How many times have you washed your hands in a public restroom and noticed the presence — or absence — of a hand dryer? Chances are, you haven’t seen as many of them as you have paper dispensers. The modern-day hand dryer has been around for a long time — 50- some years, to be exact — but it still doesn’t have an overpowering presence in today’s washrooms. That’s changing, however. Of late, the market for hand dryers has been growing at a brisk pace.

George Clemens, a talented inventor from Chicago, developed the first electric hand dryer in 1948. Over the next few decades, however, his innovative invention underwent relatively little advancement, save reduced noise production. The most recent improvements, however, have been noteworthy. Manufacturers have developed products that greatly reduce dry time. Also, new no-touch sensors that have been added to hand dryers to address the public’s desire for more hygienic options.

A Growing Minority
Because they must compete with the conventional paper and linen towel dispensers found in restrooms, manufacturers have always been looking to improve the functionality of their hand dryers. The best of them today are maintenance-free and offer great performance and efficiency; they also consume less energy. So it’s not surprising that the hand dryer industry is growing rapidly, in spite of the fact that paper towels still dominate the market. Currently, less than 10 percent of all the public restrooms in the United States are outfitted with hand dryers.

“That’s due to the fact that Americans sometimes prefer luxuries, such as individual paper towels,” says Susan Ebbing, vice president, national sales, for American Dryer in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The ways hand dryers are marketed and sold today are keys to winning the hearts and minds of potential customers, she says. These key selling points can be summed up in a few words: “top-quality products, competitive pricing, good communication and innovation,” Ebbing says.

“Our company believes the best way to access the market is to come up with an extremely competitive, efficient, quiet hand dryer that is maintenance-free. ‘Maintenance-free’ is the key to our marketing strategy,” she explains. “American Dryer has employed that strategy ever since the Hospeco organization, under the guidance of Bill Hemann, their president, went to the marketplace for us. They promote the fact that American Dryer is a service-oriented company, and the fact that our hand dryers are efficient, attractive and less expensive products.”

Price is paramount, she says. “We’re in a price-shopper’s world. Look at the success of the Costcos and Sam’s Clubs. Our reasonable pricing is another huge reason for the success that we’ve had.”

American Dryers’ new Global GX automatic dryers, for instance, are sleek, inexpensive and very efficient, she says. They are touchless, have no fuses, no brushes and are self-lubricating for life. “That’s a real plus. They compete strongly with any foreign competitive product,” she says.

“Touchless technology today is an important trend in the United States that includes hand dryers, toilet flushers, sinks and soap dispensers. These all provide you with a very clean, microorganism-free environment.”

Ebbing says her company’s successful marketing effort, which also utilizes the Internet, is reviewed quarterly.

High On Innovation, Low On Waste
Another touchless, brushless hand dryer is Stiebel Eltron’s Galaxy model, according to Frank Stiebel, the company’s president. Manufactured in Holyoke, Mass., it has an infrared proximity sensor that turns the unit on and off automatically. Placing your hands underneath the unit activates the blower and heating elements. When you take your hands away, the dryer stops running, minimizing the use of electricity. Its noise level is only 54 decibels.

Three years ago, Excel Dryer Corp., East Longmeadow, Mass., introduced their Xlerator hand dryer to the marketplace — an innovative product that dries hands three times faster than conventional dryers. “It takes 15 seconds to do the job instead of 30 to 45 seconds,” says Denis Gagnon, president, who, with his wife, has owned the company since 1992. “Communicating that all-important fact has had a tremendous PR and marketing effect for us. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it, cable TV’s “Learning Channel” featured it, and a segment on NBC-TV network news informed the public about its advantages.”

Just The Facts
Alan Gettelman, director of marketing for Bobrick Corp., North Hollywood, Calif., supplies his customers with a fact sheet that helps building owners or managers analyze the cost of paper towels vs. his company’s Eclipse, Aircraft and other hand dryer models. “They see immediately that there is quite a cost savings with our no-touch hand dryers,” he explains.

