What next for hand dryers?

19th of October 2022
What next for hand dryers?
What next for hand dryers?

Hand dryers have changed beyond all recognition during their 100 years in existence. But what were the earliest models like? ECJ discovers the history of the hand dryer, finds out how far they have evolved – and asks what happens next.

Most of us think of the electric hand dryer as a relatively modern invention. But the first models were created more than a century ago on both sides of the Atlantic. And there is a degree of controversy over who came up with the idea first.

According to Wikipedia, the earliest hand dryer was patented in 1921 by the Airdry Corporation of New York. Excel Dryer’s director of global sales Tammy Stone confirms this. “The company’s patent indicated that the model would work by ‘delivering a blast of heated air for drying the face, hands or hair of a person, or for drying jewellery, metal parts, glassware or other articles’,” she said.

“Unfortunately the concept never really took off at the time.”

A Chicago-based inventor named George Clemens then popularised the electric hand dryer in 1948, according to Stone. “The invention worked, but it was loud and inefficient and took nearly a minute to dry the hands,” she said. “So paper towels remained the prevailing hand drying method in the public sphere for the next five decades.”

Business support manager for Everything Hand Dryers Kate Furniss adds to this that the first Airdry model was operated via a floor pedal. And she agrees with Stone that it gained little recognition among washroom users in the 1920s.

“The market then changed in the early 1990s with the introduction of the first hands-in dryer from Mitsubishi,” she said. “This proved to be immensely popular in Japan, but it didn’t reach the European or North American markets until the early 2000s.”

However Starmix – originally called Electrostar - has a different take on the earliest hand dryers. “We operated one of the first ever vacuum cleaner factories in southern Germany in the 1920s and our founder, Robert Schöttle, used the related technology to develop the first electric hand dryer,” said the company’s sanitary division leader Johannes Behrens.

“This was seen as a breakthrough since it used warm air at relatively low noise levels to dry the hands. And it took a completely new approach to existing hand-drying solutions.”

But whether the hand dryer originated in Europe, the US or in both at the same time, it is generally agreed the market has evolved dramatically – and that most of the changes have taken place since the start of the new millennium.

“In terms of energy consumption, efficiency, drying speed, design and noise, today’s models are in no way comparable to last century’s solutions,” says Behrens.

He believes one of the most important changes to have been the switch from push-button to infra-red touchless operation. “Developments began to speed up when topics such as energy savings, carbon footprint and sustainability began to shape public opinion,” he said. “And
this came hard on the heels of other developments concerning shorter drying times, lower noise levels and a user-friendly design.”

Stark contrast

Excel Dryer’s Tammy Stone describes the difference between the earliest hand dryers and today’s high-speed, energy-efficient models as “like night and day”. And she believes that factors such as sustainability and hygiene requirements - plus the demand for an alternative solution to paper towels - have been the main drivers behind the hand dryer revolution.

“Customers and visitors prefer touchless solutions, particularly in the light of the pandemic,” she said. “Sensor automation removes an unnecessary touchpoint from the hand hygiene process and reduces the risk of spreading germs and contaminating freshly-washed hands.”

Among the company’s latest products is the D|13 Sink System featuring the XLERATORsync hand dryer. This allows the user to wash, rinse and dry the hands in one place while the XLERATORsync uses a high-speed airflow to blow the water away from the user and towards the bottom of the sink. “This keeps the water in the sink and off the floors to prevent dangerous and unhygienic situations for visitors,” says Stone.

Demand for hygiene

Export area manager of Mediclinics Milagros Garde also believes there to be a clear “before” and “after” picture as far as hand dryers are concerned. “The world has become much more aware of the need for hygiene in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. “As a result, technologies such as particle filters, ionisers, antimicrobial additives and UV-C ultraviolet light with germicidal activity have been gaining more traction.”

He believes the hand dryer market’s two main drivers have been a growing demand for higher levels of hygiene in public toilets and the technological developments that are making this possible.

“New technologies such as high-speed motors have allowed us to manufacture hand dryers with lower energy consumption and shorter drying times than traditional dryers, thus saving twice as much energy,” he said. “And this offers greater satisfaction for the user as well because they can dry their hands more rapidly.”

Other factors shaping the market include a growing focus on sustainability and the need to cut costs, according to Garde. “People are concerned about the climate emergency and are betting on environmentally-friendly products,” he said. “Hand dryers consume fewer natural resources than paper which means their impact on CO2 emissions is lower.”

Business support manager for Everything Hand Dryers Kate Furniss believes the launch of Excel Dryer‘s XLERATOR was the catalyst that revolutionised the market. “This machine had a drying time of 10-15 seconds and changed the way in which hand dryers were perceived in washrooms worldwide,” she said.

“Suddenly people were no longer hanging around the washroom drying their hands on their trousers or skirts because the hand dryer was taking too long. And from there we saw the introduction of many other turbo dryers with similar drying times, and these quickly became the norm.”

Everything Hand Dryers’ products include Pebble and Pebble Mini which can be upgraded, replaced and maintained by the customers themselves. The company’s ‘Plug & Play’ mechanism incorporates a docking station which allows the customer to easily slide the dryer out without the need of an engineer.

According to Furniss, Covid-19 was a highly significant factor in the history of the hand dryer. “The pandemic devastated the industry because hand dryers were taped up or even removed across much of Europe,” she said. “Paper towels then flourished because they were perceived as being more hygienic than hand dryers and people stopped worrying about their environmental impact.”

Covid-19 has taught the industry a few lessons, according to Furniss. “Number one: you need a hand dryer that does the job, and number two: you need a hand dryer that does the job quickly, quietly and hygienically,” she said. “And that needs to be provable.

“This is why you see so many hand dryers now being equipped with H13 HEPA filters, UV light as a disinfectant and with built-in negative ION generators. Believe it or not, some of these features were available 20 years ago - but no one was interested.”

Losdi’s marketing and communications manager Pau Ortiz confirms that Covid-19 had a significant effect on the hand dryer market. “There were reports hand dryers could spread the virus around the washroom, and this belief became so strong in Spain that the government eventually spoke out to deny the stories,” he said.

Key drivers in development

“Even though the market gained the support of the Spanish government, we at Losdi decided to add HEPA filtered products to our portfolio to convince customers that hand dryers were hygienic and effective against Covid-19 and other diseases.”

He says Losdi was founded in 1995, adding that the company’s early models were very different from today’s dryers. “Those first machines were powered by a manual button, something that is rarely seen nowadays,” he says. “But the main differences in today’s models lie in their performance, user-friendliness and the time it takes to dry the hands.

“As a result, air speed has increased and product designs have been upgraded with the introduction of tanks that will gather the residual water. And vertical hand dryers have been launched to provide more airflow and to cover a more extensive area of the hands.”

So, how will the hand dryer market develop in future? Ortiz believes dryers will continue to play an important role in the washroom. “The cost of paper products along with an increasing desire for sustainable solutions are positioning hand dryers as a reliable and functional hand drying option,” he said.

Starmix’s Johannes Behrens believes the main drivers behind the industry in future will be sustainability, enhanced hygiene and a low-cost operation. Excel Dryers’ Tammy Stone concurs. “As we look ahead we think sustainability will be one of the most critical driving forces in the hand hygiene market,” she said. “And we also expect tomorrow’s customers to demand low costs along with enhanced hygiene.”

Everything Hand Dryers’ Kate Furniss believes the next generation of hand dryers will use technology to dry the hands hygienically, silently - and within five to 10 seconds. “At the same time the world is increasingly demanding products with low CO2 emissions, low energy and low waste - and that is something the hand dryer market can offer,” she said.


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