Hands off

17th of May 2011
Hands off
Hands off

Are no-touch taps, flush systems and dryers taking over in the washroom or do they merely bewilder the public and over-complicate things? We ask manufacturers whether automatic systems are the way ahead – or whether we are going too far down the' touch free' route.

The outbreak of swine flu in 2009 has made us all nervous about touching surfaces that are potentially contaminated. We are particularly wary in the washroom where there is huge scope for pathogens to be spread by people who fail to wash their hands. Washroom hygiene products manufacturers have responded by launching increasing numbers of no-touch systems such as taps, soap dispensers, hand towel dispensers and warm air dryers.

These can be reassuring for washroom users concerned about picking up infections. But if touch-free systems are out of service or difficult to work, they can be counter-productive.
SCA European marketing director Brian Parkinson confirms that the advent of swine flu has increased the public’s awareness of the risks associated with the washroom. “It is becoming a general trend for washroom manufacturers to add a sensor to their systems,” he said. “However I don’t believe sensor-operated systems are the total solution.”

According to Parkinson the fact that sensor-driven systems are generally slower to operate means they are less suitable for busy washrooms. “There will not be an adequate throughput in a high-traffic washroom if it takes longer for users to access their hand towel,” he said. “Another issue is that sensor systems are not yet completely intuitive and may be confusing in a washroom with a high percentage of one-time visitors.”

He feels that sensor-operated systems can work well in offices and other lower-traffic washrooms with regular visitors. SCA offers Tork Aluminium sensor-driven dispensers for Tork hand towel rolls and for Tork Foam Soap.

According to Parkinson cross-contamination in the washroom can be avoided in other ways. “For example, all Tork hand towel dispensers are in essence touch-free since they are designed to avoid the user coming into contact with the dispenser itself or the next person’s towel,” he said.

Dispensers near doors

“Automatic lighting can also work well. Some of the washrooms in our offices have lights that turn on automatically when a person enters the room. Such systems tick several boxes because they are both intuitive and hygienic while also saving energy and reducing costs.”

Outer doors that can be pushed open without the use of a handle can also help to reduce cross-contamination, says Parkinson. “Another trend is the practice of positioning hand towel dispensers and bins by the outer washroom door,” he says. “This allows washroom users to take out a towel and use this to turn the door handle, then throw it in the bin once the door is open.”

Vulnerable touch points such as door handles, taps and flush levers are increasingly being replaced by sensor systems according to senior category manager at Kimberly-Clark Professional Pete Oliver. “Of particular importance are the touch points following the washing and drying of hands,” he said. “For users who wash and dry hygienically there is still the issue of opening the washroom door which has been touched by all users - whether they have washed their hands effectively or not.”

He feels that 'touch-free' exits are a good option. “In a limited number of situations facility managers provide sanitising stations outside the exit of the washroom,” he said. “In my own experience too, I see more and more washroom users using a towel to open the door to exit the washroom, preventing contact with a surface that could have been touched by a dirty hand.”

But Vectair’s marketing manager Matt Wonnacott has objections to this practice. “Using a hand towel to open the door or turn off the light is not exactly promoting a green washroom, and it gives the notion that the facility is dirty,” he said. “A surface sanitiser or soap dispensing system on the other hand is there to give reassurance that the facility is hygienic.”

Latest touch-free products from Vectair include the Femcare Automatic Sanitary Disposal Unit and the Blast Automatic Ultra Quick Drying hand dryer. According to Wonnacott an effective automatic system should be highly innovative yet simple to operate. “It is important to get the right balance with simplicity and functionality,” he said. “If a system appears complicated to work it can create obstacles in the washroom.

“With any product, too - automatic or not - it is virtually impossible to achieve a 100 per cent ‘work rate’. However it is possible to reduce the impact of an automatic system not working by testing it out in working conditions thoroughly before launch.”

Manual systems also effective

Wonnacott believes that no-touch systems are gaining ground. ”Avoiding hand contact is becoming an increasing issue and ultra quick automatic hand dryers enable customers to dry their hands without touching any unhygienic surface,” he said.

