Hand dryers. They’ve come a long way since they first arrived on the restroom scene almost 60 years ago, according to Bill Heman, president of Hospital Specialty Co. (Hospeco), Highland Heights, Ohio.

Early models were noisy, awkward in appearance, costly, and pretty ineffective. People who remember those days say they dried their hands with one of them and still needed to wipe the rest of the water on a paper towel or their clothes as they walked out of the restroom. “That initially gave the hand dryer industry a bad reputation,” Heman says.

But considerable progress in technology over the years has resulted in smaller, quieter, more powerful, and more cost-effective models. Obviously, these important selling points are appealing to today’s customers.

Touch-free’s Impact
Hands-free technology is perhaps the most revolutionary innovation for hand dryers. Not only do they work well, they also look modern and sleek, making the antiquated, big-nozzled push-button model of the early days all but obsolete.

“The touchless models produce a stream of warm air that does a great job of drying your hands,” says Frank Stiebel, president of Stiebel Eltron, West Hatfield, Mass. Stiebel, whose company has been manufacturing hand dryers since the 1970s, points to his company’s Galaxy model, which has an infrared-type proximity sensor that turns the unit on and off automatically.

“Placing your hands underneath it activates the blower and heating elements,” he explains. “Taking your hands away stops the dryer and minimizes the use of electricity. And it has a noise level of only 54 decibels.”

Using customer feedback as a factor in developing new designs has also contributed to the progress hand dryers have made. About six years ago, Excel Dryer Corp., East Longmeadow, Mass., introduced a new product to the marketplace that addressed the amount of time hand dryers typically take, according to Denis Gagnon, president.

“After thousands of hours of research and development, we basically reinvented the hand dryer and came out with our XLerator model,” says Gagnon. “To answer consumer complaints that hand dryers took too long to do their intended job, we designed our new model to be three times faster than other hand dryers.”

The company developed a streamlined nozzle that directs air traveling at a higher velocity at a users’ hands. The result? It takes only 10 to 15 seconds to dry your hands instead of 30 to 45 seconds.

Looking into the future of the hand dryer industry, Bloomfield, Mich.-based American Dryer employees Susan Ebbing and Mike Robert say there are still plenty of opportunities within the hands-free market. Robert, vice president of technical services, says that 60 percent of the electric hand dryers American Dryer currently manufactures are automatic.

“Until about two years ago, half of our hand dryers were push-button models,” adds Ebbing, the company’s vice president. “But we’re rapidly approaching 70 percent because the restroom of tomorrow will be completely touchless — toilets that flush automatically, automatic soap dispensers, etc.”

She believes, however, that the industry, apart from Excel, is about a year or so away from manufacturing high velocity hand dryers. “We’re all looking at improvements,” says Ebbing.

For example, Robert says the current high-velocity model has a noise level of about 90 decibels, so the new dryers will be quieter, lending themselves to a less invasive product.

Eliminating Waste
Hand dryers can go a long way in advancing a facility’s goal of embracing environmentally preferable products, Heman points out. The use of automatic hand dryers has reduced the amount of paper towels used in public restrooms. This has made for significant reductions in deforesting, and reduced the waste caused by used paper towels. “Think about the barges traveling on New York City’s Hudson River, carrying tons of paper waste with limited places to put it,” he says.

“It’s interesting,” adds Robert. “You can make paper towels out of recycled materials, but you can’t recycle used paper towels. Once they’re used, they’ve got to go into a landfill.”

Heman also points to the fact that much of the water pollution caused by the manufacturing of paper towels can be eliminated through increased use of hand dryers. According to studies, a single chemical treatment to clean the pulp in a paper mill can pollute about 20,000 gallons of water.

From another environmental standpoint, electric hand dryers not only save wood-fiber resources, they also result in far less energy use over their entire life cycle, according to data collected by the trade magazine Environmental Building News.

Dryers And The Dollar
Cost savings is another important issue today, and hand dryers shine in that department. “Any model of hand dryer is going to cost more than a package of paper towels,” says Gagnon. A dryer will probably cost more than a towel dispenser, but the upfront cost is deceptive. Hand dryers are a one-time purchase; once installed, they require considerably less attention than paper towel dispensers.”

Unlike paper, which can cost $15-$30 per case, Gagnon says the energy costs of using a hand dryer generally amount to pennies a day.

Hand dryers represent, on average, a 90 percent savings over paper towels, says Heman. By eliminating the long-term costs of purchasing paper towels, replenishing dispensers in restrooms, and disposing of towels properly, facility managers will save a great deal of money using efficient hand dryers.

“That’s an exciting plus for our products,” he notes. “Overflowing bins cause a mess and, not insignificantly, expose people to the germs of others. Hand dryers alleviate maintenance costs associated with cleaning up that mess and re-filling the bins.”

While eliminating the costs associated with paper products, facilities also save money by reducing staff requirements. Besides annual cleanings, quality dryers are virtually maintenance-free, except for recommended annual cleanings.

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

“An individual school could save from $2,000 to $10,000 a year,” Ebbing says. “Think about a school district’s savings. And for a large corporation or a big university, the cost savings could be as high as $200,000 per year. That’s a very exciting number.”

For example, American Dryer recently installed 225 hand dryers in restrooms at the University of Michigan. Annual savings from using dryers instead of paper towels came to $100,000, according to Ebbing.

Because electric hand dryers are found in only about 5 to 10 percent of all public and industrial restrooms in the United States, there’s a large potential market for manufacturers and distributors of hand dryers, according to Ebbing.

“The American consumer still seems to prefer the paper towel experience,” she says. “But we believe that if we continue to provide top-quality hand dryers, competitive pricing and innovation, we’ll better access that untapped market.”

Friendly Future?
Ebbing also believes there will be a new era of paper towel manufacturers adding hand dryers to their paper products. “We haven’t really looked at paper towel manufacturers as our competition, but that might change.”

Though there may be increased competition with hand dryers, there is also the potential for collaboration.

“Hand dryers work well along with paper towel dispensers,” says Stiebel. “It works best for the end user if both options are available in the same restroom. That way, even if paper towels run out, the hand dryer is there to do the job.”

There’s also a trend toward installing more than one automatic dryer in each restroom because users don’t like to wait in line to dry their hands, Ebbing explains.

The facility types in which hand dryers are utilized are also expected to diversify. “In the coming years we’ll see more hand dryers placed in office buildings and manufacturing facilities,” predicts Gagnon. “Currently, hand dryers are found mainly at highway rest stops, airports, and restaurant chains.”

Manufacturers will continue to design more user-friendly hand dryers, resulting in more efficient and less costly products. That bodes well for the future of the hand dryer industry.

Jordan Fox is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.

Material Matters
Improvements in the materials used to construct hand dryers have played an important role in the evolution of these products.

“Polymers or engineered plastics have come along and enhanced these products, according to Mike Robert, vice president of technical services for American Dryer, Bloomfield, Mich. “The qualities of the metal finish are so much better and they prevent rust. As a result, 20 years from now the hand dryers of today will still look new,” he predicts.

Frank Stiebel, president of Stiebel Eltron, West Hatfield. Mass., says one of the company’s hand dryer models features an ABS polycarbonate housing, while another model has a housing made of a cast aluminum alloy. The composition of these housings should stand the test of time and have lifespans much longer than their predecessors.

— J.F.