Coming clean with sensor and manual faucets

All images courtesy Chicago Faucets
All images courtesy Chicago Faucets

by John Fitzgerald
It is tempting to whittle commercial faucet choices down to two types: sensor and manual. However, there is more to consider. For ‘green’ buildings, while it seems obvious to find faucets that use less water, this oversimplifies the issue. (For more information, see Other Green Aspects.)

Beyond deciding between the hands-free convenience of sensor or more modestly priced manual models, commercial specifiers should look at less-obvious benefits of newer, better-engineered faucets. Examining various factors—such as where and how the faucets will be used, and maintenance requirements—helps ensure faucet choices meet end-user and facility management expectations.

Faucets 101
Different types of technology work behind the scenes to enable sensor (i.e. electronically activated) faucets to flow automatically. The most common sensor type, infrared, emits light outward, which reflects off the user and bounces back to the receiver. The act of the user’s hands coming in and out of the sensor’s range (which is directed to the immediate sink area) starts and stops the water flow.

The other option of manually operated faucets includes both push-button metering faucets—usually only providing water flow at a pre-set temperature and turning off after approximately 15 seconds—and models with handles. Faucets with blades, wings, levers, or other handle styles allow restroom visitors to choose a mix of hot and cold temperatures and run the water at their own discretion. This can be wasteful when visitors fail to turn off the water when they are finished.

Smart power for sensor faucets
For good reasons, such as better hygiene and increased water savings, sensor faucets have become common in today’s commercial restrooms. Electronics are setting the tone. Yet, there are many developments in sensor faucet design, making it hard to choose the right fit for each application. With more contractors and specifiers choosing sensor faucets for their building and remodeling projects, it is important to realize not all products are created equal.

A faucet model suitable for one type of restroom may be an entirely wrong fit for another. For example, a private corporate restroom is ideal for faucets focused on customized user convenience features, such as adjustable water temperature and spray duration. Busy public restrooms, on the other hand, need durable, vandalism-proof faucets designed for heavy use.

Various new operating concepts ensure comfort and hygiene. One emerging factor to consider is the power source used to operate faucets. Power-harvesting methods, such as solar or turbine technology, put a new spin on alternative energy sources. The goal of such technologies is to achieve a self-sustaining power system. Beyond the standard battery- and alternating current (AC)-powered faucets, these systems have emerged as a means to increase battery longevity.

In more private restrooms, sensor faucets with temperature controls and other user-adjustable operating modes may be appropriate.
In more private restrooms, sensor faucets with temperature controls and other user-adjustable operating modes may be appropriate.

Turbine vs. solar
The question then becomes, how does one choose between turbine or solar, the two prominent self-sustaining power system technologies. The first step is to consider a restroom’s basic concept and then evaluate its environment.

A turbine system converts the flow of water into power to operate the faucet and recharge a backup battery. More specifically, a six-pole magnet and dual-inductor rotor turbine create energy from water flow. The energy created by the turbine is stored in a rechargeable storage device mounted under the sink and attached to the wall.

Most systems come with a backup battery and voltage regulator for smart power selection, making the most efficient use of the energy source. An advanced electronic system regulates supply between primary and backup power sources.

These alternatively powered faucets can greatly reduce the frequency of battery replacements. In fact, a turbine-powered faucet in a busy restroom may never use the backup battery. This is because the longer the turbine runs, the more power is generated, making the faucet more self-sustaining. These models also offer an alternative to hard-wiring the faucet to the building’s power supply, which can be costly and difficult, especially in renovated restrooms without access to AC outlets.

A solar faucet, on the other hand, relies on lighting to convert and store the energy it needs to operate. A solar faucet performs best in a bright restroom—drawing light from either windows or artificial lighting in a restroom with low- to medium-usage, such as a retail store or community center. Depending on the lighting conditions, a solar faucet may rely on battery backup more often than the turbine option.

Determining which power type is best for each application can also depend on factors such as restroom traffic, maintenance, and likelihood of vandalism. Restrooms in schools or high-volume public places (e.g. sports arenas) most likely require more maintenance and protection against vandalism. Battery-operated faucets may not be the right choice in these restrooms, because batteries would be quickly depleted. Low-traffic restrooms, often found in more private settings such as office buildings, tend to have minimal service needs. As these restrooms are not used as often, however, a turbine faucet dependent on regular usage to produce its energy may not perform as well as a battery-operated model would.

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