“The trend today is no-touch operation in restrooms. That’s an important feature that we emphasize in marketing our dryers. More and more today, people want a clean, safe, functional environment in public restrooms. They are sensitive about touching things that others have touched, such as levers or buttons of dispensers. Our Aircraft dryer, which was introduced in 1986, was the first one in the United States with an electronic sensor. Now everyone has them,” Gettelman says.

State and local policies encourage waste reduction practices, such as substituting paperless methods of hand drying for paper towels, where appropriate. By eliminating paper towels, an establishment can eliminate about 15 percent of its non-recyclable waste.

According to Gagnon, hand dryers represent a 90 percent cost savings compared to paper towel. Their operating costs are significantly less than the operating costs of paper or linen towels.

Ebbing says her company estimates that after an initial investment of $160 to $300, the long-term cost of electric hand dryers is about $1.34 per 1,000 dryings, compared to $22.70 per 1,000 dryings with paper towels.

“That cost savings can be as high as $200,000 per year over paper towels for a large corporation or a big university. That’s a very exciting number,” she adds.

“Schools, parks, stadiums — these are targets for marketers now because they are perfect locations for hand dryers.”

She also cites additional advantages:

  • Hand-dryer use contributes to a cleaner and more sanitary washroom — no litter from paper towels.

  • They are virtually maintenance free. Except for a yearly recommended cleaning, they don’t need much upkeep.

  • The dryers are labor-saving devices, because a significant amount of labor hours can be freed up by switching from towels to dryers. One hour of labor is required to service one case of paper towels.

  • Dryers are easily positioned at recommended heights for use by those who are disabled

Fighting Crime And Waste
Dryers also do much to eliminate vandalism that often involves paper towels, says Gettelman. Towels can intentionally or unintentionally clog toilets and sinks. “In schools, kids love to wad up paper towels and throw them on the ceilings or make unsightly messes. Paper towels are sometimes set aflame.”

“Environmental advantages of hand dryers are important, too, because of the issues of deforestation and landfill space,” says Gagnon. “Paper towels can’t be recycled. Once used, they go to the country’s limited landfill space.”

Ebbing also points to the fact that much of the water pollution caused by the manufacturing of paper towels can be eliminated by using hand dryers. “A single chemical treatment to make the pulp clean in a paper mill can pollute 20,000 gallons of water.”

Hygienic Virtues
Hand dryers also have additional hygienic benefits. “When it comes to hygiene, hand dryers are superior to paper towels. When you throw a used paper towel into a waste basket, the microorganisms sitting on the paper continue to live and multiply,” says Ebbing.

She does believe, however, that there are places for paper towels, including five-star restaurants, where hand towels could be considered a luxury. However, fast food restaurants are hand-dryer friendly places.

But in spite of the positive features and the conventional wisdom that surrounds electric hand dryers, most people still prefer paper towels, according to Gagnon. “They don’t care for hand dryers because of the time it takes to dry one’s hands.

“That’s a big pet peeve that our company has worked to overcome. We spent three years in an R&D mode, studying the efficiency of the current hand dryer technology. We knew if we could speed up the drying function to overcome that big objection, we could impact the marketplace.”

When Excel brought its speedier hand dryer to the market, it changed its marketing tack. “Trade shows are very important tools for us, but in the past we participated in shows for specifiers and distributors because we sell through wholesale distributors — not directly to end buyers such as facility owners. So recognizing what a good, innovative product we had in the Xlerator, we strategically decided to triple our presence at trade shows, focusing on end buyers. We wanted them to experience the product so we brought a working demo to the shows to convert them on the spot. Because we are aggressively marketing this way, we’ve generated five times the number of leads that we’ve had in the past.”

Whatever their marketing approach, each manufacturer is hoping more end users will soon come around and see the numerous advantages of hand dryers.

Jordan Fox is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.