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Enabling the Restroom of the Future

Nov. 13, 2019
Long-range wireless charging is transforming the way hands-free restroom devices are deployed.

Modern commercial restrooms - such as those found in airports, hospitals and sports venues - are cleaner and more hygienic than ever before. That’s in no small part due to an assortment of battery-operated devices. From touchless faucets and hand dryers to soap dispensers and automatic flush valves, these appliances dramatically reduce the potential for contamination and improve overall health and hygiene. Consumers know this, so they often expect to see hands-free devices in modern public restrooms.

Because of their effectiveness, these battery-operated devices have enjoyed widely deployed, but one major downside is the added maintenance that results from more batteries to replace. That’s why commercial restroom operators are focusing on new technology, called long-range wireless charging, that’s transforming the way hands-free restroom devices are deployed and presenting new and exciting IoT opportunities.

Commercial Restroom Devices

When you walk into a modern commercial restroom, it’s hard not to notice the degree to which automation has become prevalent. Automated faucets, motion-activated soap dispensers, and high-tech paper towel rolls are just the tip of the iceberg. These days, you can get in and out of a high-end commercial restroom without ever having to touch anything.

A touchless restroom experience is indeed the goal. Some studies have estimated the presence of 500,000 microbes per square foot of commercial restroom after just one hour of use. While the human immune system is usually equipped to deal with most microbes, many patrons will still feel better having left a commercial restroom without having to directly touch unsanitary objects.

A significant hurdle is that many of these hands-free appliances are powered by batteries. This is especially true in retrofit situations, buildings where battery-operated devices are replacing legacy installations and where running electrical cables in the bathroom isn’t cost-effective.

Failed Expectations

According to one survey, 87% of people washed their hands after using a public restroom. Those 13% who did not, reported that the reasons for skipping the scrub included dirty sinks, unresponsive paper towel rolls, and soap dispensers that were out of order. Facilities managers certainly do not want the restrooms under their responsibility to contribute to that problem. In some instances, such as hospitals, clean restrooms are also a matter of regulatory compliance, not just customer experience.

Battery-operated devices in restrooms certainly create many complications:

  • Battery replacement: When batteries fail on an automated flushing unit, for example, the toilets could stop responding -- and that can create major customer dissatisfaction, not to mention plumbing issues.
  • Battery cost: The cost of batteries adds up. When there are twenty devices per restroom and four restrooms per floor, expenses can quickly add up.
  • Labor cost: The labor involved in replacing batteries is meaningful. Replacing a battery may be a short task, but chasing the status of numerous batteries spread out over large campuses is a significant consumer of time.
  • Unplanned service interruptions: It’s hard to tell which batteries run out, so maintenance workers either continuously scan them or wait for complaints.
  • Unmet customer expectations: Walking into a public restroom and not being able to dispense soap can be a most unpleasant experience for customers.
  • Environmental impact: Many commercial restroom owners are switching to automated devices to help conserve water and paper. At the same time, the disposal of single-use batteries have a negative ecological impact.
  • Health regulations: Depending on where your commercial restroom is located, you may be required by regulators to ensure your restroom devices are continuously working. Hospitals, for example, have rigorous sanitation requirements. Should those devices stop working, there may be regulatory exposure.
  • Lost revenue: For vendors that make money by selling the disposable product - such as soap refills - a dead battery means not only bad customer service but also lost service because every time the dispenser dispenses soap, they make money.

Long-Range Wireless Charging

Today’s customers and patrons expect to find these automated devices in restrooms and they expect them to work. The way to ensure these devices are consistently meeting expectations, then, is to make certain your batteries are always charged. A new innovative technology -  long-range wireless charging - is coming to the rescue.

Here’s how it works: a wireless power transmitter is installed in the ceiling or is hung on the wall. A wireless power receiver is embedded in each device to be charged.

While there are a number of technologies that attempt to send wireless power—for instance using ultrasound and radio frequency—a promising approach relies on infrared (IR) light to deliver energy from a transmitter to a device. Light provides several benefits:

  • Long range: Light beams can remain tight and focused over long distances (just think of a laser pointer) and thus the power delivered with light does not decrease with an increase of the distance between the power transmitter and the device to be charged.
  • Safety: Infrared light has significant safety advantages. Power is only delivered to the device being charged and not to anything in the surrounding environment. IR is abundant in sunlight and in nature -- in fact, some say it is nature’s preferred way of energy delivery -- so living organisms (like us humans) are already well-adjusted to it.
  • Faster charge: IR signals can deliver focused energy and, therefore, charge devices more quickly.

Benefits of Long-Range Wireless Charging

Introducing yet another new technology to your restroom might seem like a counterintuitive solution to the multitude of devices you’re already managing, but long-range wireless charging creates several immediate benefits:

  • No more replacing batteries: Because all of the devices continuously receive power, changing batteries is no longer required. This means maintenance no longer wastes time pulling apart a soap dispenser to get to the battery compartment. Because batteries no longer need to be replaced, wireless power makes a positive contribution to corporate sustainability goals by reducing toxic waste.
  • Devices will nearly always work: Because they are always charged, batteries will no longer be a source of failure for flush valves, soap dispensers, air fresheners and other battery-operated devices.
  • Increase customer satisfaction: Visitors will not face the unpleasant experience of inoperable bathroom fixtures.
  • Improved operations: The constant flow of energy to devices provides the capacity to improve operations using Internet of Things (IoT) technology. When restroom smart devices are connected via the internet, it’s easy to track paper towel inventory, sink usage, soap refills and so on. This helps with both proactive maintenance as well as capacity planning. Many battery-operated devices would like to add IoT functionality but batteries can’t support the frequent reporting that comes with IoT.
  • Advertising opportunities: Extra poweropens the door for sophisticated advertising for a captive audience, making a commercial restroom a valuable property.

The future of restrooms is heading toward IoT and smart devices. Long-range wireless charging can help ensure that you’re on the leading edge. A sanitary, cost-efficient, futuristic, and functioning restroom is a great way of providing excellent service to everyone who walks through the facilities.

Yuval Boger is the CMO of Wi-Charge, the world leader in long-range wireless power. Yuval is an expert on wireless power technology and has experience working with large hotel chains on technology on implementing this technology. Yuval holds an MBA from the Kellogg school at Northwestern University and a M.Sc. in Physics from Tel-Aviv University.

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