For people obsessed with technology, certain changes can still blow by us.
Consider paper towel dispensers.
Over the past year, I’ve noticed the dispensers in public washrooms have increasingly gone from the kind you crank or push or grab to the kind you wave your hand under. Not all, but a number, including — most significantly, for my purposes — the ones in our building at 350 N. Orleans.
This struck me as odd, since an electronic device to detect a fluttering hand and spit out a length of towel is obviously more complex, expensive and prone to breakage than a simpler mechanical system.
After gesturing out my towels for a few months, it struck me that I had no idea of the economics at work here. It must be like computer printers — they practically give printers away to make money on all those pricy ink cartridges, a business model I think of as the Barbie Clothes Paradigm.
“No, it’s not,” said John Drengler, a vice president of product and marketing with SCA Tissue North America, makers of our Tork paper towel dispensers. “We’re not even selling the paper. If we’re really doing the job, we’re selling improved cost and usage. We’re actually helping you consume less.”
If the goal were merely to offer a system to use up the most Wisconsin paper, all their dispensers would be the kind where you grab individual paper towels, in theory, since in practice everyone ends up grabbing a handful, so they empty quickly in high-traffic areas, and either customers are complaining the dispensers are always empty or custodial staff are complaining they’re always refilling them.
“If you had that situation, you’d call your distributor and say, ‘Get this junk out of here,’ ” said Drengler. “That’s why it’s so important, before that system goes in, that we are involved with the distributor, trying to understand what’s going on. As much as it’s a mundane category, bathrooms are pretty critical to the operation of an organization.”
Thus a wide variety of dispensers are offered, for various needs and usage loads.
“Our products, as much as we want to romanticize them, are essential hygiene products,” said Drengler. “Though often they’re only noticed when they’re not performing. People ask: ‘Where are the hand towels?’ ”
Hands-free towel dispensers arrived about six years ago, evolving from hands-free soap dispensers and faucets, which originated in hospitals. It made no sense to turn a spigot, wash your hands, then grasp the same grimy knob hundreds of dirty hands have touched.
“Hygiene is a big factor in the evolution of towel dispensers,” said Drengler. “The hygiene aspect is a huge part of transformation from cranks and levers to hands-free, the whole touch-free washroom.”
If economical dispensing were the only factor, all bathrooms would have those enormous spools found in sports venues. But bathrooms — even office bathrooms — also have a mood.
“We want things as sublime, as built into the aesthetic of washrooms as possible,” Drengler said, using two words not often associated with towel dispensers. “Home trends are spilling into work. We spend so much time at work, we don’t want an environment hostility different than what our home is like.”
In an era concerned with waste, you’d think paper towels would lose out to air dryers. I was impressed with Drengler’s riff on the dangers of dryers.
“The issue with air dryers is bacteria,” he said, with utter conviction. “That warm air is blowing bacteria around. There are tests on that.”
Meanwhile, paper towels not only don’t do that, the friction makes your hands even cleaner. “You’re really rubbing the bacteria and the dirt off with the paper.”
Plus, there’s the waiting factor with dryers.
“Many many times you’ll find paper towel dispensers right beside air dryers,” said Drengler.
“The air dryers were there first, the paper towels came in because people were complaining, ‘It takes forever to dry my hands,’ or the wiring went and was never fixed.”
Don’t underestimate the problems caused by people standing there, waiting for their hands to dry.
After hygiene, “The other thing important in public washrooms is what we refer to as traffic flow: getting people in and out,” said Drengler. “You want to do your business and get on your way.”
I sure do.
Plus, hand-wave dispensers are just cool.
“With electronics, there’s the ‘gee whiz’ part of it,” said Drengler.
Which is the real reason why my office has them. Our building was sold at the start of the year, about the time the new dispensers were installed, and my hunch is that putting in the dispensers was a corporate form of setting out pretty hand towels in a house you hope to sell.
It must have worked, because 350 N. Orleans was sold for $228 million in January, with fancy new towel dispensers included.
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