Beware the phantom flush

The future is hands-free.

People are more aware now than ever of the spread of diseases over surfaces, which has in turn propelled us all into a future that embraces touchless options.

Sensor technology first began appearing in restrooms in the 1990’s. At the time this new technology was marketed as a more hygienic alternative, and it quickly gained traction in high-traffic buildings like airports, stadiums, malls, and office buildings.

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are 27 million of these smart flushing toilets installed in the U.S. Many of the older models are still in service, using anywhere from 3.0 to 7.0 gallons per flush (gpf)—far above the federal standard of 1.6 gpf.

New flushometers can put a sizable dent in the facility’s budget. Regular maintenance is preformed to keep flushometers going for years, effectively making the most of this investment. However, maintaining older models may not be saving much—or any—money in the long-run.

The water wasted is thanks to “phantom flushes.” That the term used to describe the moment when we’re sitting and, hey, wait… whoosh! The overactive sensors will sometimes flush several times more than they’re meant to when we’re doing our business.

How much are we really flushing down the drain?

A 23-month-long study was conducted in Hillsborough County, Fla. Between Feb. 2007 and Jan. 2009. to evaluate the effectiveness of sensor-operated valves to save water in “real world” situations. The results showed there was a 54 percent increase in water demands when the sensor-activated toilet flush valves were installed. The faucets were also replaced with sensor-activated fixtures, and produced a 31 percent increase in water demands.

And this was not the first study of its kind. Other researchers have found similar results, reflecting anywhere from a 50 to 100 percent increase in water use when sensor technology replaces their manual counterparts.  

Like flushometers, the sensors built into hands-free soap dispensers and faucets have been over-sensitive to slight movement. But, that doesn’t tell the whole story of what to consider when making updates to your facility’s restrooms—cleanliness also needs to be considered.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins found a 35 percent increase in bacteria growth from water samples collected from sensor faucets compared to manual fixtures with separate handles for hot and cold water.

The researchers suspected the sensor faucets simply had additional surfaces for bacteria to become trapped and grow. To remedy the issue, the researchers wanted to work with manufacturers to design a product that can be cleaned more easily and save water.

Since then, more studies have been conducted and not all of them found a much greater concentration of harmful bacteria in hands-free faucets compared to manual faucets. However, the consensus is that touchless faucets do present a higher risk.

The response to these findings meant installing touchless faucets into the healthcare facilities, but with models equipped with a timed automatic flush function. Automatic flush faucets turn on the water flow for a short period at least once every 12 hours to wash out microbes that could become concentrated during stagnant intervals.

Any area where there is a lot of water will provide a higher risk for bacteria growth. Cleaning these areas with this in mind should be a part of any regular routine.

 Into the future

If your building already has touchless fixtures installed, don’t panic.

Some manufacturers have reported that the cause of unintended flushes is the lack of knowledge about them prior to installation. When the sensor fixtures are installed properly, there should be no phantom flushing.

If the flushometers in your building have been there since the technology was new in the 1990’s, then it may be time to consider upgrading to a more water-efficient flushometer. There will likely be a noticeable impact on your monthly water costs when the switch is made.

The EPA’s WaterSense program helps to identify water-efficient products. The EPA estimates that replacing all old commercial flushometers in the U.S. with WaterSense-approved models would save 41 billion gallons per year.

Removing touchpoints and increasing cleaning frequency are the trends of the infection-conscious world we all live in now.

Elbow pulls and foot pulls are installed on doors more frequently and touchless options in restrooms are embraced now more than ever.

Luckily improvements from the early models of flushometers have come a long way. There are many options to choose from to help prevent phantom flushes and to fit any restroom’s needs.

Contact the manufacturer if your new flushometer causes increased water usage in your facility. Troubleshooting the common causes of phantom flushing should help your facility go hands-free without surging your monthly water costs.

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