Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why I Hate Restroom Hand Dryers

1. They fail at their primary function: actually getting my hands dry.

2. And they take too much time in failing. Thank goodness for blue jeans. (Tip: dry your hands on the lower legs of your jeans, so you don’t get wet spots all around your waist and crotch.)

3. They are alleged to be more hygienic than hand towels. I don’t buy that for a second, because they “dry” your hands by blasting them with recirculated air from the restroom itself. You didn’t think there was a canister of fresh air hidden behind the wall, did you? And guess what’s probably floating around in the restroom air. That’s right, tiny particles of you-know-what. (I will concede that the hand dryer is nonetheless hygienically preferable to the continuous-roll-of-cloth machine.)

4. They are alleged to be environmentally friendly because they “save trees.” This is nonsense. Okay, not total nonsense – you do in fact have to kill trees to make paper towels – but nonsense in any sense relevant to the environment. Trees are a renewable resource, and that means higher demand for paper products results in the planting of more trees. The more paper consumers are expected to use, the more incentive tree farmers have to expand their acreage. By decreasing the demand for hand towels, hand dryers actually diminish the number of trees in the world.

There is the solid waste issue, I suppose. Paper towels end up in landfills. But so what? The main concern with putting paper in landfills is the potential for dyes and bleaches to leach into the soil or groundwater; but since paper towels are usually unbleached brown, I suspect that’s not a big problem here. In any case, if we’re going to look at the wider environmental impact – as opposed to the ridiculous “killing trees” issue cited by the hand dryer advocates – then we have to consider the electricity used to power the dryers. If some or all of the electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, that raises potential concerns about air pollution and global warming. In the wider scheme, if hand dryers produce any net benefit to the environment relative to hand towels, it’s far from obvious and has nothing to do with saving trees.

And let me say it again: they don’t even get your hands dry!

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

They are far easier on the maintenance end of things. You don't have to stock them, empty overflowing trash bins, pick them up off the floor, etc.

As a user, I detest them. But facilities people - understandably - absolutely love them.q

Glen Whitman said...

Agreed. I assume the establishments with hand dryers have good cost-related reasons for installing them. What irks me is their attempt to pass off their decision as hygienically or environmentally superior.

M said...

Worst of all, in a hand-dryer regime, you aren't able to use a paper towel to cover the handle of the door when you open it to leave. Just think how filthy the handles of the bathroom door must be! By touching the door handle with your bare hands, you make your hands even dirtier than they were before you washed them.

Matthew Brown said...

One local establishment has a high-speed air dryer that lets out such a blast of air that the skin on your hands ripples and moves around. These at least manage to dry your hands, though of course they don't address the other problems.

Every paper towel buried in landfill is carbon dioxide taken from the air and buried, through means of a tree. Can't think of a better way to fight CO2 buildup than that.

Anonymous said...

When I wash my hands in a restroom, I usually splash water on my face -- which I then want to wipe off with a paper towel. Even a powerful hand dryer (which is usually at chest level and only points downwards) is useless for drying the face.

The Sounds of Music said...

Running out of toilet paper in a public restroom is a cardinal sin. Can you imagine having to stick your butt in front of one of those hand dryers to dry it off. You failed to mention that contorted, gross prospect.

I can imagine a positive for hand dryers: they drown out the sound of someone farting whilst defecating. Because I'd rather listen to music than the sound of passing gas, I keep my Ipod with me in the john.

Daniel said...

Glen, you really need to find a bathroom with the XLerator hand dryer. http://www.exceldryer.com/Products/xlerator.asp

They are great because unlike the standard hand dryer, they actually dry your hands.

Andrew said...

The vacuum cleaner folks over at Dyson have made a product called the Airblade.

I encountered one at a movie theater last month. They are loud, but they actually work. My hands were dry in ten seconds.

d said...

Restroom hand dryers not only blow, they suck. They might work in arid climates, but in humid areas they are all but useless. And yes, I've tried the various super-charged versions, and they are not much of an improvement. Is it really necessary for me to have my hearing damaged in order to dry my hands? C-fold paper towels rule!

Windypundit said...

