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What are Touchless Fixtures?

Michael Pollick
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Building designers and maintenance workers face major challenges when it comes to plumbing fixtures in large public buildings. Some patrons may decide not to flush the toilet or urinal after visiting the bathroom. Others may unknowingly leave harmful bacteria or viruses on the knob of the sink or the handle of the toilet. Vandals may decide to stuff paper products into the fixtures, or deliberately leave the faucets running. Even the most conscientious member of the public must make contact with a knob or handle in order to operate the fixture properly.

In order to address this situation, building designers and engineers in the 1980s began to work on fixtures which would not require a human to touch a possibly contaminated handle or knob. Using infrared sensors to detect users, the first 'touchless fixtures' were installed in sports arenas. These touchless fixtures could be set to flush automatically after contact with the infrared beam was broken. Sinks equipped with infrared sensors could send a signal to shut off water to the faucet after a specified time. Patrons could use the toilet and then wash their hands without touching a single handle.

From their earliest use in public sports arenas, touchless fixtures became commonplace in hospitals, schools, prisons and hotels. The infrared technology which drives these fixtures continued to evolve as well. Early touchless fixtures depended on a line-of-sight electronic beam to detect the presence or absence of patrons. Sometimes this resulted in a series of unnecessary flushes as patrons moved in and out of the beam's range. A reflective surface such as a mirror or metal door also affected the fixture's performance. Maintenance workers had to avoid activating the beam while cleaning the fixtures. Modern touchless fixtures are more discriminating, using advanced electronic sensors connected to processing units hidden in closets or walls.

Touchless fixtures are still primarily used in larger public facilities, where the behavior of individual patrons cannot be anticipated. Even if only one percent of the arena's population decides to leave a hot water faucet running or a toilet unflushed, this can prove to be a costly problem. The initial expense of installing touchless fixtures is often recouped by the savings in paper products, water heating and plumbing repairs.

Smaller facilities and private homes, where the behavior of most guests can be monitored, would probably not benefit as much from the technology. There are touchless fixtures available at a consumer level, but these are primarily intended for high-end kitchens and bathrooms. Ultra-modern homes may use the same infrared presence-sensing technology to activate self-opening doors or security systems, however. The idea of not touching an appliance or fixture in order to operate it does have a futuristic appeal, so touchless technology may become much more common in years to come.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon55031 — On Dec 04, 2009

@anon29979: I really have to disagree with your theory. While it IS true that using antibacterial soaps, etc. can be very bad, when we talk about toilets and bathroom fixtures we are talking about the potential for e coli and other serious infections, not 'minor' infections. Our bodies cannot build up an immunity to e coli or hepatitis, etc. These can be life-threatening, and are easily spread by poor sanitation practices.

Personally I am paranoid about public bathrooms. I always carry tissues in case there are no paper towels, because I don't want to touch the faucets or doors. Catching something from a toilet seat is unlikely, but touching things with your hands is the most common disease vector.

By anon29982 — On Apr 12, 2009

I have noted that some public commodes have not been flushed. Another that commode seats in men's restrooms are often wet-if women used these, they would not complain that the seat was up.

By anon29979 — On Apr 12, 2009

Touchless fixtures are both sad and, strangely, bad for health.

Minor infections such as those which may result from touching a bathroom faucet are unlikely to result in serious health problems, but have an upside in activating our natural defenses. Inoculation against disease works by introducing a small infection which the body then learns to attack and defeat next time.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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