“However, that’s not to say that manual soap dispensers and surface sanitisers are redundant - in fact, certain manual systems are more effective.”

He claims the company’s own studies have shown foot-operated sanitary disposal units to be the most desired approach to operating these types of systems. “Foot operation effectively takes away the undesired action of having to lift a lid to dispose of the sanitary dressing,” he said. “But why can’t a unit be both automatic and manual, giving the user choice?”

Field sales director for Cannon Hygiene Pat Gillingham agrees with this view. “Some customers prefer to give the user an option of providing a hand dryer alongside a roller towel which, as well as allowing customer choice, helps with the volume of traffic through a washroom,” she said.

Gillingham agrees that an increasing number of people are preferring to avoid hand contact, particularly in the healthcare and dentistry markets where the cross-contamination risk is high. Latest touch-free offerings from Cannon include the automatic Cannon Concept feminine hygiene unit and the Cannon Compact unit, which is operated by foot pedal.

“We also offer a new alcohol-free hand sanitiser that works for up to four hours and can be used to sanitise the hands in locations such as schools, prisons or cultural establishments where alcohol is not permitted,” she said.

However she agrees that touch-free systems have the potential to bewilder the public. “Where clients feel it is helpful, instructions for touch-free products and backboards for the Cannon Air Jet can be provided as part of our service,” said Gillingham.

Managing director of Albany Hygiene Facilities Mike Burton believes no-touch taps, dryers and exit door systems are the way ahead in the washroom. “Auto flushing is also desirable but unless you provide no-touch cubicle doors when exiting the cubicle, cross-contamination will still occur,” he said.

According to Burton the fact that hand-free soap dispensers and dryers are now fairly commonplace means that customers should be clear as to how to operate them. “Good signage and using diagrams can overcome these issues,” he added. Products offered by Albany Hygiene include automatic door handle sanitisers and disinfection fogging equipment.

Markus Hochkirchen, in charge of corporate communications at Ophardt Hygiene, feels that automatic systems are not always the answer - particularly in high-traffic washrooms. “It is also important that systems can function under tough conditions, such as in a sports stadium where there is high stress and frequency of usage,” he said.

According to Hochkirchen, only reliable and easy-to-use systems can effectively improve hygiene standards. “They should also be easy to understand, particularly in public washrooms,” he said.

Sceptical about sensors

Vice-president international for Bobrick Washroom Equipment Andrew Sweibel is more sceptical about sensor-operated systems. “There is definitely a place for sensor-driven technology, but in the short- to mid-term this is most likely to be confined to high-end buildings due to the higher associated costs,” he said.

According to Sweibel some touch-free systems are superfluous. “One example is hands-free soap dispensing,” he said. “Although there is a growing demand for such systems, the reality is that immediately after touching the dispenser the user washes his hands. Therefore hands-free soap dispensing is mostly irrelevant to hygiene.” Other touch-free solutions can be confusing and even counter-productive, he said.

“Some sensor-driven dispensers require the user to activate the sensors in non-intuitive ways, such as having to guess where to place the hands to be seen by the sensors,” he said. “This can lead to intimidation and misuse.

“Additionally the application of technology can sometimes be negative, such as with high-speed hand dryers. Although this technology may be perceived as being more convenient, it may not be as hygienic as more traditional hand drying methods. The effect of the extreme velocity of the air is that, rather than evaporating moisture from the hands, particulates are atomised and become airborne.”

Bobrick offers sensor-activated warm air hand dryers, automatic roll paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers. Sweibel feels touch-free washroom technology will continue to develop – but will inevitably come with a price. “Various concepts must be factored in including the cost of batteries or electricity, the building of dispensers, the additional expertise required and the environmental impact of battery disposal,” he said.

“We must be careful not to pursue technology for technology’s sake. Any new technology must bring added value for building owners and patrons to gain acceptance.”

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