They say that hot air dryers are more sanitary than paper towels...So how come every doctor's office and hospital uses paper towels?

Anonymous said...

Wet paper tissue pulp is perfectly suitable for recycling into - paper tissues, and paper tissues are what it's best to make from paper that's already been recycled to the point where the fibres in the paper are too short to make other higher grade paper.

Anonymous said...

Well I hate them as well but before you consider the enviornmental impact you need to consider the manufacturing and shipping costs as well.

How did the paper towels get to the bathroom every week. Did they come on a truck that burns fossil fuel?

Jim said...

The Xcelerator brand is actually awesome at drying. Revelatory.That doesn't answer ALL your complaints though.

Phelps said...

The issue with them is maintenance. They only work if they are blowing lots of dry air over your hands. That is what the heating elements are really for -- to lower the relative humidity by raising the temperature.

The problem is when they aren't maintained. Motors weaken, elements get covered with dust, filters get clogged, all of which lowers the airflow.

Hand dryers are great... for about a month after they last saw maintenance. And you probably aren't really getting your hands dry with paper towels. You are just knocking off the majority of the big droplets. Your hands are still damp, and you'll know it if you walk out into someplace really cold.

Anonymous said...

The other problem with hand dryers is the ratio of dryers to sinks. Typically you see no more than 1 dryer to 2 sinks. This is probably the reverse of what it should be: 2 dryers to 1 sink, since it takes at least twice as long to dry your hands with one than it did to wash them.

Sam said...

One local establishment has a high-speed air dryer that lets out such a blast of air that the skin on your hands ripples and moves around. These at least manage to dry your hands, though of course they don't address the other problems.

We have those (XLerator is I think the brand), and they are incredibly efficient. A few seconds and you're done (although the skin crawling over your bones from the force of the air is rather creepy!).

The usual sort is completely useless.


Every paper towel buried in landfill is carbon dioxide taken from the air and buried, through means of a tree. Can't think of a better way to fight CO2 buildup than that.


Umm, just bury the tree, without going through all the palaver of making paper?

Shawn Levasseur said...

The newer high speed blow driers are great, and do the job well.

What I'm more worried about is these new "no flush" urinals that don't use water. That can't be good.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the problem. Hardly anyone actually washes their hands in a bathroom that only has blow dryers. This not only saves paper and electricity, but also saves water.

Oh, don't tell me you object to people not washing their hands after going to the bathroom. If that were important, our government public health officials would long since have banned these restroom blow dryers. :)

Salvatore said...

I hated hand dryers (at least the ones you find in the US and in Europe) until a recent trip to Japan where I discovered these U-shaped (to collect the excess water), high-powered (with the air flow creating a thin line of hot air) dryers. You place your hands all the way in the unit to your wrist and you slowly pull them out as the hot air blows off the excess water and dries your hands. I don't remember the maker of the unit, but it really did work fast and it dried my hands perfectly.

John said...

If hand dryers upset you then you are too busy and your life is too stressed.

Aaron Kangas said...

Amen! I have never heard someone with whom I share views so closely on this very important subject.

Also, don't forget, that if any of that you-know-what floating around in the air has any living bacteria with it, it then gets sucked into a place where it can be kept warm and wet.

Steve said...

Glen,

I think the biggest hygiene issue that makes hand dryers inferior to paper towels is the unintended consequence of people not washing their hands at all when confronted with a hand dryer. I have observed this many times and have on a few occasions been guilty of it myself when in a hurry. One reason I hate McDonalds' restrooms is because they almost always have hand dryers and nothing else.

Steve

Anonymous said...

Actually I quite like hand dryers. Nice on cold days, or on warm days when the air conditioning is too high.

Jonathan said...

We were in Europe for a couple of weeks in October and I have to tell you, the 230V hand dryers work much better, though I think I got a Close Encounters-esque sunburn from them on my mitts.

Anonymous said...

I came across this article while researching paper towels and hand dryers. I have to say that I disagree with you on several points.

You stated "higher demand for paper products results in the planting of more trees". I beg to differ. A quarter of the forest lost in the last 10,000 years has been destroyed in the last 30 years.North America destroys 10,000 square kilometers of ancient forests every year. (Green Peace) Yes, tree are a renewable resource. The problem is that we are cutting them down faster than they can grow back.

