There are many ways to dry our washed hands. With new Product Category Rules establishing global standards, we know how to do so in the greenest ways possible.
William Gagnon is fiercely objective about his business. The vice president of marketing and sales for a leading hand dryer company, Excel Dryer, Gagnon wants to know where the company’s signature product, XLERATOR, performs relative to the environment and how it stacks up compared to its competitors in both the electric dryer and paper towel segments.
He also knows that designers and specifiers have a bathroom problem. Some mistakenly assume that “100% recycled” paper towels are the greenest way to dry one’s hands. “They’re not,” says Gagnon. “A lot of people think they keep getting recycled, but that’s not true – after one use they end up in landfills.”
Others buy on price, regardless of energy-efficiency or performance of the dryer. “Many hand dryers are untested, both in how much energy they use, how well they dry hands and how long they last,” says Gagnon.
A few building operators question if paper towels are more hygienic than air dryers; a Mayo Clinic study found that what matters most is how much people use soap and water to scrub, not the drying method.
Several of these misconceptions were cleared up by Excel’s own research. The company commissioned a comparative Life Cycle Assessment study (conducted by Quantis International of Salem, Massachusetts) in 2009. It factored for materials production, manufacturing, transportation, use and end-of-life characteristics as they adversely affect the environment, including their impact on climate change. By far, the XLERATOR dryer performed better than standard electric dryers, paper towels, and 100% recycled paper towels (see graph). This holds true even in regions where electricity is generated by fossil fuels (e.g., coal).
Quantis is a respected agency, but universal standards that transcend a single firm’s research were needed by designers and specifiers, particularly those looking to achieve a LEED or other green building standard certification.
Gagnon hoped that working with UL Environment — and in collaboration with competitors World Dryer (Berkeley, Illinois) and FASTDRY (Hokwang Industries of Taipei, Taiwan) — a global standard might be accomplished.
And so began a year-long, data-driven and science-backed process — the culmination of which was the publication of the first-ever global Product Category Rule (PCR) developed for the hand dryer industry by UL Environment, a business division of UL (Underwriters Laboratories). PCRs are the first step toward the development of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), type III, independently verified ecolabels that govern one or more product categories. A PCR is a set of rules, requirements and guidelines developed with industry consensus and following internationally established standards that make it easier to consistently evaluate products’ environmental impacts.
Until the introduction of the global PCR for hand dryers, inconsistent testing and reporting methods allowed for unreliable and unsubstantiated claims to be made in the marketplace. Because of the efforts of Excel Dryer, the playing field has been leveled — hand dryer manufacturers will need to follow the same, standardized testing and reporting guidelines to allow buyers and specifiers to make more informed decisions when selecting a properly tested dryer.
In other words, the bathroom problem is largely solved. But Penny Bonda, a LEED fellow and principal at Ecoimpact Consulting, and her business partner Summer Minchew, a LEED AP, noted the net effect of smarter hand dryers go beyond tiles, porcelain, plumbing, and even electricity usage.
“LEEDv4 seeks to connect credit strategies to USGBC’s defined set of goals referred to as “Impact Categories,” says Minchew of the LEED Steering Committee’s decision to weight ratings according to social, environmental, human health, and economic outcomes. “Making sustainably minded choices when specifying hand drying options can positively influence these categories in many ways.” Given how mindful Excel Dryer is to reduce energy use and waste — they and their product line effectively support Impact Category goals.
Minchew urges architects, designers, and specifiers to increase their attention to what the PCR truly accomplishes for the category. “It’s important for them to understand how PCRs, LCAs and EPDs work together,” she says. “The global PCR for hand dryers will enable hand dryer manufacturers to pursue LCAs for individual products.”
William Gagnon notes that when he first proposed to Bonda that she should take a look at the data on how electric dryers really do have a lower LCA than paper towels, “she was blown away,” he says. Bonda, a green building expert, past national president of the American Society of Interior Designers and current board president with the Healthy Building Network, says it was the numbers that convinced her – and they are vitally important to her colleagues in design.
“The road to building product transparency and optimization is long and the ever-changing landscape of building product certifications and standards can be overwhelming,” Bonda says. “It may be all too easy for building product manufacturers to take a back seat and wait for their industry to catch up. But not Excel Dryer. Excel Dryer has been driving towards change at the early stages of this movement and advancing the industry into an age of transparency.”
