Feature Article - September 2010
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Friendly Amenities

Making Decisions About Restroom Structures

By Richard Zowie

Restroom Evolution

As the years go by, the way restrooms look and function changes. What used to be outhouses exist now as portable toilets used for carnivals, fairs and other events on the go (as well as permanent facilities dealing with overflow). In the past, public restrooms were often about practical facilities with flushing toilets, running water and much-needed products like soap, paper towels and toilet paper. Now, more and more restrooms are done with flair. Even more restrooms are being reinvented themselves to maximize sanitation and be built in timely and cost-effective manners.

One trend Tharpe has increasingly seen in the past decade is preassembled restrooms as opposed to site-built facilities. This is a trend driven largely by money, but also by timeliness and the desire to simplify projects, as well as advances in manufacturing that make it possible to install a restroom structure, complete with plumbed toilets and sinks, in less than a day.

"The only thing that will change this is if the present economy changes," he said. "We're finding the recession to be deep and wide, and site-built restrooms are cheaper than they used to be. The labor market is down due to the cost."

Another change that Brubaker has seen pertains to security and convenience. It's more common now for restrooms to have stalls and no locks on the door so they can serve more people. Single restrooms with locking doors may allow the maximum level of privacy, but he said they also make "the restroom a lot more susceptible to misuse, including an employee locking the door to take a smoke break."

Brubaker noted that touchless facilities are gaining popularity with the idea of being more sanitary. And, they work if well maintained. But be careful if you go this route. Touchless facilities that aren't maintained result in mis-flushes and false alarms due to worn-out batteries.

"If well maintained, people seem to like touchless facilities better," Brubaker said.

Touchless, or hands-free, restrooms do appear to have a downside. Tharpe said they have found that the automatic on and off controls on the faucet are not very appealing, and if there's a failure, there's nothing to let you know there's a problem.

"We're not seeing a lot of automatic on-offs really popular yet in an unmaintained facility," he said.

That said, touchless is becoming an ideal solution. Many patrons are worried about what kind of germs the customer before them may have left on the faucet and door handles. Worries about SARS, H1N1 and other diseases have only increased the concern.

Part of being a touchless facility is having hand dryers and doing away with paper dispensers. While that might promote sanitation and save trees, Brubaker notes hand dryers aren't always the best option. If a restroom has a door that must be pulled and gripped, a person risks recontaminating their hands when they do that task.

"We recommend when there's a door that must be pulled and gripped, they should provide paper towels and a basket right by the door to drop the towels in," Brubaker said. The labyrinthine entrances that have been growing in popularity also help solve the problem.

Tharpe added: "There is a natural drive toward air dryers because it's a waste issue. You're not using paper. We do see an interest toward a more environmentally friendly approach. In most cases, cost is the driver, except in upscale restrooms where aesthetics is the driver."

Tharpe does see paper towels eventually becoming obsolete in restrooms, especially since they often end up on the floor, must be restocked and require more trips to empty the waste receptacles. This costs money.

It also has an environmental impact, as Galvin noted. "As facilities are watching their budgets, environmental impact items that need to be replenished and disposed of regularly, like paper towels, will not last long," she said.