You said, "The more paper consumers are expected to use, the more incentive tree farmers have to expand their acreage." Most logging occurs in forestland, not on tree farms (like the ones people go to for your Christmas trees). The fact is that though trees are replanted, the ecosystem will never be the same. The trees are planted in such uniformity, with little biodiversity. Just because the demand for paper goes up, doesn't necessarily mean more trees are planted. It means more trees are logged.

As far as landfills go, the paper towels are put in them, so therefore they take up space. We don't want more landfills; we want less. People in the U.S. use 2.5 million paper towels annually. Sure, many paper towels are brown, but there are white paper towels too.

According to the Environmental Resources Management, paper towel production makes 35 % more acid rain and 286% more greenhouse gas emissions than hand dryers. You don't take into account the consequences of the production of the paper towels.

I do not deny that hand dryers use electricity which is often produced by coal burning power plants or hydroelectric dams (which create their own problems). In fact, it would probably be better is we just dried our hands on our jeans.

As for the hygiene issue, I don't see how blowing germs that you've already been exposed to is much of an issue. Maybe, it's more of a psychological issue.

You might wait for the hand dryer to dry your hands instead of giving up.

There I go, I've said my piece and I have no doubt that it will not be taken seriously.

Glen Whitman said...

You stated "higher demand for paper products results in the planting of more trees". I beg to differ. A quarter of the forest lost in the last 10,000 years has been destroyed in the last 30 years.North America destroys 10,000 square kilometers of ancient forests every year. (Green Peace)

You need to distinguish between forest lost due to demand for paper and forest lost for other reasons. It's certainly true that a lot of forestland has been cleared for purposes like farming and urban development. But demand for paper increases the incentive for forest planting, so it should have a offsetting effect. I'm not saying that forests haven't declined worldwide, only that demand for paper isn't the reason.

Also, while we have less forest land in the U.S. now than we did 30 years ago, we have more than we did 100 years ago (source). Why has it declined over the last 30? Probably because we now outsource some of our forest growth to other countries. But that doesn't change the fact that globally, demand for paper increases the incentive to grow trees somewhere.

What would change that fact, potentially, is that lots of forest is either commons property or state-owned. In situations like those, no one has a strong incentive to replant. This is an argument for privatizing forestland.

As far as landfills go, the paper towels are put in them, so therefore they take up space. We don't want more landfills; we want less.

It's a myth that we're running out of landfill space. The only reason statistics seem to show that is that most landfills are planned to last only 5 or 10 years, so it will always seem like most of the space will be filled in that amount of time. But there is still plenty of space for new landfills, as long as we're willing to pay for them and to ship our trash far enough.

I do think, though, that the incentives need to be right. Individuals and businesses should have to pay for their trash disposal. This is an argument for privatizing garbage service, instead of city governments provide it for free.

According to the Environmental Resources Management, paper towel production makes 35 % more acid rain and 286% more greenhouse gas emissions than hand dryers. You don't take into account the consequences of the production of the paper towels.

I didn't claim to do a comprehensive analysis. I'll concede that it's possible, all things considered, that hand dryers harm the environment less. What I challenged was the notion that hand towels are bad because they create demand for trees. If hand towels are bad for the environment on net, it's not because hand towels use up trees; on the contrary, the encouragement of planting ought to be counted among the benefits of hand towels. (Hence my bottom line in the original post: "In the wider scheme, if hand dryers produce any net benefit to the environment relative to hand towels, it’s far from obvious and has nothing to do with saving trees.") I would be very curious to know whether ERM did the math right on this one.

As for the hygiene issue, I don't see how blowing germs that you've already been exposed to is much of an issue. Maybe, it's more of a psychological issue.

I would think that more time spent in the restroom environment, with more air being blown upon my hands, would lead to more exposure. How much more, I don't know. I do know, however, that some hand dryer companies are trying to develop new models precisely to address this issue -- so it seems they must recognize it as a problem, at least in terms of consumer perceptions.

There I go, I've said my piece and I have no doubt that it will not be taken seriously.

