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The Trade Offs with Touch Free Restrooms

March 29, 2016



Touch-free restrooms have become very popular.  Building owners and facility managers like them because it creates a pleasing modern appearance and many of the technologies can help save money by reducing resource use such as water and paper towels.  From a health perspective, we know that encouraging handwashing is a good thing, as it is known that proper handwashing is perhaps the best and most cost effective measure to help protect health.  Automated restrooms can help achieve this goal.


However, there are many things to consider when making the decision to automate the various devices in today’s restrooms which can include dispensers for paper towels and tissue, hand soap and air fresheners, along with automated faucets and flush valves.


While these devices create a modern looking restroom and can indeed reduce costs and environmental impacts, it is important to understand the total impacts of the batteries, photovoltaic cells, motors, circuit boards and other components in order to understand the full implications of these decisions.  While protecting health typically takes precedence in the decision-making process, but with so many options it is also important to understand the environmental impacts of those options.


Defining Green


As a framework for how to approach this issue, a working definition of green and environmental preferability is important.  The definition was originally written over 20 years ago by then President Clinton and has been reauthorized by his predecessors including President Bush and President Obama, demonstrating the strength of the definition.


The Implementation Instructions for Executive Order 13693, which supersedes earlier Executive Orders on this subject, defines green or environmental preferability as ”products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose.  However critical to this discussion is the definition goes on the explain that ”this comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service.”  


Trade Offs


The definition helps to clarify the concepts when considering how to improve impacts on health and the environment.  One of the key takeaways is that while reducing impacts on health and the environment is the goal, consideration should be given to the impacts along the entire lifecycle of the product. 


For example, a product or dispenser may help reduce impacts on health and the environment by encouraging building occupants to wash their hands while at the same time reducing the use of soap, water, paper or other resources.  However, consideration must also be given to how the products were made, used, maintained and ultimately disposed to fully understand if there are any trade-offs that affects the purchasing decision.


Thus when considering automated restrooms and dispensers, it is these trade-offs that must be considered when making a fully informed decision about their selection and use.


The Problem With Batteries


The use of batteries in the restroom, cell phones, toys, laptops and practically every modern device has resulted in about three billion batteries being sold annually in the U.S.  While batteries make our lives more portable and convenient, but they contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel, which can contaminate the environment when batteries are improperly disposed of. 


In landfills, heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater or surface water.  Collectively, disposable and rechargeable dry cell batteries contribute about 88 percent of the total mercury and 50 percent of the cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream.  In the past, batteries accounted for nearly half of the mercury used in the U.S. and over half of the mercury and cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream.  When burned, some heavy metals such as mercury may vaporize and escape into the air, and cadmium and lead may end up in the ash increasing the potential to affect human health.[1]



And keep in mind that these heavy metals don’t magically end up in batteries.  So in addition to the disposal issues, the heavy metals used in batteries, circuit boards and other materials affect the environment and the workers who mine it from the ground, purify it, and use it in the manufacture of batteries and other products.


So when selecting battery powered devices it is important to consider the type of battery – single-use alkaline versus those that are rechargeable.  While both may contain heavy metals, from an environmental perspective it is advantageous to use rechargeable batteries as reuse significantly reduces the environmental impacts associated with raw material extraction and manufacturing the batteries.


At the same time, consideration must be given to the proper disposal of batteries after they are no longer effective.  With the exception of California, most states allow for single-use alkaline batteries to be disposed in the trash.  While allowing for simple disposal may be the law in most states, it would be more environmentally preferable to minimize their use and to recycle, rather than dispose of them as many municipalities incinerate their garbage which creates a greater potential for people to be exposed to harmful heavy metals.


Rechargeable batteries should be collected and then recycled.  There are a number of ways to find the easiest and most cost effective manner for recycling rechargeable batteries.  Begin by contacting the Rechargeable Batteries Recycling Corporation (RBRC) which is a nonprofit funded by battery manufacturers to address the proper disposal of batteries.  RBRC can easily be found on the internet or by calling 1-800-8-BATTERY.


Manual Versus Battery Powered Dispensers


But the question still remains about which is more preferable – manual or battery powered dispensers.  In the restroom, the priority must be to protect human health.  To this end, it is beneficial to replace paper towel dispensers and faucets that require hand contact after washing to operate.  This is because, after the hands have been washed, touching a contaminated faucet or crank/lever on a towel dispenser will recontaminate the hands.


However, the question still has to be asked if battery power is the best option?  This is because there are other options that eliminate hand contact after washing such as roll towel dispensers where the user simply pulls the towels from the dispenser without the need of a crank/lever, or a spring operated faucet that turns off after a given amount of time.  These options provide the same protection of health without the need for batteries, circuit boards, motors and other materials.


Yet there are many reasons to automate flush valves on toilets and urinals.  While users should wash their hands after flushing to eliminate any contaminants on their hand.  But unfortunately many do not flush, so automating this process eliminates odors and complaints from other restroom users.  As to soap dispensers, while not every user of the restroom washes their hands (regrettably), 100% of those who put soap on their hands will use water to wash it off.  Thus it is less important to replace a manual soap dispenser with a battery powered option since any contaminants will be removed in the washing process.


In The End


Protecting occupant health is a priority and encouraging restroom users to wash their hands, avoiding recontamination and doing so in the most environmentally responsible manner is the goal.  Prioritize those dispensers and valves that users touch after washing their hands.  When selecting batteries, prefer high quality rechargeable batteries and be sure to recycle them properly after use.


Healthy, clean and pleasant restrooms are the goal as we work to protect building occupants.  And reducing the 3 billion batteries that are manufactured each year, many of which are improperly disposed of, is a huge side benefit that can also save building owners money.




About the Author

Steve_Ashkin.pngSteve Ashkin, President of The Ashkin Group LLC,  has worked in the professional cleaning industry since 1981 and on the issue of Green Cleaning since 1990.  Today he is considered the "Father of Green Cleaning" and the leader of the Green Cleaning Movement. Ashkin consults for public and private building owners where he is closely engaged with the owners themselves along with organizations such as the US Green Building Council and Building Owners & Managers Association. You can reach Steve at


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