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Why Are Public Restrooms So Problematic?

Automatic toilets, faucets and hand dryers always seem to be on the blink. Here's how to ward off germs when technology fails

By Caroline Mayer

During this nasty flu season, I’ve been increasingly diligent about washing my hands. Sometimes though, this task has been downright challenging, especially in public restrooms equipped with high-tech automated fixtures.

You know the ones I mean: the automated faucet that turns on when it senses motion, the dispenser that spits out sandpaper towels with a wave of your hand and the absurdly loud hand dryer.
Well, that’s how the public restroom devices are supposed to work. The problem is that time after time, these gadgets — and their cousins, automated toilets — don’t work properly. So instead of leaving the restroom feeling clean, refreshed and germ free, I often find myself walking out feeling frustrated, foolish and with a fear that I’ll catch the flu.
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Common Restroom Tech Troubles
I’m sure I’m not alone. Chances are, one (and probably more) of the following experiences have happened to you at a public restroom in the not-too-distant past:

  • At the sink, you thrust your hands repeatedly toward the faucet, hoping to catch the automatic eye that will turn the water on. But no water comes out. You move closer, hoping that will work, only to get your face — and possibly your clothes — doused.
  • Standing in front of the automatic towel dispenser, you frantically wave your hands to trigger the infrared eye that’ll cause paper to shoot out. Nothing happens, no matter where you wave or how vigorously you try. So you’re forced to walk away with wet hands. Then, the ultimate insult: You see the next user waves and successfully retrieves a towel.
  • You’re able to use the hand dryer, but it’s either so weak that it doesn’t dry your hands or so ear-splittingly loud that you rush out with wet hands just to flee from the noise. And how often have we’ve been told that these machines are hygienic because wet hands are more likely to spread germs than dirty ones?
  • While sitting on the toilet seat, the automatic flusher goes off before you’re finished and your bare bottom gets splashed. Or conversely, the flusher fails to go off, leaving an embarrassing mess for the next user. (There's usually a little hard-to-find button you can press to make the automatic toilet flush on command, but that means you have to touch it, negating the whole value of the automatic system.)

“Oh, God, haven’t we all had these experiences?” groans Christopher Berl, president of Restroom Direct, a distributor of commercial restroom fixtures based in Huntersville, N.C. Describing the automatic towel dispenser that won’t work for you, Berl says: “It’s like the dispenser is sticking its tongue out at you.”
Why Don’t They Work Right?
Yes, I realize there are more pressing issues in the world, but I still have to ask: Why have public restrooms become so exasperating?
It comes down to a combination of the public’s growing concern about hygiene and imperfect bathroom technology that's cheaply built and poorly maintained.
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“There are a lot of germaphobes out there” who don’t want to touch anything in a public bathroom, Berl says. And although restroom technology, like infrared triggers, has improved in the past few years, many builders and contractors have become, to put it euphemistically, “cost conscious.”
Translation: They’re opting for the least expensive fixtures, which often means the least reliable versions.
One other culprit: Restroom designers who pay more attention to style than function.
Robert Kravitz, president of AlturaSolutions Communications, a Chicago public relations firm whose clients make bathroom cleaning products, cites a San Francisco bank building that opened several years ago. Its restrooms had, among other things, paper towel dispensers built into mirror frames that were placed over the pedestal sinks.
The restrooms looked beautiful, but the towel dispensers were so well hidden that users had to “feel” their way to find them behind the mirrors, leaving smudges, handprints and germs. On top of that, since towel dispensers had to fit behind the mirrors, they were smaller than conventional machines, which meant they ran out of towels two to three times a day.
Batteries on the Blink
High-tech fixtures also require high maintenance. That can be a problem when building managers don’t have the necessary staff to keep restrooms in working order or are unaware the faucets, dryers or toilets are on the fritz.
The automated machines are often battery operated and batteries wear out. So the machines sometimes just quit, remaining unusable until the manager realizes there’s an issue. (Ever seen a place to leave a complaint in a public restroom?)
Most of the new-fangled fixtures need to be replaced every few years but that isn’t happening, Kravitz says. “Many building owners have postponed renovating bathrooms as much as they can,” he says. “So we are now probably seeing systems getting old and not working as well as they should.”
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Kravitz recently experienced restroom agony at a “very hotsy totsy place” during a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago. “I could not get the automatic soap dispenser to work in the men’s room,” he recalls. “I kept waving my hands and finally it reacted — on the arms of my suit.”
3 Suggestions for Restroom Users
So what’s a public restroom user to do? Here are three suggestions:
1. If the automatic hand dryer doesn’t work but there’s a stack of paper towels, take the time to use one for 15 seconds. The towels will work just as well in removing bacteria from your washed hands.
In 2000, the Mayo Clinic compared the use of cloth or paper towels for 15 seconds to the use of warm, forced air from a mechanical hand-operated driver for 30 seconds and found they were equally effective.
2. If the fixtures in a bathroom don’t work, complain to a building manager. The restroom operator needs to know if the batteries in its dispensers have quit working or the design of the dryer, sink or toilet isn’t functional.
If you can’t find a human to register your complaint, try using social media or sending an email to alert the facility’s management.
3. Keep a small bottle of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy, in case you’re unable to use the sink. Hand washing, after all, is the best frontline defense against virus-induced illnesses. And that could put your restroom germ fears to rest.

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Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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