Give your intellectual opponents more credit. We are not all horrible people -- sometimes we just have different values or different models of how the world works.

Anonymous said...

An observation not mentioned yet is the fact that many people shake the excess water off of their hands while they are heading for the dryer or in a hurry and want to speed up the process. The floor becomes slippery and very dangerous not to mention dirty. How much money is saved after a slip and fall lawsuit?

Anonymous said...

1) While there are many infuriatingly slow hand dryers out there, the new ones are very fast and much more effective.

2) You actually make an argument that cutting down trees to make paper towels will result in more trees? Are you insane?

3) Did you know that hand dryers take less than half the energy to dry your hands than it takes to make the paper towels that they replace? Making paper towels is a very energy intensive process that also uses a lot of chemicals and emits pollutants. Hand dryers are by far better for the environment.

4) There has never been a test done that shows that hand dryers blow "you know what in the air". The air that comes out of a hand dryer is the same as the air thatt you are already breating. Don't spread sill paranoia. Dyson has one that filters the air, but then people also throw things into it and that creats a mess. Hand dryers are more hygenic because you don't have wet, dirty paper towels lying around the rest room, clogging sinks and toilet.

Glen Whitman said...

"You actually make an argument that cutting down trees to make paper towels will result in more trees? Are you insane?"

The insanity in question is called "basic economics." Do you agree that the demand for beef results in farmers raising more cattle? The argument is precisely the same.

The number of trees in the world is not fixed. People can and do plant new trees all the time, with the purpose of cutting them down to make paper. This is not just speculation; it is fact.

Charlotte W. said...

I found this blog as I was trying to learn more about the mega turbo dryers that were just installed at our senior center. I didn't notice the brand name. Thanks for all of your comments on this subject.

But I want to tell you whippersnappers (ha) that this type of super charged hand dryer is not appropriate for the more fagile skin of an elderly person. Our dopey senior center manager ordered these powerful hand dryers for all of the renovated restrooms at our large senior center. Its one of her most stupid decisions.

Those darned code verifcations are too hard to read. Grrrrrrrr

Anonymous said...

See you all are mistaken if you really believe that ALL hand driers "recirculate the air in the bathroom" That is true of many installs but many newer installs are ducted from outside of the bathroom meaning that it is air coming to the bathroom for the first time! So even though there is still gunge collecting (as does on ALL fans and blower components) on the blower fan blades and the sides of the ducts at least it's not germy bathroom gunge. I believe that nowadays building codes (at least for certain installs and/or certain cities and states) outlaw the old germy style handrier ... check your own location and drier model number to see if it is the cleaner type AND that the installation has the air coming from outside of the restroom! (could be from the roof, through an exterior wall, or even from a seperate above cieling area or other room depending on code and construction quality) if it's important to you, find out!

Anonymous said...

you have to much free time. if the hand dryers upset you then take a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket.

Anonymous said...

you have to much free time. if the hand dryers upset you then take a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket.

RebeccaMA said...

I know this is an old post, but it is a rant I am just about to post on my own blog. I guessed that someone had already posted this rant somewhere though, and sure enough you have. Well said though. This is a great topic, and one that strikes close to home for me now that I am potty training a 2 year old. Paper towels she can deal with, but big scary machines that blow hot air and make lots of noise are a little harder to cope with. Thanks! And a lot of the other comments are good too.

J. Burnettle said...

Glen - I think that you must have funny hands that stay wet! Mine dry quite quickly!

Anonymous said...

you're fucking stupid. hand dryers are the shit

Chris Berl said...

Saying that cutting down trees makes more trees on the planet is inane. You might think it makes sense because "If a lot of people eat broccoli then there will be more broccoli growing," is true. BUT broccoli has a life cycle of a month or so whereas a tree has a a life cycle of many, many years. There's a huge difference. We just don't have the resources to repopulate forests all the time. Plus the manufacturing of paper towels creates a LOT of pollution and actually uses more energy than we use when we dry our hands with hand dryers. The fact of the matter is that one of the easiest and best ways to help the environment is to use hand dryers. Of course I am biased, I run a company that sells World Dryer hand dryers (and they have perhaps the most energy efficient high speed hand dryer - the AirForce.