Gagnon happily agrees with Bonda. But he doesn’t lose sight of what hand dryers are supposed to do. Building managers’ opinions matter because they’re the ones who get feedback on such things as maintenance and usage. “There is an instant realization of the costs savings in labor,” he says, referring to how emptying waste receptacles and restocking paper towels become unnecessary the moment an air dryer is installed. There even is a notable reduced cost for waste disposal that can occur with larger buildings.
Further explaining cost savings of his hand dryers, Gagnon shared that Excel Dryer was the first in the industry to publish dry time and energy use results in compliance with the PCR. SGS, the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company was selected by Excel Dryer to test the XLERATOR Hand Dryer models. The original, patented, high-speed, energy-efficient XLERATOR Hand Dryer recorded an 8 second dry time and 3.7 Wh of energy per use while the XLERATOReco Hand Dryer recorded 10 seconds, 1.7 Wh, respectively.
When considering the best hand drying option for a particular restroom environment, it is important to not only consider performance but the overall user experience as well. Overflowing waste receptacles and clogged toilets are the unfortunate byproducts of paper towels in restrooms. Additionally, paper towels and the dispensers they are housed in are equally prone to harbor germs.
While the most important part of hand washing hygiene is in the soap and water, a group of students in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at the State University of New York/University of Buffalo found something else. Using cotton swabs to collect bacteria samples on hand-crank paper towel dispensers, the study group found six times more bacteria growing on the cranks than on an air dryer. This was in addition to an energy-use assessment that found the air dryer required $28 of electricity per year compared to $900 in energy consumed by paper towels. The study took second place in the 2014 New York State Pollution Prevention Institutes R&D Student Competition.
So bathrooms are proving to be less of a problem than before. The very objective numbers are there to prove it.
Timeline: How the PCR process works
William Gagnon of Excel Dryer shared with us how the process of achieving a Product Category Review unfolded:
Step 1 (October 2014) – Gagnon shared results (from Excel’s previous studies) and engaged with UL Environment to explore the PCR project and process.
Step 2 (November 2014) – Gagnon contacted upper management of competitor companies to enlist their involvement. Information-sharing was historically not the norm in the industry.
Step 3 (November 2014) – The two other leading hand dryer manufacturers, World Dryer and FASTDRY (Hokwang Industries,) agreed to join the process because “they also felt they were competing with other substandard products using unsubstantiated claims,” said Gagnon. The three leading hand dryer manufacturers achieved the necessary Industry Consensus per PCR and ISO protocols.
Step 4 (December 2014) – UL Environment hosted the PCR kick off call with the consortium of hand dryer companies to start the PCR-creation process.
Step 5 (August 2015) – Research was conducted and submitted to the PCR Expert Review Panel and subject to a 30 Day Open Review Period. SGS, NSF, Dyson and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) submitted comments for review.
Step 6 (February 2016) –UL Environment and the PCR committees reviewed and addressed all comments from the Expert Review Panel and Public.
Step 7 (April 2016) – Final Expert Review Panel review and approval.
Step 8 (July 2016) – Results announced explaining that the PCR is essential for manufacturers to develop Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).
Step 9 (future) – “The PCR is a living document,” says Gagnon. “It’s reviewed annually as an incentive to keep up performance levels, surpass current energy efficiencies and ultimately be of benefit to buildings.”
Modern Bathrooms, Modern Problems, Modern Solutions
In 2011 Scientific American magazine made note of the fact that flushable toilets saved humanity from diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever, ultimately making modern cities (and healthier people) possible.
So today the bathrooms we have at home make life a lot more bearable. On a larger scale, toilets in airports, office buildings, ballparks, and schools keep people happy and healthy. Still, germs manage to linger simply because of what happens in bathrooms.
Minimizing contact with hard surfaces is everyone’s best defense. That includes avoiding towel dispenses with hand cranks. So clearly a motion-activated hand dryer, particularly those of the high-speed variety, is a step in the right direction.
But there’s another benefit to ditching towels for hot air: People often flush the wrong things down toilets. The Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the efficient and sustainable use of water, conducts studies to determine where water is saved or wasted. The organization found in a comprehensive study that excessive paper, including paper towels, “are the most common causes of clogged toilets.” AWE recommends hot air hand dryers as a solution.
Homeowners who call in a plumber to fix a clogged toilet – almost always due to the wrong things thrown in – pay anywhere between $109 to $273 per incident, according to data compiled by the home services vendors website, Angie’s List. Commercial establishments use their own staff, but the labor costs are presumably proportional.