While it's still necessary to build commercial plumbing components to withstand World War III (or worse, the use and abuse of school kids and others interested in the on-site sport of destruct testing), we've seen major changes in regard to technology and style in recent years.

It doesn't seem that long ago that the common themes in the design of commercial plumbing components were:

  • Build 'em big (heavy-duty),

  • Build 'em basic (in operating technology)

  • Build 'em clunky (don't worry about style)

While it's still necessary to build these things to withstand World War III (or worse, the use and abuse of school kids and others interested in the on-site sport of destruct testing), we've seen major changes in regard to technology and style in recent years.

Left, Delta Faucet's 595 electronic metering faucet. Right, Sloan Valve Co.'s battery-operated Optima Plus Flushometer.

Electronic Products--"Touchless" and Otherwise

The newer design themes are being driven by several current hot buttons with the public. One has to do with hygiene, or sanitation concerns. Putting it bluntly, with all the worry about the transmission of disease today, people just don't want to touch things any more than they have to in public washrooms. This has led to a whole generation of "touchless" products--ones that can be activated by electronic proximity sensors. While initially there were both infrared and motion-sensing technologies introduced to meet this need, the shakeout has overwhelmingly been in the camp of the former, often referred to as "IR" systems. These are "electro/mechanical" combinations in which the signal of an infrared sensor opens a relay that triggers a solenoid valve. There have been significant refinements in the electronic technologies used in recent years, resulting in more reliable service and more easily programmed operation (some products can now be programmed without opening the housing, such as by use of a Palm Pilot device).

Some of the first examples of sensor-operated products came in the flush valve field, with examples including new equipment as well as retrofit modules (replacing original mechanical actuators with the automatic type). These include both toilet and urinal applications, with model options that include integral or remote sensors (the latter most often mounted into the adjacent wall). The type of power supply usually depends on which of these configurations is used, with the integral type using a battery and the remote type using hard wiring.

After flush valves, the next most common electronic washroom device today is the faucet. Here again, some are powered by battery, some hardwired. Though most faucets in this category provide just the basic "on-off" function, some manufacturers offer models that add a manual temperature mixing mechanism, activated by a conventional handle. In other words, the faucet is turned on and off automatically, but the temperature is set by rotating a separate mixing mechanism.

In addition to flush valves and faucets, we are now seeing some other categories of "touchless" washroom products coming on the scene. These include sensor-operated soap dispensers, towel dispensers, hand dryers and air fresheners. Back in the stall, there have been periodic attempts to provide more convenient sanitation of the toilet seat (something a bit more advanced than the seat-shaped piece of paper that rarely stays put). Some involve a sanitizing of the seat between uses, others a sheathing. One current example of the latter uses a cartridge of thin plastic tubing that rotates a clean section around a circular seat after each use.

Another new twist in public washroom products is an electronic metering (slow close) faucet, using a light-touch switch button rather than traditional hydraulic timing mechanisms. While not touchless in operation, these faucets are an improvement over older generation metering faucets because they eliminate the small-orifice bypass that has historically been the Achilles heel of that type (vulnerable to clogging with foreign matter). With this newer type, the timing function is electronic and therefore not susceptible to the problems of crud in the water. Other advantages include a very light activating force and easy timing adjustment. Like sensor-operated faucets, some electronic metering faucets come equipped with a manual temperature mixing mechanism.

Sensor-operated products are also showing up in shower rooms today, offering a better answer than either the "no limits" type of shower valve that can be left running, or the sometimes aggravating metering type that often seems to shut off at just the wrong time.

So where do we go from here with electronic plumbing? Some even more advanced examples are already with us, notably one called "programmed technologies." Essentially, this is a computerized system of controlling water usage in prisons and schools. From a central control station, a PC not only monitors the use of each water-using device in a cell or washroom, but it can also restrict the usage as well as initiate remote flushing.

The Galileo electronic faucet from Chicago Faucets.

Saving Water in Public Washrooms

Another current hot button driving new technology is water conservation, driven both by regulations and the need for improved operating economies. Most of the electronic products described above provide this additional benefit. Faucets that not only deliver at a limited flow rate but also turn off automatically are good examples. Today's flushometer valves operate on lower consumption than past models, and in addition, there are super-water-saving tank-type toilets arriving on the scene, using just four liters per flush rather than the prescribed six. (Such models are equipped with pressure tanks to provide the necessary flushing efficiency.) And how about this for the ultimate in water saving--waterless urinals. In this case, a chemical seal at the bottom allows urine to pass through, while preventing gasses to pass back up. The products use a conventional drain connection, but no water supply.

Ugly Is Out--Fashion Is In

One of the most noticeable differences in washroom equipment today concerns style. It is no longer assumed that people don't care what the stuff in a washroom looks like. Customers are being offered increasingly attractive product designs today, and when other selection factors are equal, this can often sway the buying decision. Good design doesn't have to cost more than the mediocre variety. One of the most noticeable improvements seen in many washrooms today concerns the lavatory area. Wall-hung models or drop-ins on laminate counters increasingly are giving way to solid surface (like Corian) counters with integral bowls.

In addition, much more design attention is being given to things like faucets and even flush valves today, complementing the more stylish basic elements of the washroom.

Editor's Note: The "College of Product Knowledge" ran in Supply House Times for three years and resulted in a reprint manual that sold for many years to follow, totaling thousands of copies. It became something of an industry classic. Much of the original training material is still applicable to the products sold today. The purpose of this updated series is to look at what has come along since the first edition.