Glen Whitman said...

Chris Berl -- Yes, trees have a long life cycle. So what? Fine wines also have a long life cycle, but if more people demand fine wines, more of them get produced. At worst, the life cycle means that it takes longer to respond to sudden jumps in demand. But any sustained increase in demand leads to a higher return to tree planting. (Also, there are some types of trees that grow relatively fast.) The fact is that there is more forested land in the U.S. now than there was 100 years ago.

As for the other types of pollution, you may be right. I would need to see the numbers. But if that's the real argument, World Dryer should say it. Instead, World Dryer leans heavily on the "we save trees" argument, which displays ignorance of basic economics.

Chris Berl said...

Thanks for the return comment. I know this debate has been raging for a while on this site!

If you do a little research (I have in the past but don't have the time at this moment.) You will see that paper towel manufacturing creates a lot of pollution. A lot of CO2 is produced and energy used. World Dryer does promote this - you can see this on their website:

* The production of paper towels is twice as energy-intensive as the use of hand dryers and creates more greenhouse gases.
* Paper Towels can be made from recycled paper, but they are not recycled. They create millions of cubic feet of waste in landfills.
* It takes more energy to produce to papaer towels than it does to run a typical high speed hand dryer cycle.
* To make one ton of recycled paper, it takes 7,000 gallons of water, 158 million BTUs of energy; and 60 pounds of pollutants go into the atmosphere.
* Over its lifetime, just one hand dryer will produce 3.0 tons less CO2 than the production of the towels it replaces. (4.6 tons vs 1.6 tons of CO2)
* A school using 30 hand dryers saves one ton, or 17 trees worth of paper towels per year.
* The United States Postal Service identified hand dryers as the single most cost and waste reduction alternative in their Pollution Prevention Study.

I would like to see more about your 100 year statistic. Are there more trees now because agriculture is more efficient and there is less space that had been previously cleared for farms? How does the number of trees in the US now compare to 500 years ago? Another thing to consider is the devastation created by logging. Have you ever seen an area that has been clear-cut? Yuck.

Final plug - for high speed hand dryers in Europe, go to Bavada .

.

Anonymous said...

I found this website by googling "I hate Glen", because my boyfriend is called Glen and I hate him but it turns out I hate you more then I hate him. The hours you spend on the computer writing rubbish like this uses more electricity then these so called evil hand dryers. Get a life.

Glen Whitman said...

Anon -- would that be more or less than the amount of electricity you spent doing a web search for something as inane as "I hate Glen"?

Syncopation said...

Good day, all!

Glen, you have delivered a well-worded rant against hand dryers. I applaud your lucidity and honesty. Thank you.

That said, I feel compelled to post, for the environment and for people on both sides of the invective stream.

First, to all who let sharp words dominate their lexical blitzes, please refrain from insulting people. This does absolutely nothing for the conversation. If anything, it is anti-conversational; people become offended, close off, and refuse to consider whatever reasonable portions your comment contains. If your comment contains no trace of these, hindsight would likely deem it wiser to not make it. Choose to preempt hindsight. (I couldn't resist the word play; I apologize if that's a little denser than it needs to be.)

Second, we have Xlerator hand dryers at the public library here in town, which happens to be a silver level LEED certified building. Beside the dryers is posted a graph detailing their cost comparison to other paper towels. 1000 uses of paper towels, whether from virgin or recycled material, costs $20. 1000 uses of an Xlerator costs $0.50 (50 cents).

They are 40 times more cost effective. That's a plus from the consumer's side, certainly.

Environmentally speaking, planting trees with the intention of converting them to paper does not aid reforestation. A forest is not a simple collection of trees; it includes a massive degree of biodiversity, both seen and unseen. Well-manicured tree farms may provide occasional stopovers for traveling birds, or soil for some burrowers or microbes and fungi, but this will never achieve the raw dynamic of an untended forest allowed to reach that particular ecosystem's climax community.

A tree planted for harvest will never become an old-growth tree; it will not contribute to the long-term sequestration of carbon. These trees are converted into disposable items, which is a cradle-to-grave approach to resource management. As well, as has been mentioned, producing hand towels requires a great deal of water and energy.

