Thanks in part to the recession and in part to maintenance challenges associated with battery-operated devices, some end users have been forced to choose between the simplicity of manual soap dispensers and high-end, user-friendly touch-free dispensers.

In many small facilities where tenants are not as demanding about the restroom image, manual soap dispensers are still the more popular option, says Chris Martini, director of marketing and special projects for Central Sanitary Supply in Modesto, Calif.

“In general we install more manual dispensers than we do hands-free and I think it just, in part, speaks to the core type of end users that we deal with,” Martini says.

Distributors are finding that a growing number of end users who had been using touchless dispensers have migrated back to manual soap dispensers, which do not demand the maintenance work required by automatic, battery-run devices.

“We are seeing a huge trend moving away from automatic and moving back to a manual type system,” says Eric Cadell, vice president of operations for Dutch Hollow Supplies, Belleville, Ill. “We are watching a lot of movement coming back, and the number one reason is that batteries are an [additional] expense.”

Since soap dispensers are touched prior to washing hands, end users may prioritize touch-free towel dispensers or hand dryers over touch-free soap dispensers if they’re forced to choose. Occupants would likely rather touch a soap push bar than a towel dispenser lever or hand dryer push-button, ensuring that the last step of hand washing is perceived to be “clean.”

Controlled systems are generally more expensive than the more basic, manual dispensers, and that has been a major factor affecting all areas of the market.

“Any kind of government or tax-supported agency, with their budgets being really affected, I think we’ve seen more of those customers be extremely price conscious and the actual per-application cost or milliliter cost of some of these higher end touch-free systems are considerably more than a bulk-fill generic dispenser,” Martini says.

Another issue with touchless dispensers is regarding their actual use, and a lack of standardized dispensing, which leads to user confusion and, ultimately, product waste, Cadell says.

“When you use an auto system, you have no idea where that soap is coming from. You put your hand underneath, some of them shoot from the top, some of them shoot out sideways and the nozzles are pointed so they come out towards you. ... There’s an increase waste in soap because you don’t know where it’s coming from,” he says. “Traditional manual systems, you know, you put your hand right there, soap dispenses right into it.  And that’s because that’s how it’s always been. … When you get to these auto systems, people are still learning.”

Building service contractors, in-house service providers and facility managers are all seeking solutions to help them be more efficient while providing a satisfying experience for end users. Another solution, which helps end users make their labor and battery dollars stretch, is by using foam soap, which typically get nearly twice as many pumps from a cartridge than their liquid counterparts.

“We are finding that more and more customers are going to foam or are willing to try foam because it is a cost savings,” Cadell says. “Ultimately, our soap dispenser will pump out at 0.7 milliliters when it comes out. The standard liquid system is at 1.1 to 1.2 milliliters so if the person is pumping it two times, because they’re just conditioned to pump it twice, two pumps of foam equals what one pump of [liquid] is.”