Technological Advancements

Many devices have made it easier for schools and universities to provide hygienic and energy-efficient washroom facilities.

The influx of technology has brought significant improvements to school facilities. Many of those advancements can be found in classrooms, but when students head down the hall to use the washrooms, they are likely to find a host of technological innovations that have improved conditions in that part of the building.

Modern washroom equipment, as well as the systems and devices used by maintenance workers, enable schools and universities to provide washrooms that expose users to fewer germs, that conserve water and use energy more efficiently, and that clean surfaces more effectively.

Don't touch

Washrooms, especially heavily used ones in schools, are breeding grounds for germs. Any time washroom users touch a surface, they are at risk of picking up germs that can lead to illness. So, designers and manufacturers have developed ways for people to use washrooms while avoiding many of the surfaces that may be contaminated with bacteria or viruses:

  • Faucets and showerheads
    Low-flow devices slow the amount of water delivered by faucets or showerheads. Sensors can determine when a user is present and turn on the water flow as it is needed. In other settings, a timed or spring-loaded faucet can release a set amount of water and prevent a user from inadvertently or maliciously leaving the water running.

  • Toilets and urinals
    Automated flushing devices rid washrooms of waste without requiring a user to pull a lever or push a button. A sensor can determine when a user leaves the area and trigger a flush, or timers can be set to flush toilets and urinals periodically. Such devices also help deal with the issue of students who forget to flush. Because users don't have to handle any of the equipment, automatic flushing also can help schools combat vandalism and keep a washroom more hygienic.

  • Soap
    Sensors also can be used with soap dispensers, so that people can get liquid or foam soap for hand washing without coming into contact with the device itself.

  • Hand dryers
    Whether an institution decides to equip its washrooms with electric air dryers or paper towels, sensor-activated models enable users to dry themselves without touching the device. Sensors turn on the air flow for an electric dryer, or trigger a paper dispenser to unroll a predetermined amount of towel.

  • Doors
    Some schools have designed their washrooms without doors to enable staff members to monitor students' behavior without unnecessarily infringing on their privacy. An added benefit of having no doors is that it eliminates another contact point where a student can pick up germs.

Removing washroom doors is not practical for many education institutions, but entrances can be equipped with automatic door openers so that users can enter and exit the washroom without touching germ-laden door handles.

Conserving resources

Water is essential to washroom operations, but many schools and universities can reduce their water consumption and still maintain hygienic, well-functioning washrooms. Facilities that have not been updated in many years are likely to have equipment that uses unnecessarily high amounts of water.

Low-flow devices on faucets or shower heads enable users to wash themselves using less water. In some cases aerators decrease the rate of water flow; in other cases, faucets turn off automatically after a prescribed amount of water is delivered.

High-efficiency toilets use less water to flush waste. Dual-flush toilets conserve water by using different amounts of water for different flushing needs; many models use 1.6 gallons per flush for solid waste, and 0.8 gallons for liquid waste.

Urinals that use no water are being used in a growing number of education facilities. Instead of flushing devices, no-water urinals use chemical drain traps that enable urine to pass through while preventing odors from escaping. A waterless urinal can save as much as 45,000 gallons of water a year in a school setting, but they must be maintained properly. If not, the unpleasant odors created can negate any benefits the no-water units provide.

Schools and universities reluctant to install no-water urinals may opt for ultra-low-flow urinals that use only 0.25 gallons per flush.

Besides conserving water, technology also can help education institutions cut energy usage in washrooms. Because washrooms in schools and universities often are unoccupied for stretches of the school day, they do not need constant illumination. Timers and occupancy sensors enable schools to turn on lights only when the facilities are being used.

Better cleaning

Even after touch-free equipment has helped reduce the amount of germs being spread in a school washroom, proper cleaning and maintenance are essential to minimize the chances that students are exposed to unsanitary conditions, illness and disease.

The traditional way of cleaning floors — a mop and a bucket of some kind of soap and water — may do more harm than good if the mop ends up spreading dirty, contaminated liquid across a washroom floor.

Several technological improvements enable cleaning and maintenance staffs for schools and universities to clean washrooms more effectively.

"Every day, cleaning equipment design is being improved to be more energy efficient, use less water and detergent, and even in some cases use no detergent at all," says the Healthy Schools Campaign's Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools. It lists several types of new technologies that can help schools provide cleaner washrooms and other spaces:

  • Spray-and-vac touch-free cleaning systems
    These units hook into an external water supply or contain their own. Using a hose and extension tools to get to hard-to-reach places, the units use less water and chemicals, reduce worker exposure to contaminated surfaces, eliminate cross-contamination, and use environmentally preferable cleaning products.

  • Vapor-disinfecting technology
    This equipment enables custodians to use steam from tap water instead of chemical disinfectants to clean surfaces.

  • Microfiber integrated floor cleaning systems
    Improved microfiber mopping systems include a cleaning product dispenser integrated into the system through the mop handle or an attached backpack. These systems reduce water and chemical use, and minimize cross-contamination by preventing the need to dip the mop into a dirty bucket, the guide says.

  • Electrolyzing water technology
    This equipment converts tap water into a cleaning agent. The guide says this eliminates the health and environmental issues that result from the manufacturing, packaging, transportation, storage and disposal of cleaning chemicals.

  • Read the "Washing hands" sidebar to learn why it is important for the health of students and others.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Related Stories

Washing hands

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that students miss 22 million school days a year because of the common cold. But it also has found that elementary students that were better at washing their hands get sick less often (2.42 days missed a year) than students with poor hand hygiene habits (3.02 days missed).

In light of the recent scares over the H1N1 flu, the CDC is working to publicize the importance of hand washing for the health of students and others.

The CDC says the best way to wash hands is to use soap and running, clean water for at least 20 seconds. If soap is not available, alcohol-based hand rubs are effective at reducing the amount of germs on skin.

A 2009 Clean Hands Report Card, commissioned by the Soap and Detergent Association, gives Americans a B-minus on hand hygiene. That's an improvement over the 2008 grade of C-minus.

The survey found that 50 percent of Americans wash their hands more than 10 times per day, compared with 36 percent in 2008; 70 percent say they wash their hands at least seven times a day, up from 62 percent in 2008.

Women are more likely to be frequent hand washers — 62 percent of women wash hands more than 10 times a day, but only 37 percent of men do so. And many of those who wash their hands are less than thorough; 46 percent of those responding say they wash their hands for 15 seconds or less.

Any time washroom users touch a surface, they are at risk of picking up germs that can lead to illness.

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