A friend recently had the opportunity to update the outdated plumbing fixtures in her office space. She was excited about changing to the modern, automated, water-conserving, hygienic appliances that she’d heard about and seen in some public restrooms.  Everybody, it sometimes seems, has upgraded to the new automatic (great - no touching!) water-saving devices that are a breeze to use and save water, energy, and money.

She asked for some help – I was eager to get involved.  She needed to look at toilets, sinks, and hand driers. Sorry, guys, we didn’t have access to public restrooms for men, so there wasn't a chance to test-drive any of the urinals.  (Maybe we should enlist some male assistance and report back on these in a later post?)

We decided to conduct some field research by trying out some of the newer installments in local restrooms and talking to the restroom users about their experience.  Here’s what we learned:

Toilets

Toilets can be either automatic flush or manual flush with dual flush or low-flow fittings. Most toilets in public settings are automatic, but we came across examples of all three types.

·      Low-flow Manual Flush. Not much to report, since these are the same as the ones found in most people’s homes these days. There are the usual complaints about incomplete evacuation, making it necessary to flush twice in some cases (water waste!).  Also, as in any manual toilet, you have to come into physical contact with a handle to flush. Nobody likes doing that in a public setting.

·      Dual flow Manual Flush. These make sense, from a water conservation and efficiency perspective. They save water and solve the incomplete evacuation problem by instructing the user to choose from one of two types of flush. The problem most people have is that it isn’t always clear which kind of motion does what. Trying to explain things often results in a confusing set of instructions. Some manufacturers provide graphics, but the results don’t, ummmm, speak for themselves. 

Instruction manual not included.

Instruction manual not included.

·      Automatic Flush. Yes, they’re designed for efficiency and water conservation. But that’s only when they operate properly. And from what we saw and heard, that just isn’t often enough. The most common complaints:

o   The Phantom Flusher. Ever step into the stall and the toilet just starts flushing? Repeatedly? The thing seems insane. It certainly isn’t doing anything to save water. Just the opposite: it’s wasting 1.6 gallons every time it flushes itself, while you stand there watching. This phenomenon is so common it’s been given a name: phantom flushing.

o   The Wrong-Time-Flush.  A close relative of the Phantom Flusher, this one starts flushing before you’ve even gotten up. What exactly is the sensor sensing? People described receiving the “micro-organism shower for whatever part of your body is closest to the spray.” We even heard from one poor woman who dropped her phone into the toilet. And even if she had been willing to reach in to retrieve it (and she was – the thing cost $1000 and was uninsured), the toilet immediately flushed itself, taking the phone down the drain. Bye-bye phone.

o   The Non-Flusher.  This is the number one complaint (in number of occurrences) about automatic toilets and the most common object of criticism, scorn, derision, fear-and-loathing, you name it. The toilet doesn’t flush when you move away from it. You stand there, waiting. Nothing. What to do? People try waving a hand in front of the sensor. Nothing. Some folks even describe doing a dance in the stall to try to get the thing to flush. Finally, in desperation, in a dark stall with bad light, you reach with your fingers for the lever or a button – if you can find one. And you just know that the button thing is filthy.

 

Quick. Where’s the button or level to flush this thing?

Quick. Where’s the button or level to flush this thing?

o   Prior Flush Failure. That’s the non-flusher that happened before you arrived and involved a person who opted not to find that filthy button. Yuck. Total failure. Enough said.

In the end, we decided on an automatic toilet (better water conservation, more hygienic), but reviewed test results to make sure it would actually work. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

 Faucets

Faucets can also be automatic or manual, and they might – or might not – need the user to touch a handle to start or stop the flow of water. Everybody we spoke to agreed that what is best is simplicity: an automatic (no touch!) water dispenser that provides an adequate amount to water to wash and rinse. Sounds simple, right? So why isn’t it?

·      Automatic faucets. How many times has this happened to you: you approach the sink, but before you get within two feet, it just starts running water. By the time you step up to it, it stops. This demon, you realize, must be a cousin of the Phantom Flusher. And now that you’re standing right in front of it, no water comes out. So you start your wave: up, down, across the sensor. People have referred to this as the Frantic Wave.  Anything to get it start up again.  Many complained about having to switch faucets repeatedly in search of one that actually comes on while they’re standing in front of it.

Can’t you just hear it: Bwaaaahahahahahahaha!

Can’t you just hear it: Bwaaaahahahahahahaha!

·      Metered manual faucets. Yes, we get it.  Control the amount of water coming out, saving water. You have to press down on some contraption to get the water to start. That’s okay too. What isn’t okay, in many people’s experience is the minute amount of water that is set to come out. So it takes two or three pushes to wet your hands. Then you soap up, and need to rinse. And the only option is to push on the control with your soapy hands. And yes, that makes a mess. And you’re pushing on top of someone else’s mess. Not great.

Hand driers/towel dispensers

Here we were pretty excited about to movement away from paper products. Save trees! 

·      Automatic towel dispensers. These have a sensor that dispenses a minimal towel when you wave your hand in front. And in actual experience? This close relative of the Non-Flusher and the sink that won’t turn on gives users yet another opportunity to dance the Frantic Wave in public. Fun!

·      Automatic driers. The best of these sound like a jet-engine and dry your hands in a flash. And it’s cool watching your skin jiggle and move from the force of the air hitting them. But they aren’t perfect and some people think they blow germs all over the bathroom – which they don’t; you just washed your hands!  And, of course, some varieties just don’t work at all.

These issues would explain the stack of paper towels sitting on the sink, next to the non-operable or inefficient automatic driers. And how many of these paper towels do people take?  Just check the waste receptacle contents to see that people take Way Too Many. So much for saving trees. And it might also explain (because something has to) what we saw far too often: BOTH varieties, parked side by side on a wall. Why?

We saw this combination more often than we liked: using energy AND trees!

We saw this combination more often than we liked: using energy AND trees!

The bottom line?

Our field experience showed us that some models of fixtures suffer from the more common defects more than others. But the design of others prevented many of these same issues. In the end, our friend decided to recommend installing automatic flush toilets, but chose a model with:

1.     a sensor located high above the toilet so that the user can see it and wave at it, and

2.     a large, very conspicuous flush button right in the front – just in case the thing failed to flush itself.

And she went with the automatic faucet, but researched many brands finding one that had received good user reviews for consistent operation.

She decided on the quick-dry, jet-engine hand driers. Her research demonstrated that those models do save energy, in addition to using no paper at all. She found a model with a lengthy warranty so feels pretty confident that it will work for years to come.

So if you are considering updating your office’s plumbing fixtures, we’d recommend doing some field research in addition to the more traditional kind. You might be surprised at what you find and what you hear from users.  And remember, whatever you choose, you’ll be living with and using – or not – those fixtures for years.