Hand dryers can last for decades with proper maintenance, which means they only require the resources necessary to produce them that one time, and the comparatively small amount of parts to replace those within them that break or wear down. They derive their drying power not from a resource that we must expend energy to produce (obviously, paper towels), but from the energy itself.

From this perspective, paper towels are like packets of energy made manifest. If we cut out the middle man (aka the need to transport this energy a second time, where the first time was from the power plant to the paper processing facility), so to speak, we diminish a great deal of the waste in the hand-drying production stream.

If energy is all we need to worry about in the hand-drying realm, we have reduced the number of concerns from many (how to sustainably produce trees; what if we have bad years and they all die; how can we reduce the amount of energy needed to harvest, process, and transport these trees turned towels; etc.?) to very few (how can we reform the energy system to rely less on carbon and heavy/toxic-metal spewing inputs?), we have made great strides in finding the core solutions our environment needs us to find.

Options, though yet to become widely cost-effective, already exist to combat coal-based electricity. If a hand dryer draws its output from a solar panel or wind turbine (or perhaps nuclear, though substantiating the validity of this requires a book, which Gwyneth Cravens has so kindly written), coal's place in this equation immediately vanishes.

Preferences aside, as I can reason it given my current understanding, if we absolutely must continue relying on some form of hand-drying for society to hum along nicely, electric hand dryers like the Xlerator, and their less explosively vocal contemporaries and progeny, must continue to replace paper towels.

However, until toilet paper sees its next evolution, I must continue to advocate for it. I highly recommend the options that come from 100% post-consumer content, like that offered by Seventh Generation, or the product Ultra Green makes available (this last which comes from 80% sugar cane fiber, which already figures prominently in the biofuel market in Brazil). I haven't fully explored Ultra Green, but their stuff is biodegradable and appears to be cool.

Hope that contributes to the conversation! May many springs cause your steps to soar!

~Ryan

Anonymous said...

You should check out the Veltia hand dryer. they come in diffrent colors, they are not as loud. they are very effective, and spread less germs. You can view them at www.veltia-usa.com or email me for more information at kevin@goodearthproducts.net

Anonymous said...

I just read a study (in German) that found out that air dryers actually doubled the amount of bacteria on your hands, whereas paper tissues decreased them by 20 to 40%. Cloth rolls decrease them by 4 to 10%... By the way, cloth rolls have to be cleaned chemically and lose ability to take water with time (they get thinner).
Obviously the germs are still on your hands after washing, and it's the ability of a drying tool to absorb the water that takes the germs off your hands. Don't know however what it's like with viruses.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. The only comfortable air dryer I ever encountered was the Dyson Airblade. But it's energy consumption might be questionable.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone ever clean the filters in those hand dryers in public washrooms. Just think about all those bacteria just waiting to be blown on to your hands - - - mmmmm!

bottlethesun said...

These dryers may be circulating “gross bathroom air”, but studies have been done showing the warmer the air temp coming from these dryers, the less bacteria is found on hands after their use.

Male restrooms have a higher fungal count (I’m guessing this has to do with urinals and urinal cakes and probably because a lot of men really DON’T wash their hands after.) than bacteria count. Either way you slice it, I don’t think spreading a fungus or bacteria is better than the other.

This is a very informative article: http://sps.nus.edu.sg/~cheongji/TDSC2172-all.PDF

Also, I don’t know that paper towels are all the more hygienic. Think of everything they touch on the way to the dispenser…did the person restocking the paper towels go right from scrubbing toilets to touching the clean paper towels….and were those hands washed before touching the paper towels? Where did the PT’s come from? I’m certain the further they came from, the more bacteria exposure they’ve had. Most places with paper towel dispensers have the ones you need to push a button or the knob you have to turn. When was the last time that was cleaned? By touching that first, then using a paper towel to rub all over your hands, your spreading germs all over yourself, whether it’s touching your face or your neck or even another person. Surely you’d be better off by a touch-free, hot air hand dryer (I’m talking an Xcelerator style, not those wimpy old style ones).