Advancements in Electronics Make Hands Free Faucets an Easy Choice for Public Facilities – By Glenn Hasek

The faucets go by a number of different names – hands free, electronic, touchless, sensor – but they are all geared toward improving hygiene, simplifying cleaning and maintenance, and conserving water and energy.

Ideal for public restroom facilities where there is a continuous flow of different people, hands free faucets are also finding a home in commercial kitchens where employees are required to wash their hands. Several industry experts said there may come a day soon when hands free faucets are accepted in hotel guestroom bathrooms—as an “amenity upgrade,” one vendor said.

Hands free faucets have been available for the mainstream public restroom market since the 1980s. Hands free technology was introduced before then. Sloan, for example, featured it on a urinal valve in the mid-1970s. In recent years the technology has improved significantly and all of the leading faucet makers—Moen, Kohler, Delta, Sloan, etc.—now offer them in many different styles.

Rick Nortier, product line manager for Sloan, says what really propelled the use of hands free faucets was the implementation of battery technology, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and trends in hygiene.

“There’s definitely been a shift from manual faucets to electronic faucets,” says George Spear, senior product manager for Moen Inc. “They are great in a public setting, they stop the spread of germs, conserve water, and reduce cleanup time. They also cut down on vandalism—individuals who stop up the sink and let the water run.”

“[Hands free faucets] are becoming more of an expectation,” says Michael Wandschneider, senior product manager for Commercial Faucets, Kohler Co. “It is not such a luxury expectation any longer. A touchless faucet is a no-brainer. There are very cost-effective products on the market. You get a higher level of guest satisfaction.”
Different Power Sources

A Sloan white paper, “Demystifying Faucet Sensing Technologies,” says all touchless faucets require a power source. Some models draw power from batteries, while others use a low-voltage current from an AC transformer or AC/DC voltage adapter. Most faucets use a low voltage DC latching (also known as bi-stable) solenoid valve that “latches” in the open position without further electric current until a pulse of power “un-latches” it, allowing it to return to the closed position. Some hands free faucets rely on solar or hydro power (the flow of the water through the faucet) to generate the electricity needed to run the faucet.

“In any new building, hotel owners will opt for a hard-wired installation,” says Ken Martin, senior director Commercial Sales for Delta Faucet Co.

According to Sloan’s white paper, the predominant sensing technology used in touch-free faucets is Active Infrared Sensing (AIR). AIR detects the presence of objects by actively emitting infrared light and waiting for this light to come back to it. When the emitted infrared light is reflected from a user’s hand, an electronic signal is sent to open the solenoid and allows water to flow. When the receiver no longer “sees” reflection of the light, the control electronics then send yet another electrical pulse to the solenoid, this time, instructing the solenoid to close.

Sensor components are housed within the sensor module that is located in the faucet spout, in a separate sink hole to the side of the faucet spout, or in a special compartment up next to the water outlet. Inherently, this provides easy installation and serviceability. Further, infrared sensors save water by ensuring that water is delivered “on demand,” only when a valid target, such as a user’s hands, are present.

Capacitance Sensing Explained
Another technology used in some faucets is capacitance sensing. Capacitance sensing, which detects the presence or absence of a conductive object, works by measuring changes in an electrical property called capacitance. In typical capacitance sensing applications, the probe or sensor is one of the conductive objects; the target object—in this case the user’s hands—is the other. A faucet employing capacitance sensing acts as the probe that creates a low power electrical field round the faucet—the spout becomes an antenna. The target object is a human body. This works because every person typically has 22 picofarads of capacitance, which is derived from the body’s water composition.

According to Ken Martin, senior director Commercial Sales for Delta Faucet Co., his company introduced capacitance technology, or what he referred to as proximity sensing, in some of its faucets a couple of years ago. “The benefit from a facilities standpoint is you no longer have an infrared window that can be vandalized,” Martin says. Delta Faucet designers also have more freedom with design with faucets incorporating proximity sensing.

Delta Faucet currently offers many different hands free faucet options—either battery powered, hard-wired, or ones incorporating hydro power. With hydro power, Martin says the water flow turns a water wheel that creates power that is stored. This type of faucet is best in areas where there is frequent usage. Different vendors use different battery sizes but Delta has transitioned to “C” size batteries. “It allows us to give a two-year battery life,” Martin says.

No matter what hands free faucet option one chooses, Martin says the biggest savings comes from the aerator. Aerators can restrict water flow down to just .5 gallons per minute.

“When it comes to hands free faucets, you will save most in areas where people are most prone to leave water running,” Martin says.

Above Deck or Below Deck

Moen’s Spear says his company offers hand free faucets in different styles and with electronics either above the deck (sink) or below the deck. Some models have a manual override on them so they can be used during power failure.

Sloan’s BASYS line of hands free faucets is the result of two years of extensive research that involved discussions with those involved in the design, purchase and use of hands free faucets. The faucets feature a solid chrome body and the faucet crown houses all the electronics. One can incorporate a crown that uses solar technology to help charge the AA batteries used in the faucet.
“We include an option for a temperature mixer/lever,” Sloan’s Nortier says.
Sloan customers can choose faucet crowns that show the temperature of the water and even the duration of the hand wash. Batteries in the BASYS faucets are above deck and Nortier says they can be changed in less than two minutes. While customers purchasing hands free faucets can expect to pay more than for a standard faucet, Nortier says they can pay for themselves quickly if they help avoid situations where users leave them running all day long.

In the future, miniaturized electronics within faucets will allow hotel owners to monitor them remotely. When a faucet fails, an e-mail will be sent and owners will know exactly how much water was consumed. Sloan is already implementing reporting technology at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (click here for article).

When asked what advice he would give to those considering hands free faucets, Nortier says, “Make sure it is all above deck servicing. Make sure you have the right size spout for the sink. Consider the application and how it is being used. Start in the public area and get some familiarity. We try to promote hard-wire installation with battery back-up.”

Extra Long Battery Life

At Kohler Co., Insight Touchless faucets feature the company’s Hybrid energy system. Kohler’s Wandschneider says the long life lithium battery within the faucet can last up to 30 years, assuming the faucet is used once every 10 minutes. The new Hybrid energy system features a Hybrid layered-capacitor, literally collecting the small electrical discharges of the battery. When the faucet is activated for use, power is drawn from the capacitor, allowing the cell to maintain its superior power storage.

“We have three core SKUs that are deck-mount and three that are wall-mount,” Wandschneider says. “Some come with a side mixer.”

Wandschneider says the biggest thing that is overlooked when faucets are purchased is their total cost of ownership. Hoteliers should ask the following, he says: “How much am I saving in water? How often do I change the batteries? How much am I saving in hot water?”

Several industry experts agreed that hands free faucets have potential for widespread use in hotel guestroom bathrooms. 
“The challenge is in guest training,” Delta Faucet’s Martin says. “I think it will happen but how do we train the transient user?”

Moen, Kohler, Delta Faucet and Sloan are just some of the companies that sell hands free faucets. Also be sure to check out Toto, Chicago Faucets, American Standard, Zurn, Elkay, and Just Manufacturing.

This article first appeared on the Green Lodging News website. To sign up to receive the weekly Green Lodging News newsletter, go to www.greenlodgingnews.com. Glenn Hasek can be reached at editor@greenlodgingnews.com.