Restrooms Clean Up Their Act

Restrooms may account for only five percent of total building space, but they carry nearly 40 percent of the soil load and receive almost 50 percent of the building service complaints, according to statistics at Bob Merkt's fingertips. That's among the reasons K-12 facilities in California by law must now spend three percent of the school district's general fund to establish better maintenance standards.

It's unlikely universities will face the same fire any time soon, experts agree. "Large institutions are actually doing a much better job than K-12," says Merkt, owner of Merkt Educational Group and Associates, a division of Kettle Moraine Professional Cleaners in West Bend, Wis. "And yet even here, the restrooms that faculty, visitors and people giving money to the university use tend to be a bit cleaner than secondary restrooms."

Part of it is merely natural -- college students are beginning to outgrow the need to make a mess or vandalize property in the name of humor. "We notice that restrooms in residence halls, conference areas and classrooms for the master's and doctorate students have less problems than undergraduate," notes Bill Griffin, president of Cleaning Consultant Services, located in Seattle.

But this doesn't mean administrators wiggle off the hook. Merkt's numbers convict: The average person uses a restroom seven times a day, with two of those devoted to bowel movements. Naturally, 100 percent of these users claim they wash their hands during these visits, but tests show only 53 percent are telling the truth. When caught, 35 percent of the fibbers say they didn't have time; 29 percent were concerned with the restroom's cleanliness; eight percent didn't like touching the fixtures. Nearly 40 percent of users flush the toilet with their feet, 60 percent say they don't sit on the toilet and 30 percent of Americans avoid using public restrooms under any circumstances.

Not exactly a picture of contentment, especially when you factor in that today's youth are more germ-phobic than previous generations, says James O'Connor, spokesperson for Technical Concepts in Mundelein, Ill.

"And when restroom facilities aren't maintained at an acceptable level, people tend to trash them more readily," offers Griffin. "For instance, when the place isn't clean, we find people spitting or worse on the walls. Most people don't want to be the first one to make a mess, but they don't mind adding to it."

That's why many universities try to squeeze the most from their restroom maintenance strategies. Automatic, or touch-free, is the watchword for everything from toilets to spigots and, for the truly cutting edge, even soap dispensers. Unfortunately, these options initially price from two to three times higher than their traditional counter-parts, so maintenance staffs need to focus on overall savings in water, supply, repair and labor.

Overall, administrators can count on a 41-percent total annual return on investment. Some savings are easy to see: traditionally people use 30 in. of paper to dry their hands, can dispensers that only release one sheet at a time cut that usage down to 15 in., Merkt says, because few people have the patience to stand there pulling down wads of paper. Automatic faucets reduce water usage by as much as 70 percent each.

But the automatic advantages lie still deeper. People who don't have to turn off faucets don't create puddles across the counter. The newer soap dispensers hang into the sink so that if they do drip, the liquid runs down the sink drain and not all over the floor. Staff can program toilets to flush periodically during holiday breaks to circulate the cleaning fluids and prevent hard water from building hard-to-clean rings during nonuse.

"And when they don't have a reason to kick the toilet flusher, you don't risk damaging the valve," O'Conner points out.

The other big news evolves around the rising popularity of self-contained pressurized washing systems. A staff need only precondition the fixtures with sanitizing solution, protect paper products, and walk away while the machine blasts out germs hiding everywhere from sinks to mirrors, and every crack and crevice in between. The water and cleaning fluids flow to the drains in the floor. "Universities are gobbling it up," assures Merkt. "First of all, the self-esteem and prestige of restroom cleaners just went up about tenfold. Nothing is more disgusting than having to get on your hands and knees and work around a toilet." One Ohio public school system saved 61 percent in labor alone with such a system.

Competition in the marketplace means the cost of these systems are plummeting while the their legitimacy skyrockets.

"And frankly, I don't see anybody getting bigger budgets," Griffin laughs. "What I do see, though, is people being more efficient. When you use some of this equipment and products, it reduces the need for such frequent cleaning and makes the process more productive."

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