When it comes to soap and paper dispensers, end users typically spend a lot of time weighing their options. They wrestle with the purchasing process, hoping to find a top-flight product at a low-rent price. Once the dispenser is installed, however, it is easily forgotten. But keeping these pumps and boxes clean and functional should be a top priority.

Just as the product inside a dispenser is integral to cleanliness, the dispenser itself has a role to play. Hands spread an estimated 80 percent of common diseases and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), touching a contaminated object is the number one source of spreading disease.

To encourage users to wash their hands, janitors must provide soap and paper in machines that are sanitized and function properly. A sparkling restroom also goes a long way in making a good impression. And that’s important because at least 50 percent of the public’s complaints about buildings concern the upkeep of restrooms.

On The Outside
Keeping dispensers clean and sanitized isn’t a big chore, but it is something that should happen as part of routine maintenance. The exteriors of the containers should be wiped down with a cloth or flatmop and mild cleaner every time the other surfaces in the bathroom are cleaned.

Dispensers should be treated like countertops, sinks and mirrors. Use different cloths and chemicals than what is used to clean toilets and urinals. Also, dispensers with levers touched by hands should be disinfected with a contact sanitizer.

“We clean the dispenser exteriors every scheduled restroom cleaning because it’s a sanitary issue,” says William Friske, president of Friske Building Maintenance Co., Livonia, Mich. “Any area in a restroom that a user dirties on a daily basis is cleaned daily. So many contractors miss out on this easy opportunity to impress a customer while doing the right thing for them.”

The automated photo-eyes of mechanical dispensers should also be wiped daily with non-corrosive chemicals, such as a non-acid bathroom cleaner.

How often the dispensers are cleaned is determined by how frequently the restroom is cleaned. A workable schedule is important. An average restroom is cleaned once a day (and monitored throughout the day). Janitors responsible for less-busy restrooms or those affected by budget cuts may clean as rarely as once a week. High-traffic restrooms, such as those in airports, may need attention hourly.

“In restrooms we clean everyday then the cabinet should be wiped down everyday, and those we clean twice a week, they only get cleaned twice a week,” says Ron Bailey, associate director of custodial services for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “With budget reductions, the bathrooms in non-student areas are cleaned less frequently, while student areas are cleaned five days a week.”

Internal Affair
Frequent superficial cleaning is enough to keep dispensers shiny and sanitary. To keep them performing at their prime, however, the guts of the machines should also be cleaned periodically.

It is common practice to clean the interior of a dispenser each time the product inside is replaced. For example, before a janitor replaces a soap cartridge, he should take the dispenser apart and clean the inside. Or before he reloads a towel or tissue dispenser, he should vacuum any dust inside the container.

“Our cleaning procedures list the objects that are to be cleaned daily, weekly and monthly,” says John Bartello, facilities manager for Skiff Medical Center in Newton, Iowa. “As a dispenser gets emptied, they are supposed to open it up prior to putting in a new unit and clean the inside out.”

Bartello says it would be overkill to clean inside toilet-paper dispensers each time they are refilled, which is daily. Instead, they are cleaned internally once a week along with all other dispensers.

Left untouched, paper dispensers can accumulate dust that can make messes when towels are pulled and also make it difficult or impossible to receive a towel. Dirty soap or hand-sanitizer dispensers can develop film or scum that can corrode the valves and lead to unsanitary bacteria growth.

“Any machine you use has to be kept clean because it affects how useful it is gong to be,” says Everett McDonald, housekeeping supervisor at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Intl. Airport. “Keeping them clean helps prevent them from getting jammed or clogged, which can save you a lot of time on repairs.

Fix It Up
Staying on top of dispenser cleanliness serves another important purpose — it makes janitors hyperaware of potential or actual problems. It is always better to have a custodian be the first to notice a maintenance issue. No one wants a customer or tenant to report a broken dispenser or, worse yet, experience problems and not tell anyone.

“I inspect almost every public restroom almost every day,” Bartello says. “I check for the quality of the cleaning job, the filling of the products, problems with the faucets, dispensers that are not full.”

In addition to routine cleaning, dispensers require periodic maintenance to keep them operational. Fixes can be simple and inexpensive (tightening mounting screws, replacing batteries on hands-free units) or more involved and costly (broken lock or levers).

“If a dispenser fails, we send our maintenance technician out to see what the problem is,” Bailey says. “Many times the failure is not so much the machine as it is human error, either improper installation of the product or customer ignorance on how to use the dispenser.”

Unless the repair is a super quick fix, dispensers will likely need to be removed from the bathroom (this is particularly important in a women’s restroom, where a male technician cannot make repairs while the room is in use), so it is important to have one or several backup units at the ready. A backup allows a mechanic to swap out the broken unit with a functioning one, to avoid inconveniences or closings.

“Usually if something happens to them it’s easier to just replace it,” McDonald says. “If a towel dispenser latch keeps falling open, it can be a safety hazard. It takes the same amount of time to pull it out and fix it. Plus, if you try to fix it in the restroom, you will have fewer paper towels, which will create lines. You want to keep the flow moving by taking it out and replacing it.”

Managers might also consider offering patrons more than one option, such as both towel machines and air dryers, so there will always be an alternative in case one can’t be used and the problem hasn’t been reported or resolved.

Weighing The Options
The type of dispenser a facility uses can affect how much cleaning and maintenance is required. Deciding which to choose is a balancing act; managers must weigh maintenance needs against usage issues and customer expectations.

For example, a basic c-fold dispenser is virtually indestructible and, with no moving parts, has few repair issues. The tradeoff, however, is the boxes offer no control over the amount of paper a patron can pull, leading to costly waste. And because users make contact with the box, it must be cleaned and sanitized more often.

Alternatively, mechanical hands-free units keep waste to a minimum by controlling how many towels are dispensed and require less frequent cleaning because they have no touch points. Plus, end users prefer the units because of perceived sanitary benefits. But touchless dispensers are expensive and have more parts that can break down.

There are similar pros and cons with manual and mechanical soap dispensers.

The biggest concern is about batteries, which eventually die and must be changed. While some touch-free systems may have an alarm to warn when batteries are weak, many don’t, so it’s important for maintenance personnel to keep a battery-replacement log. In a facility with hundreds or thousands of dispensers, “battery patrol” could take hours every week.

With so many options to choose from, end users will be turning to their distributors for guidance on making the best selection.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a frequent contributor to SM.