Building occupants can learn a lot about a facility by the type of products that are featured in the restroom. Whether it’s double- or single-ply toilet paper, or a roll of multi-fold towel dispensed from a touch-free or crank dispenser, the type of products used in a restroom can send subtle messages about a organization’s image, budget, and even its commitment to the environment.

Housekeeping managers can be sure their paper supplies help make the right impression by choosing products strategically.

“There are a lot of different questions a professional housekeeper should ask themselves based on size, usage, and frequency,” says Richard Thorne, director of washroom business in North America for Kimberly-Clark Professional, Roswell, Ga. “All of those things come together in terms of the type of product and dispenser you would want for that restroom. There isn’t one size that fits all.”

To whittle down the myriad of options, manufacturers suggest that housekeeping managers evaluate their needs based on the following five considerations.

How busy a restroom is dictates the type of paper to use and how large the dispensers must be.

In low-traffic environments, such as hotel rooms or a small office building, single-roll bathroom tissue may be sufficient and provide a cozy, home-like feeling. Likewise, folded hand towels in low-profile dispensers are usually sufficient.

Heavy-traffic restrooms, such as those in airports or malls, typically need jumbo-roll toilet tissue in high-capacity dispensers that hold multiple rolls. When considering hand towels, these busier spaces are usually best served by roll towels in a large dispenser with an automatic transfer feature, which self-loads a reserve roll when the first runs out. In a high-traffic area it is also important to place dispensers in easy-access locations that won’t cause a bottleneck.

“If you are frequently running out of paper towels, that probably indicates you need a higher-capacity dispensing system,” says Lyle McGlothlin, director of marketing for the commercial and industrial division of Cascades Tissue Group, Waterford, N.Y.

“The quality of the product should reflect the quality of your establishment,” says Mark Ray, director of marketing for Scott Paper in Toronto. “If I’m visiting a Ritz-Carlton hotel, I have an expectation of the quality of products and services I’m going to receive. I think a housekeeping manager should provide the same level of expectation. Some reflection needs to be made about the quality of the product that you supply.”

While rougher roll towels may be perfectly suited for a fast-food restaurant or a campsite, they would probably not please clients at a 5-star restaurant or a luxury resort. To project a high-end look, use absorbent folded towels in stainless steel flush-mount dispensers.

Modern dispensers, though, are costly and they are not without faults. They can be more difficult to clean and require more frequent refills. Why spend more money on what boils down to an exercise in aesthetics? Manufacturers say studies have shown that the type of towel or dispenser can actually affect hand-washing compliance.

“Enhancing the washroom experience with quality paper products and dispensers elevates the image of the facility and personal pride of the building occupants,” says Bill Sleeper, vice president and general manager for towel and tissue at Georgia-Pacific, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. “We believe easy-to-use, quality, hygienic products encourage washroom visitors to wash their hands.”

Recent redesigns of paper dispensers have focused not only on aesthetics but also on ergonomics, another modern hot-button issue.

“The ergonomic issues associated with hand towel and tissue dispensers include reach and accessibility limitations, as well as ease of use with dispensing controls,” says Mark Stanland, director of marketing for Wausau Paper/Bay West in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (Towel and Tissue Division headquarters).

Ergonomically correct products are helpful in any environment but particularly so in restrooms used frequently by the same people, or those visited by the disabled. Look for products with easy-to-access and use knobs and bars, and those that can be replenished without reaching to uncomfortable heights.

Perhaps the most important development in ergonomics is touch-free technology. Whether it is a newfangled electronic roll-towel system or a basic mechanical centerfold dispenser, no-touch products are quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception. In fact, more than 33 percent of office workers believe they can be protected from germs by having touch-free washrooms, according to a 2004 study in Infection Control Today.

“People don’t want to touch something that someone else has touched,” McGlothlin says. “The touch-free trend will continue. Every time there is a headline about some new health concern or disease, that just fuels peoples’ concerns about sanitation and cleanliness in the restroom.”

While touch-free technology is clearly the top trend in the paper industry, environmentally friendly products are a close second. The focus on “green” in the commercial environment is due in part to the growing influence of the U.S. Green Building Council, whose Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification promotes human and environmental health in building design and operation.

“In recent years, the away-from-home market has become more conscious of the environmental impacts of the products and services consumed and used in buildings,” Stanland says. “Restroom paper products can play an important role as facilities look to become better environmental stewards.”

Look for products certified by a third party agency, such as Green Seal. Other signs that a paper product may be environmentally friendly include that it is made with some percentage of recycled materials, it wasn’t bleached using chlorine derivatives, and its packaging reduces the amount of waste that will go to a landfill.

If you tried green products with little success in the past, it may be time to take another look at this category. Technology and education has made these products more efficient and cost effective.

“You don’t have to make compromises anymore to do the environmentally sound thing,” Ray says. “You can now purchase green products without compromising quality or cost.”

With budgets continuing to tighten, cost is typically top-of-mind when housekeeping managers place orders. When it comes to paper and dispensers, however, quality has a direct — but often overlooked — correlation to cost.

Most users prefer soft, absorbent paper products that are most similar to what they use in their own homes. Better-quality tissue and towels come with a higher price tag, but manufacturers are quick to point out that a large up-front cash outlay can pay off in the long run.

“Generally speaking, people will use three or four cheap towels before they are satisfied,” says Thorne. “The initial price of the towel may be lower, but the cost in use is high.”

For example, Thorne says, people use three or four cheaper towels but just one or two thicker towels. So if a dispenser that holds 400 towels is loaded with cheap towels, only 100 people can dry their hands before it is empty. If that same dispenser is loaded with high-end towels, 200 or 300 people can dry their hands. In addition to less waste, the towels reduce labor costs associated with refilling the dispenser.

“The real problem with towels is buyers are striving to get the most economy they can in the restroom,” McGlothlin says. “Manufacturers have catered to that low-price-per-case by making the towels too thin to get the job done. If you look at the lowest priced towel from every manufacturer out there, and we’re guilty of this too, it’s not a low-cost per hand dry. They’ve taken too much performance out of the towel and it just doesn’t get the job done.”

Bath tissue also comes in different quality layers, such as 1-ply versus 2-ply, but its usage is less tied to its quality. There are problems with waste and pilferage, however, which can be remedied with a controlled-use dispensing system and a locking mechanism.

“Perforated high-capacity bath tissue along with controlled-use dispensers assist with waste reduction,” Stanland says.

Likewise, automated towel dispensers offer towels in pre-determined lengths to discourage waste. These systems are important because many dispensing systems, particularly those loaded with multi-fold towels, allow users to grab too many towels, which causes waste and litter.

“When a building uses folded towels, it is important to load the dispenser with the correct amount,” Sleeper says. “If a janitor puts too many towels in the dispenser, the patron will have to pull several towels at once to initiate the dispensing process.”

Manufacturers can provide a cost-per-use calculator to help determine the total cost of a particular paper choice.

“If the buyer is not comfortable using a manufacturer’s calculator, they can ask their supplier to recommend the most efficient towel — not the cheapest,” McGlothlin says. “Then test the product. See what the cost is over a month or two. The least expensive towel is not always the least expensive in use.”

Housekeeping managers who consider these five steps when choosing their restroom paper products will benefit from cost and time savings, as well as improve perception within their facility.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.