Manual or Automatic?

November 26, 2007

Automated bathroom systems are becoming the standard for public restrooms. It begins with a toilet that flushes as soon as you alight from the throne. Next comes a dollop of soap dropped into a waving hand, followed by a sink that activates with the presence of scrubbing fingers. A final wave and a square of paper is dispensed, or a hot rush of air removes that last water molecule from damp skin.

But when it comes down to reality, are automatic appliances more sustainable than their manual counterparts? Automated systems never seem to work perfectly. These appliances were supposed to make our lives more sustainable and egalitarian by providing just the right amount for each person, but automatic sensors tend to either over- or under-perform, meaning either denial of service or waste of materials, and maintenance either way.

Automatic flush toilets seem to be the worst offenders. Every wiggle while sitting on the throne seems to trigger the sensor, resulting in a first hand experience of the aerosol effect of a flushing bowl. Even with a low-flow toilet this results in substantial water waste. What’s wrong with a simple flush handle? You’ll be washing your hands in about 15 seconds anyway, and most people use their feet for those low handles. For the rare caveman who doesn’t understand what it means to flush, the person after them can easily rectify the situation, although it’s not a pleasant favor.

Automated sinks, paper towel dispensers, soaps, and hand dryers all have their own difficulties. Of the group, only hand dryers seem to be a reliable option, and have the benefit of eliminating paper towel waste and reducing chafing, as I was so recently reminded by some dryer signage.

These automated appliances are mainly sustainable solutions because they act as compensations for human failures.  They’re there in case we forget to turn something off.  Perhaps it would be better to correct the behavior that is causing the problem rather than design an elaborate system to compensate for it?  What if instead of automating the sink, people just made sure it was off when they finished?  (And for the record, levers make this far easier than knobs)  What if instead of motion sensor lights people just flipped the switch as they left, even if it was a large lecture hall they were dimming?

The conveniences of automation seem to be outweighed by the difficulties that arise when manual control is removed.  There is an oversensitive sink in my building that always seems to be on.  Potable water down the drain.  I would turn it off if only there were a handle!

Watch your behavior this week.  Are you the case study for automated systems manufacturers?  Or do you clean up after yourself?



  1. Hi Laura,

    Being in the design industry I have always been against automatic flush and soap dispensing as they are more a convenience item than a efficiency device and require more resources to produce and run than a normal flush valve or dispensor.

    Automatic taps however, do save water and also prevent overflows in more demanding environments (think junior high schools!), automatic sensor lights also reduce the time a washroom light is on in the run of a day.

    I am loath to admit that automatic hand dryers are the way to go as I prefer the speed of wiping my hands dry.

  2. I would agree that automatic sensor lights are probably a good idea in washrooms because they are generally only used for a few minutes at a time. However, I’m still against them in classrooms, as I have been suddenly plunged into darkness during critiques because the sensor didn’t see any movement from the class. Of course, the need for and issues with automatic lights would be much reduced if designers focused on proper daylighting for spaces.

    Thanks for the comment 🙂

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