Automatic Response

by Katie Lee

The truth about touch-free restrooms.

By Stephen Ashkin

It’s easy to understand why touch-free restrooms have grown in popularity among retail and restaurant managers. They create a pleasing, contemporary appearance and many of the technologies can help save money by reducing the use of precious resources such as water and paper towels. Automated restrooms also promote proper handwashing, which is perhaps the best and most cost-effective measure to help protect health.

However, there are many things to consider when making the decision to automate the various devices in facility restrooms, which can include dispensers for paper towels and tissue, hand soap and air fresheners, along with automated faucets and flush valves.

While these devices create a modern-looking restroom and can indeed reduce costs and environmental impact, it is important to understand the total effect of the batteries, photovoltaic cells, motors, circuit boards and other components. While protecting health typically takes precedence in the decision-making process, it is also important that retail and restaurant managers understand the environmental impact of touch-free options.

Trade Offs

Reducing impact on health and the environment is the primary goal behind automating the restroom experience. However, managers should consider the total effect along the entire lifecycle of the products that facilitate automation.

washroom manual dispensers 2For example, faucets with sensors and automatic paper towel dispensers may encourage a facility’s employees and guests to wash their hands while reducing the use of soap, water, paper or other resources. However, managers should also consider how the products were made, used, maintained and ultimately disposed of to fully understand if there are any trade-offs that affect the purchasing decision. Evaluating these trade-offs helps managers make a fully informed decision about product selection and use.

Battery Issues

Batteries make our lives more portable and convenient, but they contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel, which can contaminate the environment when they’re not disposed of properly.

In landfills, heavy metals have the potential to slowly leak into the soil, groundwater or surface water. Collectively, disposable and rechargeable dry-cell batteries contribute about 88% of the total mercury and 50% of the cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream. In the past, batteries accounted for nearly half of the mercury used in the U.S. and over half of the mercury and cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream. When burned, some heavy metals such as mercury may vaporize and escape into the air, and cadmium and lead may end up in the ash, increasing the potential to affect human health.

When selecting battery powered devices it is important to consider the type of battery: single-use alkaline versus those that are rechargeable. While both may contain heavy metals, from an environmental perspective it is advantageous to use rechargeable batteries as reuse significantly reduces the environmental impacts associated with raw material extraction and manufacturing the batteries.

It’s also essential to consider the proper disposal of batteries after they are no longer effective. With the exception of California, most states allow for single-use alkaline batteries to be disposed in the trash. A more eco-friendly alternative would be to minimize their use and to recycle them.

Rechargeable batteries should be collected and then recycled. There are a number of ways to find the easiest and most cost-effective manner for recycling rechargeable batteries. Begin by contacting the Rechargeable Batteries Recycling Corporation (RBRC), which is a nonprofit organization funded by battery manufacturers to address the proper disposal of batteries. Contact RBRC online or by calling 1-800-8-BATTERY.

Manual vs. Battery Powered Dispensers

The question still remains about which is more preferable: manual or battery-powered dispensers. In the restroom, the priority must be to protect human health. To this end, it is beneficial to replace paper towel dispensers and faucets that are operated via hand contact after washing occurs. Touching a contaminated faucet or crank/lever on a towel dispenser after hands have been washed will transfer germs back onto hands.

But is battery-powered the best option? There are other restroom options that eliminate hand contact and encourage proper handwashing without utilizing batteries. For example, roll towel dispensers allow users to pull the towels from the dispenser without the need of a crank/lever. Meanwhile, spring-operated faucets turn off after a given amount of time. These options provide the same protection of health without the need for costly and potentially harmful batteries, circuit boards, motors and other materials. Instead of designing doors to automatically open with the wave of a hand, consider installing a foot pedal or creating L-shaped hallways leading into bathrooms to eliminate the need for doors.

Rather than automating every restroom process, consider doing so for only the most important ones. Although automatic soap dispensers are fun and appealing, it is less important to replace a manual soap dispenser with a battery-powered option since any contaminants will be removed in the washing process. However, automated flush valves on toilets and urinals are ideal because they ensure waste is disposed of after each user, eliminating odors and complaints.

In The End

Protecting employee and customer health is every retail and restaurant manager’s priority. Encouraging all restroom users to wash their hands, avoiding recontamination and doing so in the most environmentally responsible manner is the goal. Prioritize those dispensers and valves that users touch after washing their hands. When selecting batteries, opt for high-quality rechargeable batteries and be sure to recycle them properly after use.

Healthy, clean and pleasant restrooms are the goal as we work to protect business occupants. And reducing the need for the 3 billion batteries that are manufactured each year, many of which are improperly disposed of, is a huge side benefit that can also save retailers and restaurateurs money.


Stephen Ashkin is president of the Ashkin Group LLC, an internationally recognized consulting firm working to green the professional cleaning industry. He has worked in the professional cleaning industry since 1981 and on the issue of green cleaning since 1990. Today he is considered the “Father of Green Cleaning” and the leader of the green cleaning movement.

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