Designing Restrooms for Sustainable Operation

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Sponsored by Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc.
By Alan Gettelman
This test is no longer available for credit
Soap Packaging

When designing a green building, give thoughtful consideration to how the building will operate once it is occupied. When designing a prestige, Class A and/or LEED-certified building in particular, being authentically sustainable requires a holistic approach to reducing waste throughout the entire life cycle of the building.

For example, specifying an inappropriate soap-dispensing system can lead to excess plastic waste. In particular, cartridge soap-dispensing systems require the facility to use smaller, individual plastic soap cartridges that often are proprietary to the dispenser unit, restricting the owner’s purchasing freedom. With each refill, janitorial staff must replace the previous plastic cartridge with a new one. Further, cartridge soap generally empties faster than bulk systems. Over time, this excess packaging can lead to more waste, in addition to the costs and labor hours associated with replacing the cartridges.

To address the excess plastic waste associated with proprietary soap-dispensing systems, nonproprietary bulk soap systems are available. These systems deliver a range of benefits, including enabling the usage of universal soap, which can be purchased on the open market, thereby reducing costs and offering greater choice, and eliminating labor-intensive replacement and disposal of partially filled cartridges.

Soap Usage

Many bulk soap-dispensing systems utilize bulk foam soap, which is a highly sustainable choice, as patrons will tend to use less foam than liquid to achieve an effective hand wash. Foam soap dispensers diffuse air into a liquid foaming soap solution to create a lathery foam that today’s patrons often prefer over liquid or lotion soap.

Foam soap offers numerous cost and sustainability benefits over liquid soap, including a reduced number of hand washes for a given volume of soap and increased soap volume compared to liquid soap. This is because air in the foam bulks up the soap to 10 times its original volume, providing greater hand coverage. This results in decreased soap and water usage by patrons and a rich lather that promotes a complete, luxurious, and effective hand wash, enhancing the patron experience.

Soap Dispenser Maintenance

The filling mechanism of the soap dispenser can have a significant impact on maintenance costs of the restroom. Bottom-fill dispensers are a primary culprit of janitorial strain and labor hours, as they typically require staff to bend under the lavatory counter to replace a proprietary soap cartridge. This process often requires maintenance staff to temporarily remove the ADA panel below the lavatory, which requires additional time and strain.

Due to the cost of maintenance, it is common for bottom-fill dispensers to be replaced with owner-provided dispensers early in the restroom’s life cycle. Plastic, mirror-mounted dispensers are typically chosen to replace the specified bottom-fill product.

Top-fill dispensers, on the other hand, save time and effort by eliminating this process completely. Janitorial staff simply need to remove or slide a cap off the top of the dispenser to refill it with bulk jug soap. Over the course of a restroom’s lifetime, extrapolated across several dispensers, restrooms, and floors within a building, these labor savings can make a significant impact on operating costs.

Paper Towel Dispensing Systems

To promote sustainable, economical operation while meeting the needs of users, the combination of hand-drying solutions should be appropriate for the building type and occupancy of the given project. While roll paper towel systems are generally considered more sustainable than folded paper towel systems due to their standard portion-control features, employing a few strategies can help further ensure sustainable operation.

Many roll towel dispensers feature adjustable towel pull lengths and portion-control features to limit the amount of towels dispensed per use. This reduces waste. Some units also feature shorter second-pull lengths and delayed second activation to further discourage wasteful dispensing. However, in high-traffic environments, portion-control features may have a diminished effect.

In addition, some units are designed specifically to ensure every roll goes its furthest, providing complete consumable usage and less replacement time. Further, many roll towel systems can permit open-market purchasing freedom and cost savings by allowing facilities to utilize nonproprietary paper towels at a lower cost than proprietary paper towels.

Roll vs. Folded Paper Towels

While roll towels are generally more sustainable, many facilities prefer folded paper towels due to their versatility and the elimination of stub-roll waste. For example, employees often use folded towels at their workstations to remove makeup, grab restroom door handles, and clean up minor spills. Folded towels are also generally more absorbent than roll towels. Since all towels are the same size, portion control is built in.

It should be noted that patrons often are responsible for “handful” dispensing when using folded paper towel systems, which involves self-dispensing a clump of folded towels rather than one-at-a-time to ensure a thorough hand dry. Fortunately, solutions are available to mitigate the impact on paper towel usage, as folded paper towel dispensers can be equipped with accessories that enable portion control. These add-on accessories utilize a support rod to eliminate handful dispensing by separating individual C- or multifold towels as they are pulled, ensuring that only one towel is dispensed at a time. These units have been shown to be as economical as roll towel systems, reducing paper towel usage by up to 20 percent, and are easily installed in existing cabinets in the field, without tools.

Hand Dryers

Hand dryers are an increasingly common solution to replace or complement paper towels. Hand dryers eliminate paper towel waste completely, along with the labor required to remove waste. They also eliminate the need to store and manage paper towel inventory. In fact, hand dryers can result in 95 percent cost savings compared to paper towel systems.

An authentically sustainable approach to design requires close attention to all resources used in the restroom, including energy usage. For this reason, it is important to note that the wattage and functionality of certain restroom accessories can lead to high energy costs. Although hand dryers dramatically reduce waste, they can be a culprit of high electrical costs—in recent years, evolving consumer preferences have driven demand for hand dryers with quicker dry times.

Thus, high-speed hand dryers, also known as jet dryers, have increased in popularity. Such models provide a faster hand dry and hasten traffic flow in the restroom. Many high-speed hand dryers run on high wattages and/or voltages, in addition to high noise levels. Over time, this can lead to higher energy bills for the building owner. However, some newer hand-dryer innovations can satisfy the desire for a quick, thorough hand dry without the high energy costs. Some units have power ratings as a low as 200 watts, or 0.2 kilowatts.

When motor life is a consideration, newer technologies can have longer life expectancies—as much as 7,500 hours, or 10 years, in high-traffic environments. This leads to reduced replacement cycles, less environmental waste, and further savings for the owner.

To ensure optimal use of hand dryers, it is essential to take a holistic approach to product selection. Before specifying a hand dryer, consider and balance a number of factors, including:

  • Low-wattage units can help mitigate the energy impact of hand dryers, especially in high-traffic environments.
  • Many hand dryers have an institutional aesthetic.
  • Recessed or semi-recessed stainless-steel units can elevate design.
  • Excess or unpleasant noise can negatively impact the patron experience.
  • Hand-dryer noise levels should be researched to ensure appropriate acoustics for the project.

Photo courtesy of Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc.

Figure 1

Some hand dryers feature designs that help minimize puddles and splashing. Some models, such as the one shown in Figure 1, may include drying alcoves, which catch and absorb water, thereby reducing maintenance while improving safety and hygiene.

Finally, although LEED certification is typically the focus of sustainability efforts, it does not address many operational issues. Approaching product selection holistically can ensure authentic, long-term sustainability.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in November 2019