How often does the average housekeeping executive think about paper and soap dispensers? Probably not very often — when they’re considering which to buy, or perhaps when customers complain about existing ones. But the truth is, dispensers play a prominent, if quiet, role in building operations — every building occupant uses them frequently, janitors must restock them

regularly and housekeeping managers get an earful if they’re not working properly.

Every building manager wants attractive, functional dispensers, but two other factors seem to drive the decision-making process — cost and health.

About cost
As far as building expenditures go, soap and paper dispensers can be pretty inexpensive. Plus, aside from occasional equipment failure or vandalism, they’re only a one-time investment. However, on a daily or even more frequent basis, someone must come in to refill and maintain the fixtures, costing in both labor and supplies. Thus, when housekeeping decision makers select fixtures for economy, they look for labor-saving features, such as large rolls or bulk tanks and standardization throughout the facility, as well as less-expensive materials with which to fill them. But overall cost can be a delicate balance between the initial savings achieved through a change, and the hidden expenses involved in operational compatibility.

For example, John Salisbury, chief of service contracts for Langley Air Force Base in Langley, Va., is responsible for developing the custodial contracts for more than 1.3 million cleanable square feet in administrative offices, hangars, classrooms, recreation centers, and a library and child-development center.

“We switched from C-fold, single-fold and bi-fold paper towels to a large-roll type of hand-towel dispenser,” Salisbury says.

The base also standardized its toilet tissue to a four-roll, wagon-wheel-style dispenser, and its soap to a one-pint liquid dispenser. So far, these changes have been of varying success.

“The selling point was that we would save money,” he says. But the contractor has been complaining that he spends more on paper towels than before the switch. On the other hand, the labor saved restocking and servicing toilet paper and soap dispensers, say Salisbury, has been significant.

Likewise, Tim Carver, operations manager at the Mall at Sierra Vista (Calif.), saw an opportunity for increasing customer satisfaction and reducing labor when he replaced the soap dispensers in the mall, just one month after it opened.

“The old ones would run out before the end of the day, so I went to a larger size reservoir to facilitate the amount of people using them,” he explains.

However, that replacement wasn’t without a snag.

“When I changed them to the new size we realized the pump could not handle the thickness of the soap so we had to change to a thinner soap,” he says.

The new dispensers now are working as promised, and Carver hasn’t received many complaints. However, the mall management’s attempt at economy didn’t work as well when they went to bulk paper-towel dispensers. The dispenser cuts 700-foot rolls into 10-inch sheets.

“They are very unreliable,” he complains. “They break down all the time and need constant upkeep. They were chosen for this facility for financial reasons and I've been paying for it since.”

Look! No hands!
Another major factor in choosing dispensers is preventing or reducing cross-contamination. When multiple users touch fixtures, they can unwittingly transfer viruses, bateria and other pathogens.

To curb that, many facilities are considering touch-free dispensers that use electronic sensors to determine when someone’s hands are in front of the unit, and provide a small amount of soap or a length of towel.

“Touchless systems provide an environment that protects patrons from the spread of pathogens,” says Dennis Miller, operations manager for setup and housekeeping at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.
The center currently is undergoing a major expansion and renovation. In conjunction with the construction, state-of-the-art amenities are being retrofit throughout the existing structure. Thus, Miller’s department elected to go with completely touchless sinks and soap dispeners in eight new and eight remodeled restrooms.

To facilitate the touchless system, electricians installed two, 110-volt circuits under the counter — the faucets and soap dispensers were from two different manufacturers, and thus needed two circuits.

“A system from a single supplier could have been run off the same circuit, but it was [specified] for the two different manufacturers due to aesthetic appeal,” Miller explains.

From a cross-contamination standpoint, hands-free dispensers are promising, but some housekeeping managers rule out the initial investment in electrical upgrades.

“I looked at [hands-free fixtures], but after careful consideration of the costs involved in installing electrical, we decided that it wouldn’t be cost effective,” Salisbury concludes.

Pathogen prevention also can be accomplished with conscientious installation and maintenance of low-tech more paper fixtures. After all, almost every toilet-tissue dispenser basically is hands-free — whether they’re exposed single-roll, as in a hotel or hospital patient room, or multi-roll jumbo dispensers, there usually are no handles or buttons for users to touch. They simply tear off the paper they need.

Many paper-towel dispensers operate in the same way. While traditional roll-towel fixtures often use handles or cranks, folded and center-pull dispensers only require contact with the product.

The towel dispensers in the Oregon Convention Center are decidedly lower-tech than their soap fixtures — standard multifold towels hide in mirrored dispensers, to provide a less cluttered sight line in the facility. Assuming they’re filled correctly, users need only touch the towel, and not the dispenser, to obtain product.

However, if these types of dispensers clog though overstuffing, improper product selection or poor maintenance, the touchless features are rendered useless, and users must press a button release, turn a crank or dig into the dispenser to get it working again. Routine maintenance is key, says Jerry Hamilton, division manager responsible for environmental services of the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. There are many such fixtures installed throughout the center’s 1,684 restrooms, at wash sinks and in food-service areas.

“We have paper residue buildup inside the dispensers, and we ask staff to clean these when the dispensers are near empty, or, at a minimum, weekly,” he says.

Keeping Them Clean
Regardless of the fixture type, cleaning and disinfection is important.

To reduce germ transmission, Tim Carver, operations manager at the Mall at Sierra Vista. (Calif.) uses a germicidal cleaner on his dispensers fixtures. His department attempts to clean fixtures on every walk-through, up to twice hourly.

“It is difficult to keep up during the high-traffic times — weekends,” Carver says. “I wish I had the budget to increase staffing levels. I'm to make do with what I have. My staff will do their best to get into the bathroom as often as possible.”

However, sometimes, avoiding cross-contamination comes down more to faith than to procedures.

“One has to assume that the finger that touches the button is clean, not sterile,” says John Salisbury, chief of service contracts at Langley (Va.) Air Force Base. “Since the infection-control standards employed in a hospital environment is not practical for administrative or industrial settings, we simply hope that individuals wash their hands reasonably often.”