short amount of time can get sensor-operated dispensers at no cost.

That said, cost isn't always the deciding factor with these dispensers. Some managers are willing to pay for sensor-operated dispensers simply because the systems fit the vision and style of the facility.

"Higher-end facilities like restaurants and country clubs may want a higher-end dispenser with a better-quality product," Jelinski says. "They have an image that they are trying to uphold."

Other housekeeping managers have more practical reasons for purchasing sensor-operated dispensers. Newer systems can control how much soap or paper is used, which creates long-term usage savings that may more than offset the upfront cost of the dispenser. For example, a pre-portioned sensor-operated towel dispenser can reduce usage and waste by as much as 40 percent over folded towels.

"I still see a lot of old dispensers with folded towels that fall out, which is wasteful and not sanitary," Kent says. "The sensor-operated hands-free dispensers control usage so towels aren't falling out and going to waste."

Easy Does It

Another reason for investing in touch-free systems is the maintenance savings they can provide.

Both mechanical and sensor-operated towel dispensers come in high-capacity models that can store twice as much product as traditional units. This increased storage capacity helps reduce labor costs associated with refilling dispensers. And any reduction of labor costs — which tops every housekeeping department's budget — helps contribute to the bottom line.

Regarding soap and sanitizer dispensers, hands-free options are often preferred over traditional pump systems because of the maintenance improvements. Newer models are available for in-counter mounting so they look like older pumps but perform more reliably.

"The stainless-steel pump dispensers found in many office buildings fail frequently," Kent says. "Managers find themselves paying for parts all the time because the pumps don't work well. When they have those costs already, the cost of putting in a new hands-free dispenser is not a big deal."

Whether dealing with soap or towel dispensers, housekeeping managers' biggest maintenance worry about sensor-operated dispensers is often related to batteries. These fears are unfounded, distributors say. Although custodians do need to watch for battery failure, generally battery replacement is simply put on a regular schedule.

In most facilities, batteries in soap and towel dispensers last for one to two years. However, some high-volume buildings may have to replace them once or twice a year. Regardless, replacement batteries are inexpensive and have minimal impact on facility budgets.

"Safeco Field in Seattle has battery-operated dispensers and replacing the batteries is just part of their preventative maintenance program," Jelinski says. "Just like you have to replace the urinal screen every 30 days, the batteries are a scheduled task."

Although distributors say they don't see any service problems with sensor-operated dispensers, manufacturers are being proactive about fears over battery failure. New "hybrid" products on the market can operate as mechanical or sensor-operated so users can pull for a towel or push for soap if the sensor isn't functioning properly.

Placement Pointers

Before purchasing new or replacement dispensers, housekeeping managers should work with their distributor to decide how many units are needed and where each should be located.

When it comes to soap dispensers, distributors agree that it is generally best to have one per sink, although sharing one dispenser between two sinks can work. As the number of sinks multiply, so should the number of towel dispensers. While it's not always a one-to-one ratio, it's imperative to not let a lack of towels create a bottleneck by the exit door.

This information is not new to the seasoned housekeeping manager, but a product that is growing in popularity and one managers should focus on is sanitizers. Whether placing them in restrooms or throughout the facility, hands-free dispensers should be considered when purchasing hand sanitizer.

"Every kind of facility, even a run-of-the-mill office, is using them now," Kent says. "With the MRSA scare a few years ago and H1N1 last year, everyone is more in tune with sanitizing."

The only limits on the appropriate quantity and placement of sanitizer dispensers are budget and imagination. While hospitals often have a sufficient number of these dispensers, most facilities aren't offering enough options in convenient locations.

Obvious places for sanitizer dispensers are restrooms, kitchens and break rooms. They should also be made available, distributors say, by entry doors, in customer-service areas, in classrooms and in individual offices.

Getting sanitizer in all of these places is easier thanks to the many new options for hands-free dispensers, which are available as wall-mounts, on moveable stands and in counter or desktop sizes.

"They should be placed wherever a person can come into contact with other people or with surfaces that are touched frequently," Kent says. "The biggest thing is making sure there is one that is convenient for anyone who wants it. People shouldn't have to go out of their way to use them."

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based near DesMoines, Iowa.