By July 3, 2011 0 Comments Read More →

Hot Air Dryers Vs Hand Towels – the Great Debate

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Hot Air Dryer vs Paper TowelsEvery time I visit a washroom, it's interesting to see whether they have paper towels or hand dryers. This is because I’m interested in the benefits and drawbacks of each as well as whether I’ll end up with dry hands when I’m done.

Personal preferences aside, there is a lot of debate about this issue and even a lot of somewhat conflicting research and studies.

It seems to come down to three different decision factors: Operational, Health & Safety and Environment. Each of these things may drive your decision and it may not be the same as your colleague. Making the best decision for your situation is the goal and we've compiled some information that will make your decision a little easier. The real problem is that it depends on what your goals are and what ‘research’ and opinions you listen to. And I haven’t seen one definitive source. I've included a list of resources at the end of this article.In addition, it may depend on your customers. While good communications can solve some customer concerns around the hand towels or air dryer debate, you may be limited. I’ve heard that when given a choice, 9 out of 10 people will use paper towels. And have you ever been in a washroom with only air dryers, particularly a busy one, and seen the high use of toilet paper for drying hands? The fact is that it’s hard to change behavior and we all tend to do what’s fastest.

A recent hand dryer I used actually had a sticker saying that you should use it for 12 seconds. It doesn't sound long on paper, but when you are standing in a washroom using a loud air dryer, it’s an eternity. How many people do you think follow instructions, versus do a quick dry and leave with damp hands?

So let’s look at some of the issues:

Operational

The issues here are around volume of use, noise, cleaning up paper towels, paper towels dumped in toilets, resulting in plugged toilets, and more. Also, when you eliminate paper towels, people don’t have an easy way to wash their face or do other hygiene tasks an more. While some air dryers enable the nozzle to rotate upwards, the Dyson style doesn't.

Putting an air dryer in a washroom right next to occupied areas can cause problems, since they are generally very loud, so placement is important to prevent complaints from occupants.

For volume, paper towels work very well since you can grab the towels quickly and stand out of the way while you dry your hands. Not so with air dryers, so they work well in low-volume applications and where there isn't a high peak usage.

Air dryers reduce or eliminate problems with plugged toilets and sinks. While I personally don't remember this being a big issue when I managed buildings, in some areas, it is clearly an issue. As well, the remnants of paper towels on the floor are a cleanliness problem that air dryers can reduce. If they don’t have a paper towel to open the door with, they won’t drop the paper towel on the floor when they exit, unless they grab toilet paper, of course.

Of course, costs must be considered here as well. There is evidence that switching to air dryers is more cost effective, so on that basis, it should be considered. But the math may be different in your case. Air dryers also require an investment which may be quite high depending on the cost of running the required power and the initial investment in the equipment. And depending on your janitorial contract, it may be hard to separate out the costs of reduced (but not eliminated) waste removal from the washrooms and actually save that money, so look at all these issues before finalizing your business case so you are making the decision with all the facts. After all, you may be asked to validate savings or cut your budget by the amount you claimed.

And, there may be other operational issues that are specific to your situation, so you need to carefully consider the impacts before going ahead.

Environment

Doing away with paper does seem like the most ecologically friendly approach, reducing the consumption of trees, processing, chemical treatment, shipping and then disposal of something that’s used only once. Even if you use ‘green’ hand towels, there is still an impact.

On the other side, hot air dryers do consume electricity not only to blow the air but to heat it up quickly. Some would say they are using only green power to run their air dryers because they are buying from a green power company who only uses wind and solar power. The problem with this is that you are still adding consumption when you install air dryers and every incremental watt you consume means that the dirtiest power possible is still being generated. Just like re-use being better than re-cycle, reduction is better than alternate generation of power.

In some jurisdictions, your power may already be reasonably clean, so you may be better off than paper towels, but in other areas, particularly those who burn coal or other fossil fuels to generate electricity, you may not be getting the ecological benefit you think you are.

The new breed of high velocity air dryers consumes much less power, however, so the math is changing. Studies do show they are much more efficient and some studies (see the links below) also show that air dryers have a net positive ecological impact. It does seem logical, but the problem with most of these studies, whichever way they point, is accurately measuring and accounting for the environmental impacts from the inputs and outputs through the entire life cycle are sketchy and can be manipulated. That’s why you should always look at who is sponsoring the study. Also, the study may not reflect your specific situation, including the source of your power, are you already using ecologically friendly products, do you compost, etc.

And there are choices you can make with paper towels. There are dispensers that reduce consumption based on the size of the dispensed paper towel. And having a properly working dispenser instead of a stack or roll of paper towels on the counter will reduce usage and waste as well. So the choice isn't just between paper towels and air dryers, you also have to consider the range - between effectively dispensed paper towels vs. different styles of air dryers, for instance.

Health & Safety

This is another important element in managing buildings and studies have shown that washing hands is an important part of breaking the pathways that transmit bacteria and other pathogens from person to person. The question is what the impact of paper towels vs. air dryers have on this.

Are air dryers or hand towels are more effective at reducing risk of transmission? Studies have gone both ways, which reinforces the point earlier about studies. On this topic, it may be academic in any case, since as soon as you leave the washroom, you start picking up the things you just washed off your hands. Even if you've gone touch less in your washroom, the rest of our lives are not touch less at all.

How important this is will then depend on your environment. If you are managing a retirement home, hospital or other area where people are more vulnerable to the risks, you need to be more prudent, but in a typical office environment, the issue is less critical.

A commonly cited problem with air dryers is that they redistribute bacteria because they are blowing hot, moist air around. I've seen high velocity hot air dryers and oddly designed traditional blowers inset into the wall with a pool of water at the bottom from high use. Even if they have an integrated filter, this makes you wonder, however at the same time, there is almost always water on the counter just sitting there, so is it really that much of an issue?

An important part of this issue goes beyond the technology you use. It’s the user. To be effective, they have to use the paper towel or the air dryer properly so their hands are actually dry. Studies are carefully controlled, but reality is that many people will do a quick wipe with the paper towels and walk out with damp hands just like they may spend less time than necessary at an air dryer with the same effect.

Summary

The truth is that like many other things, there is no simple right answer. You have to weigh your specific situation against what the various studies tell you and your own analysis of the costs and benefits. Then you need to include operational issues, your company's objectives (i.e. to be green) and of course, the user.

Anyone who tells you one way or the other is the only answer is trying to sell you something. To help you, here are a range of links with studies and articles you can read about this topic and come to your own conclusion about what is right for you and your facility.

Links

http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.com/content/75/7/705.short

http://www.wepa-professional.de/en/pdf/University-of-Westminster-comparative-study-of-different-hand-drying-methods.pdf

http://www.livestrong.com/article/158599-air-dryers-vs-paper-towels/

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2721/whats-better-for-the-environment-electric-hand-dryers-or-paper-towels

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/apr/30/dyson-airblade-kimberly-clark

http://szari.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/life-cycle-assessment-of-paper-towel-and-electric-dryer-as-hand-drying-method-in-the-university-of-melbourne/

http://www.exceldryer.com/PDFs/HygieneStudies.pdf

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2011/02/15/3139197.htm


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