Making Wise and Healthy Choices

Had this article been written a year or two ago, a discussion of restroom and locker room fixtures, partitions, and design, even in cost-conscious schools and colleges, would likely have placed considerable more emphasis on opulence — selecting high-end items such as more luxurious fixtures and wall and surface coverings. However, that has all changed as economic conditions have recently deteriorated.

Now schools and universities installing new restrooms or redesigning old ones are viewing them with a lot of old-fashioned practicality in mind. Instead of expensive, luxury fixtures, more educational facilities are turning to sensible, long-lasting products that also can keep operating costs in check, protect health, and promote safety; even so, pleasing aesthetics are also definitely in vogue.

A good example of this is countertops. Although black and dark-colored countertops are sometimes used, especially in hotel properties, because they add a touch of drama to the restroom decor and can make surrounding fixtures and faucets sparkle, they do require more cleaning and maintenance. Water splashes, soap spills, smudges, and stains are all more apparent on a dark countertop.

On the other hand, a light-colored countertop is much more forgiving and, because of this, may need less cleaning attention, making it more cost effective. Similarly, many school facilities installed stainless-steel partitions in the past, in some cases because they were considered trendy, while in others because they were thought more practical, resistant to vandalism and graffiti. However, “they look great when first installed, but they can be a real cleaning and maintenance headache,” says Klaus Reichardt, Founder of Waterless Co LLC, manufacturers of waterless urinals and other restroom fixtures and products. “Schools can save by having fewer high-polish surfaces.”

Penny-Wise/Pound-Foolish
In the interest of cutting product and installation/retrofit costs, some school managers have found they made poor choices solely because items were initially less expensive. A word to the wise: fully investigate all aspects of the less expensive product before making a selection.

For instance, ceramic tile is a durable and dependable wall and floor covering often selected for wet areas. Although it can have specific cleaning and maintenance needs and is often most effectively cleaned with spray-and-vac-type cleaning systems, for the most part, it provides years of service at relatively minimal cost.

However, instead of tile, some administrators have turned to vinyl wall covering in wet areas. These coverings may be easier to clean and install, but water often gets behind the vinyl, which can result in serious maintenance problems, cause mold and mildew to develop, and require replacement in a relatively short amount of time.

“Similarly, some schools may replace restroom (toilet, urinal, sink, and faucet) fixtures with less expensive models,” says Reichardt. “This again may be asking for costly trouble. Some less expensive fixtures are simply not made to withstand the rigors and demands of a school restroom environment, or they may cost more to maintain in the long-run than a higher-quality fixture.”

Reichardt says managers should look for restroom fixtures that have a 20-year life span, if not longer. Additionally, because water and sewer charges are escalating throughout the country, he advises managers to select the most water-efficient toilets and urinals possible. “Currently, toilets can use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush (gwf),” he says. “But manufacturers are already introducing toilets that use 1.3 gwf or less. No-water urinal systems conserve water and are also proving to be cost saving in many educational settings.”

Health Concerns
Although restroom cost and maintenance concerns are center stage, administrators do not want to make any choices that could potentially risk the health of students and staff. Fortunately, some current restroom design trends not only help protect health but are proving to be cost effective as well.

For instance, electric hand dryers have always been highly regarded by custodial crews and administrators because they help keep restrooms cleaner, no-touch systems help prevent cross contamination, and purchasing paper products for a large educational facility can be a major expense. The only problem: most people just don’t like them.

However, some models now dry hands more effectively and as much as three times faster than models made a few years ago. “One system even dries hands in about 12 seconds,” says Karen Martinez, President of Bravo! Maintenance, a large building service contractor in the mid-Atlantic area, associated with Cannon Hygiene USA. “And some estimates report electric hand-drying systems represent about a 90 percent savings over paper towels when you consider paying the cost of paper, replenishing the paper towel dispenser, disposing of towels, and tidying up restrooms after [use].”

Martinez adds that she is also believes there is a trend away from conventional flip-top feminine hygiene disposal units to a new generation of touchless systems that are serviced and maintained by private vendors — mostly because of health concerns. “Studies indicate that conventional (flip-top) dispensers are some of the most contaminated surfaces in a restroom, and often cleaning professionals empty them without wearing gloves or having knowledge of how soiled and contaminated they may be.”

Selecting a touchless feminine hygiene disposal system has an added cost savings. Women often flush sanitary napkins down toilets because they do not like to touch the conventional dispensers. And in some school facilities, “this results in the number one plumbing problem,” adds Martinez.

Changing Traffic Conditions
Planning a new restroom or locker room or retrofitting an old one involves more than just selecting fixtures, countertops, and other surfaces and products. Paying attention to the proper design and placement of items within in the restroom can help reduce maintenance costs. For instance, paper towels and electric hand dryers should always be placed near sinks and faucets. Poor towel/dryer placement can result in soap and water getting dripped onto floors, causing maintenance and safety hazards.

Additionally, the traffic flow within the room must be a key consideration. The entire path from toilets, urinals, or shower stalls to sinks and hand dryers should be easy and efficient to follow. In women’s restrooms in particular, some designs attempt to squeeze extra toilets into the restroom. Too many toilets may make each portioned area too tight and uncomfortable to use. And if the partition door swings inward, it can be difficult to exit the area.

“Of course, a lot of these (restroom design) issues are regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” says Reichardt. “And currently the Federal government is considering making changes to the act, which could have a significant impact on restroom design.”

According to Reichardt, the changes could affect everything from the width of restroom entryways, the height of toilets, and the size of the portioned compartments to the height of support railings and the amount of wheelchair space required in a public restroom or retail store facility. Although these changes may take several years to be ratified, school administrators and facility managers are wise to be aware of the items now being discussed.

Although restroom opulence may be out, that does not mean schools and universities must make their restrooms dull and austere. Good design does not always cost more, and it may even make a restroom healthier or more efficient. “We clean and maintain hundreds of restrooms,” says Martinez. “We see that those managers who take the time to plan their restrooms find them to be the most cost effective and easiest to maintain in the long run.”

Beth Pullin is a researcher and frequent writer for the professional cleaning, building, education, healthcare, and construction industries. She may be reached at 773/525-3021.

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