Coming clean with sensor and manual faucets

by Catherine Howlett | February 1, 2013 8:33 am

All images courtesy Chicago Faucets[1]
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[2].)

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.[3]
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.

Automatic faucet operation can be convenient for washing and cleaning duties in commercial kitchens.[4]
Automatic faucet operation can be convenient for washing and cleaning duties in commercial kitchens.

Retrofitting: manual and electronic options
There are now more options for retrofitting restrooms in commercial buildings, and plumbing selection needs to strike a balance between existing products and emerging needs.

Retrofitting existing faucets with flow-restrictors or flow-regulators generally provides a low-cost and effective water-saving solution. These devices control flow rate by narrowing or adapting to the width of the opening through which the water is discharged from the faucet. Pressure-compensating aerators are the most common devices to reduce flow; adding an aerator that mixes air with water reduces usage by more than 50 percent.

Unlike residential faucets—with easily-damaged or removed aerators that negate water savings—commercial faucets typically have vandal-proof aerators. Another option for commercial installations is laminar flow control inserts for spout inlets. These models are useful for applications that require non-aerating faucets, such as healthcare facilities.

The faucets can also be installed with hot and cold water feed lines. Common flow rates include:

Another retrofit option is to convert the existing faucet into a more water-efficient unit. There are generally two different directions this can take, depending on whether the retrofit is of a manual or electronic faucet.

The option for manual assemblies is to convert a standard two-handle faucet to a low-flow metering faucet. This easy conversion dramatically helps reduce water usage by taking advantage of component interchangeability.

For sensor faucets, a reduction of electricity consumption can be accomplished on certain models. In these cases, a self-sustaining power system is added to the existing electronic faucet installations. This conversion allows each faucet to generate its own power, eliminating the need for hard wiring or dependence on conventional batteries.

Taking a step further, combining low-flow outlets with precise electronic metering grants full control of water usage. Some electronic faucets can be managed from a handheld unit equipped with software that allows facility management to easily program, monitor, and troubleshoot the faucets.

When specifiers consider faucet options, they may only look at direct functions or price of the fitting itself. They may not think of how maintenance will diagnose, track, or reset faucets in the field, as well as other ongoing issues that can add cost and labor time.

According to Curtis Lunski, onsite management team member of the Pacwest Center commercial office complex (Portland, Oregon), maintenance is definitely an ongoing concern.

“We needed to provide faucet maintenance quickly and quietly with minimal disturbance to our tenants, while protecting their office decorum and privacy,” he says.

The challenge was to quickly and discreetly maintain the building’s 120 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant electronic faucets in offices of a diverse clientele of attorneys and stockbrokers. Lunski’s team used a mobile device with proprietary software from the faucet manufacturer that enables precise, tool-free adjustments without physically touching the internal electronics.

A quick scan can tag problems, adjust cycle times or fittings, troubleshoot, obtain fitting data, and even order parts. Lunski especially appreciates how fast the battery strength can be checked and how easy it is to do above-deck replacements without shutting off the water.

As faucets and installations are a critical part of any building’s infrastructure, getting educated about the new technological advancements of electronic faucets enables designers to use water efficiently, while also assisting with maintenance concerns. The latest electronic developments mean these benefits can be realized more easily than ever.

John Fitzgerald is Chicago Faucets’ vice-president of marketing and has been with the company since 2006. He has more than 25 years of experience in business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing and business management. Fitzgerald can be reached via e-mail at[5].

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  2. Other Green Aspects:
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