Paper Trail

Sept. 1, 2007
Education institutions should consider the benefits of electric hand dryers in washrooms.

Invented in 1948, electric hand dryers now are widely available in public restrooms. Given the expense of making paper, the labor involved in keeping restrooms stocked, and the waste generated from disposing paper, the use of hand dryers is an alternative for school and university facility owners and managers.

However, standing in the way of better acceptance of electric dryers is the fact that many users, including students, have had poor experiences with the equipment. Some complain that drying their hands takes too long (sometimes 30 to 45 seconds or longer) and the dryers don't do a thorough job. To address these concerns, some facilities supply paper towels in addition to dryers — adding waste and expense to the maintenance of the restrooms.

Another concern expressed by many school officials is the cost and labor required to replace or upgrade paper towel dispensers or older, slower hand dryer models. In the long run, facility managers can save money by eliminating paper towels and outdated, ineffective dryer technology.

Coming of age

Older generations of hand dryers have contributed to the poor opinion that some hold about the equipment. Simply put, traditional hand dryers don't do what they're supposed to: dry hands completely in a reasonable amount of time. Numerous focus- group studies have documented that most people, in a hurry to exit public restrooms, will grab a paper towel rather than use a dryer.

But dryers have improved, and it no longer is difficult to find a model effective enough so that students don't have to finish the drying process by wiping their hands on their pants. Newer dryers can blast off loose droplets of water and evaporate the film left behind in 10 to 15 seconds.

Installation: It's elementary

Installation varies from model to model and must take into account existing wiring and walls. But overall, hand dryers that are built properly should install easily and require minimal maintenance.

Some major considerations for any school facility manager planning a new or retrofit project:

  • Electricity

    Installing a hand dryer is straightforward. Any licensed electrician can install one and determine the cost of doing so. The first decision: how many dryers will a restroom require? A good rule of thumb is one dryer for every two or three sinks; this will help prevent long lines from forming.

    Newer dryer models draw around 12.5 amps and operate on a 15-amp circuit; older models drew 17 to 19 amps and required a 20-amp circuit. The energy costs of using a hand dryer amount to pennies per day — accommodating 240 dryings for the cost of 1 kilowatt hour.

  • Mounting options

    Some older hand dryer models had to be recessed into a bathroom wall; that required a significant amount of labor. Many modern models are instead surface-mounted and require only a single hole for wiring. They can be installed easily at various designated heights. Recessed dryers also are available to meet ADA protrusion requirements in certain restroom layouts.

Not just hot air

All internal hand dryer parts should be coated according to Underwriters' Laboratories (UL) requirements. The entire mechanism should be grounded internally.

To protect against overheating and ensure effective drying, a dryer can be controlled by an automatic resetting thermostat, which opens whenever airflow is cut off and closes when it is resumed. This will ensure that air temperatures are safe for users.

In the United States, dryers should be specified in 60 Hz. For certain export applications, 50-Hz models are available.

The initial cost of a hand dryer is going to be more than a package of paper towels, and probably more than the towel dispenser they are loaded into.

But over time, the cost of using paper — buying and stocking the product and hauling away the waste — adds up.

In addition to the expense of paper towels, the environmental impact of producing paper is significant. A 2002 study conducted by Franklin Associates and Sylvatica, Inc. measured the energy use of paper towels. It found the energy used to harvest raw materials and manufacture paper towels to be as high as 131 megajoules per kilogram. Additional environmental costs include deforestation, pollution, and air pollution from pulp and paper mills.

Can hand dryers survive students?

Because hand dryers leave no waste behind, they are more hygienic than paper towels. With dryers in place, school and university facility managers can eliminate tons of paper-towel waste every year.

Except for a recommended annual cleaning, high-quality hand dryers require little maintenance. Paper towels require one hour of maintenance for each case of towels used. In addition, a paper-towel dispenser can be empty, jammed or otherwise non-functioning; hand dryers are almost always available for use.

Gagnon is the president of Excel Dryer, East Longmeadow, Mass.

10 to 15

One consideration for school and university facility managers is whether hand dryers can endure the abuse that students might inflict upon them. One of the advantages of installing hand dryers is that students no longer have a ready source of toilet-clogging material. In addition, paper will not be strewn throughout the bathroom floor, so workers need less time to clean the facility.


Dryers have several features available that are critical for education environments:


  • Hand dryer covers should be a one-piece, heavy-duty zinc alloy for greater durability. Units should be lightweight, unbreakable and rustproof.

  • Air-inlet openings should prevent the entry of foreign objects. Also, the hand dryer heating element should be mounted inside the blower housing to prevent vandalism.

  • For a hands-free dryer, the control assembly should be activated by an infrared optical sensor situated next to the air outlet. This enables the dryer to operate as long as hands are under the air outlet. Some are equipped with a lockout feature that shuts the dryer off if hands are not removed within an appropriate period of time (35 seconds for fast-operation dryers).

Number of seconds it takes for newer models of hand dryers to dry hands.

The year hand dryers were invented.

Number of hand dryers recommended for every two or three sinks.

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