Hands-free flushes and faucets

Nov. 1, 2004
Hygiene, maintenance and water conservation issues boost infrared plumbing products in public restrooms. by Dave Yates, Special to Contractor You've done your "business" and contemplate touching the flush handle, but its wet from God only knows what and you're left with two choices: Drop kick the handle or walk away without flushing. Urinals don't get the drop-kick treatment unless you're Bruce Lee

Hygiene, maintenance and water conservation issues boost infrared plumbing products in public restrooms.

by Dave Yates, Special to Contractor

You've done your "business" and contemplate touching the flush handle, but its wet from God only knows what and you're left with two choices: Drop kick the handle or walk away without flushing. Urinals don't get the drop-kick treatment unless you're Bruce Lee and, as a result, they're seldom flushed.

You turn to use the sink, only to find it's even more disgusting than the flush valve! Judging by the looks of things, you'd be better off to avoid washing. If you brave the crud-and soap-encrusted handles to wash up, you're now faced with either a towel dispenser handle that's wet and probably full of germs or a push button on an electric dryer that's also wet.

Following that treat, you're faced with one last obstacle before you can exit this germ-infested restroom where seemingly every inconsiderate slob within three counties has been during the last hour the dripping wet door handle yuck!

Seldom-flushed urinals designed to use water (unlike their waterless counterparts) need to be flushed following each use in order to prevent frequent clogs. Drop-kicked flush valves require expensive repairs. Faucets get vandalized and sometimes are left running full tilt, which can create a devastating flood if vandals stuff the drain with paper hand towels.

Plumbing upgrades
Convenience, personal hygiene, sanitation, germs, bacteria and the public's growing concerns over these issues have pushed objections aside when considering hands-free, infrareddriven plumbing fixtures. Price used to be the major obstacle in restroom upgrades and remains one, although somewhat diminished today. Prices have remained stable or fallen slightly, while units being sold have increased dramatically. Public perceptions have become a harsh reality where attracting clients is a top priority.

The first place I go when visiting a restaurant is the bathroom. If it's a rathole, I tend to believe the proprietors are not going to have much better sanitation in the kitchen. I've worked in many commercial kitchens where the sanitation in both areas seems to be closely related.

The same can be said for shopping malls. If you cant put your packages down in a malls restroom for fear theyll turn into a disease-ridden Pandora's box or become soaked with urine, and the mall across town has gleaming plumbing, where will you shop? Waiters, salespeople and plumbing leave an indelible impression; any one of them can determine future shopping or dining destinations.

Those were the concerns of Brian Brasher, operations manager for the Galleria Mall in York, Pa. His task was to design expanded public restroom facilities, which would double the number of water closets in the womens room and increase the number of urinals in the men's room.

In addition, both restrooms would get a countertop changing area to increase safety while changing junior's diapers right next to a faucet for mom or pop to utilize in cleaning up without having to let go of the squirming youngster. As an added measure of safety, Brasher specified that a scald-guard device certified by the American Society of Sanitary Engineers be added upstream of the lavatory faucets to prevent accidental scalding. He was accustomed to infrared flush valves, as his predecessor had retrofitted a number of the water closets' Sloan flush valves with battery-operated heads.

Brasher wanted this remodeling exercise to be letter-perfect and, based upon his experiences, decided to use infrared technology with all the fixtures. He had a hard sell to make with corporate bean counters, but he persevered with data to support the need for what was, at the time, a relatively new concept in public facilities.

The existing water closets were 3.5 gal. per flush models while the new ones would be 1.6 gpf. Manufacturers produce infrared flush valves that match water usage for a wide variety of fixtures, so that wasn't a problem. In a further effort to reduce maintenance costs, Brasher specified all valves would be hard-wired; this would eliminate hundreds of dollars in labor and battery expenses annually—a move that reaps continuing financial rewards.

One problem encountered frequently over the years has been closing the womens room for repairs or clearing clogged drains. Brasher decided that if a remodel of the public restrooms were to be a total success, he needed to incorporate a corridor between the two bathrooms where flush valve bodies and cleanouts would be accessible to maintenance crews. Transformers on GFCI circuits would be located here and wired so as to allow for quick repairs should one fail. None has failed to date.

Now that four years have passed following this major upgrade to the mall's public restrooms, Brasher says the results have met his expectations. He adds that the mall hasn't experienced a single urinal clog, where clogs had been a frequent and expensive annoyance with manual flush valves.

The Sloan infrared flush valve technology has eliminated his concerns about the mirrors directly across from the stalls because they have a built-in distance-limiting detection program. This programming feature allows the installer to set up the distance the flush valves infrared eye can see by keeping the stall door closed during the oneminute programming time period. As far as the valve's infrared detector is concerned, that door now represents the end of its needed range. The valves can be programmed to flush periodically, and the restrooms require less maintenance and cleaning.

As for dealing with the doors and wet handles, Brasher recognized that not everyone would use hand towels or the infrared activated blow dryers. During the design phase, he came up with a simple but effective solution — construct the entrances with a wall to obstruct curious onlookers but allow free access without a door. On order are infrared paper towel dispensers, which will offer a totally hands-free restroom break for Christmas shoppers-this season. I know where I'll be shopping.

The ripple effect
Just over the hill from the York Galleria Mall, the York County Parks maintains its headquarters at the John Rudy Park, which is a favorite among local citizens. Barry Myers, superintendent of buildings and grounds, was already familiar with infrared technology; it had been introduced years earlier at the Kain Memorial Park facility.

Wanting to utilize environmentally friendly products, park officials had used a very early version of a urinal that incorporated infrared technology — built right into the china with a vandal-proof access cover. These models since have been replaced with standard china urinals and the more reliable infrared battery-operated flush valves.

Meanwhile, the public's use of Rudy Park has been mushrooming. Soccer and baseball fields, a bicycle motocross track and diverse walking paths were rapidly gaining devoted fans. The upsurge in visitor numbers brought with it the need to install improved restroom facilities.

Myers visits the York Galleria Mall frequently and knew about the bathroom-remodeling project. In talks with Brasher, Myers was convinced infrared technology would be a good upgrade for the park's new restrooms. Myers wanted to avoid battery-operated valves, however, because he knew that keeping the building relatively cool in winter months would mean changing batteries twice each year to prevent sluggish or no response in the cold.

He introduced a twin-beam style infrared faucet from Symmons. The twobeam model has prevented nuisance problems that sometimes plague single-beam infrared faucets, which occasionally missed seeing hands that were cold or dark-skinned. Although these faucets represented a cutting-edge technological advance at the time, a number of years have gone by since they were installed.

"We havent had a single problem with either the Symmons or the Sloan infrared devices," Myers says. "In fact, the York County Park Service is planning a second restroom facility for Rudy Park, and we have instructed the architects to specify the exact same Symmons and Sloan products be installed."

"The urinals remain clean as a whistle without a disgusting buildup of deposits, our sinks don't overflow from someone inadvertently or intentionally leaving a faucet running and theres never an issue from someone forgetting to flush. Clogs are a distant memory that disappeared once we converted to infrared. Although we initially were a bit skeptical about the increased cost for infrared technology, we feel our investment in this technology has more than paid for itself."

With the bugs having been worked out of infrared technology and the cost remaining stable or dropping, the newly emerging market for infrared appears to be the residential sector. As homeowners become increasingly concerned about the spread of germs, sales of residential infrared-driven products are bound to soar.

The day is rapidly approaching that when children yell out Look, Ma, no hands! they'll be referring to a faucet instead of a bicycle and that's a good thing where safety is concerned.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler Inc., a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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