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Benefits of Restroom Automation

July 1, 2005
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Touchless technology promotes a facility's sanitation-and image by Mark Lewis
BY MARK LEWIS Benefits of restroom automation
Touchless technology keeps germs in their place
Driven by the growing concern over germs on restroom surfaces, an increasing number of commercial, private, and public buildings are installing automatic faucets, flushers, soap and paper towel dispensers, cleaning systems, and other touch-free devices in their restrooms. In addition to sanitation issues, other factors are contributing to this trend that long-term care facility managers should consider.

Germ Concerns and Phobias
Restrooms and wash stations used by nursing home residents and staff members can potentially communicate disease. Nurses and aides are aware of the risks and, whether they are working in facilities with or without restroom automation, they strive to be diligent about frequent and thorough handwashing and other precautions.

Aged and infirm residents, however, are not capable of the same level of personal hygiene. Despite the best efforts of nursing homes to assist residents and to ensure their rooms and bathrooms are clean and sanitary, a common perception among visitors is that germs are pervasive in the bathrooms. The facilities are not to blame. Rather, the general public's awareness of germs and how they are transmitted has increased, their fears fueled by widely publicized reports of new viruses, such as SARS and virulent strains of the flu. Increasingly, people are avoiding contact with anything in any bathroom away from home, including the most spotless restrooms. Their suspicions are likely to be greater in bathrooms used by people who are incontinent, sick, or incapable of proper hygiene.

Conversely, friends and relatives are naturally going to feel more comfortable visiting a long-term care facility with bathrooms that are sanitary and designed to promote cleanliness and accommodate easy maintenance. This preference is especially true of families searching for a permanent home for a parent or grandparent. Discovering that resident and guest bathrooms are fitted with touch-free faucets, automatic flushers, and possibly other automatic devices could contribute to their selection of a long-term care facility. Just knowing that a family member will have the convenience and luxury of automation will help make them satisfied with their decision.

Minimizing Visitors' "Contributions"
The public's assumptions about the sanitation benefits of automation are accurate. Evidence exits that touch-free faucets and flushers can effectively reduce possible cross-contamination, but proof is not essential when the absence of handles means no one has to touch the same water activators that other people have touched.

Visitors, or course, bring their own germs. They might see the wisdom in washing their hands when they arrive and when they leave a nursing home, but fail to do so. Even though the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases says frequent handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, a survey conducted by Impulse Research Corporation found that 30% of Americans use bathrooms away from home only when they are desperate. The same survey discovered that among people who do use public restrooms, nearly 66% employ a variety of maneuvers to avoid touching anything: using elbows to open doors, feet to flush, and paper towels to touch faucets and the door on their way out. For some, it's easier to avoid handwashing altogether.

Logic dictates that people would be more willing to wash their hands if they didn't have to touch anything at the sink. The surfaces of automatic faucets and soap and towel dispensers won't be contaminated or transmit germs if no one needs to touch them. With automation, people can lather up, scrub down, rinse, and dry with only touching a fresh paper towel.

Reduced Cost and Maintenance
Automatic faucets save water, which only flows when hands activate the fixture. Excess water use is no longer an issue solely for conservationists, but also for the budget-conscious. People who move slowly often allow faucets to flow longer than necessary, or forget to turn them off when they are done washing. If a washcloth or paper towel settles in the sink, a blocked plug can result in flood-like conditions if not detected quickly, causing a safety hazard, a maintenance problem, and possible damage to the floor and baseboards.

Water conservation was the impetus for a decision by the nursing home operated by Cape May County, New Jersey, to install automatic faucets in every bathroom in its 178-bed facility, including in the common areas.

"The faucets were a major investment, but they have paid for themselves in reduced water consumption and maintenance costs," says Jim Kronemeyer, manager of mechanical services for all county buildings.

He says he did not do a return on investment analysis because the savings were obvious. Before making the purchase, however, he was aware of a test at the Minneapolis−St. Paul International Airport that compared the metered use of the automatic faucet with the metered use of a push-down, self-closing faucet. After more than 500,000 cycles, the automatic faucet used an average of 0.20 gallons of water per use, compared with 0.65 gallons for the manual faucet. After factoring in the costs of energy, sewerage, and maintenance, the automatic faucet decreased water and energy usage by 70%.

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