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Germ Wars

Germ Wars

Lessons in handwashing begin with smart washroom planning.

It's estimated that at least 22 million school days are lost every year because of colds caught by students and faculty, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There's still no cure for the common cold, but there is a time-honored way to prevent it, the agency says: handwashing, ideally with good old soap and water. It's still the best solution.

"Keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to keep from getting sick and spreading illnesses," advises the CDC's Ounce of Prevention initiative. "If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol wipe or hand gel."

Having clean hands also is one of the most effective ways to prevent gastrointestinal illnesses, which account for absences by students and teachers. In fact, handwashing also is promoted as the best way to prevent MRSA, one of the antibiotic-resistant "super bugs." That hard-to-treat infection once was limited to hospitals and nursing homes, but now it has become a public health problem, with outbreaks especially found in schools, and among amateur and professional athletes. It starts as a skin infection, resembling a spider bite, but it can progress to the bloodstream or heart, and can cause pneumonia or death.

Despite what research and common sense say about keeping hands clean, many other surveys show that students and adults are notoriously lax about hand hygiene, even after using the toilet. Add to that the countless surfaces and objects students and teachers touch in the course of a day, and you've got a beaker of germs ready to ripen.

How can schools and universities help encourage handwashing? They can select washroom locations strategically; incorporate attractive and inviting designs; and install easy-to-use, hands-free, vandalism-resistant fixtures.

Planning considerations

To encourage more students and faculty to use and respect school restrooms, it is critical to make these areas warm and attractive, as well as clean and convenient. Strategic design, consistent maintenance and touch-free fixtures should be considered in a school's plan.

Restrooms should be attractive — bright, well-lighted, safe, clean and consistently stocked with toilet tissue, soap, hand sanitizers and other necessary supplies. A survey conducted by papermaker Kimberly-Clark found that some school restrooms are so uninviting and even repellent that one out of five students refuses to use them. Another study found that more than two out of five middle school and high school students avoid using bathrooms.

Just as run-down neighborhoods can encourage crime and graffiti, neglected buildings and rooms invite vandalism and bad behavior. A poorly maintained washroom or locker room may harbor bacteria and germs that can cause illness.

Another CDC report noted that after using a public restroom, a person's hand may have as many as 200 million bacteria. In restrooms, germs congregate in damp areas and on door handles. That's one reason hands-free, sensor-activated faucets, fixtures and other accessories have come into widespread use in public facilities. Another reason: They conserve water and help reduce utility costs.

Conventional faucet handles in older public washrooms also house germs, so touching the handle, even after washing, recontaminates just-cleaned hands. The problem multiplies when students use manual cloth or paper-towel dispensers, or even air blowers that require a button to be pressed. When all those steps are combined, there go most of the hygienic benefits of handwashing.

Restroom design ideas

An inviting restroom can encourage students to follow the rules. Some design considerations:

  • Incorporate architectural elements

    Many facilities designers make restrooms more appealing by using warm colors and textures instead of institutional white. This includes lavatories, toilet partitions and accessories that can be ordered in coordinating colors. Choose durable, solid-surface lavatory systems in colors that coordinate with walls, tiles and other accessories in the restroom.

    Contemporary school restrooms can incorporate architectural elements — sleek, sweeping lines; curved sinks; and rounded shapes vs. traditional square ones. In addition, lighting plays an important role in creating a welcoming space, so keep lighting in the warm temperature range, and stay on the softer side.

  • Durability, low maintenance

    Aesthetically pleasing restrooms also can be durable and low-maintenance, and provide greater resistance against vandalism. Solid plastic restroom partitions and solid-surface material used in lavatory systems resist graffiti and scratching; stainless steel also is durable. Both surfaces can be wiped clean easily.

  • Germ-resistant, solid-surface material

    Lavatories made from smooth, non-porous solid-surface material help guard against the growth of mold or bacteria. An integrated bowl design also eliminates crevices for microbes to hide and further helps prevent the spread of germs.

Upgrading older facilities

To save water and update the look of a facility, education institutions should replace old sinks, toilets and urinals with more efficient models in restrooms and locker rooms. By removing stained or cracked china lavatories and replacing them with solid-surface lavatory systems, restrooms can be more attractive — and functional. These systems require fewer connections and rough-ins, reducing labor costs.

Other features that save money and keep restrooms tidier include built-in soap dispensers that drip into a bowl and infrared sensors that shut off flow after use. These also can deter vandalism.

Another way to encourage handwashing is to install classroom sinks in science labs, art rooms and other busy areas.

Budget issues

Whether building new facilities or upgrading existing space, budget is critical, so it is important to include efficient, energy-saving fixtures into planning and layouts:

  • Green elements

    Carefully planned restrooms and locker rooms afford ideal opportunities for containing and even reducing utility costs — especially if schools incorporate elements found in green buildings. This means a building that uses a minimum of nonrenewable energy and reduces pollution. Today's restrooms have a variety of eco-friendly technologies that cut water and energy consumption, and minimize use of natural resources.

    One of the newest touchless technologies to become available is a light-powered handwashing fixture. This specialized technology uses photovoltaic cells to convert restroom lighting to energy, activating the flow of water to the lavatory system.

  • Low-flow fixtures

    By specifying low-flow fixtures, metered faucets and waterless urinals, schools can reduce water consumption by more than 30 percent. This can translate to major cost savings in water and sewer bills, as well as energy costs for heating water. Newer fixtures as part of a restroom renovation also mean less maintenance and greater resistance against vandalism.

    Lavatories with tankless water heaters provide hot water on demand and are concealed within the lavatory system's pedestal. Handwashing fixtures with tankless heaters require only a cold water source. Only the water needed at the faucet is heated, rather than requiring a hot-water tank in a distant area of the building.

Alderson is a senior marketing manager for Bradley Corp., Menomonee Falls, Wis., a USGBC member and manufacturer of locker room products, plumbing fixtures, washroom accessories, partitions and emergency fixtures. She can be reached at (262)532-1096 or [email protected].


22 million
Estimated number of school days that are lost every year because of colds suffered by students and faculty.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

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