Water and electricity go together about as well as … well, electricians and plumbers. But an increasing trend toward battery-operated electronic faucets has put the plumber in command. That factor, plus a host of technological achievements, means great news for the continued growth of this relatively new breed of faucet.

“As the technology improves and the price points continue to drop, the market is bound to expand,” says J. Alexandra Motts, channel manager, Delta Faucet Co. “Typically, electronic faucets were fairly expensive and, therefore, best suited for high-volume areas such as stadiums and airport restrooms. But now with the move to batteries, I think we’ll see electronic faucets used more and more in low- to medium-use markets such as restaurants, gas stations and office buildings.”

Beyond expanding new commercial markets, manufacturers also pointed out additional retrofit possibilities.

“The adjustments in metering faucets often fail — leaving the water on for a half a second or a half an hour.” says John Lauer, manager/installation engineering, Sloan Valve Co. “Electronic faucets, on the other hand, are more reliable in this regard.”

Lauer also sees big possibilities for the industry to borrow technology from of all places — the prison system. A Sloan subsidiary, Programmed Water Technologies, markets a control system that enables prison officials to control a penitentiary’s entire plumbing system. Lauer doesn’t think the time is too far off until building managers will want to manage their plumbing systems to the same degree.

Electronic faucets have always had plenty going for them. The need to conserve water was a primary motivation for the faucets to first enter the commercial market. In the meantime, electronic faucets make it simpler to comply with various ADA laws, too. Finally, hygienic concerns are another big factor.

“Who doesn’t appreciate not touching something that 2,000 other people touched,” sums up Frank Rossi, product manager, Gerberit Manufacturing Inc.

Historically, electronic faucets required hard wiring to operate. Wiring required an electrician, which required two tradesmen to coordinate their busy schedules.

Thanks to battery-operated faucets, the plumber alone can easily do the job. “You eliminate the finger pointing and a lot of the headaches since we’re no longer mixing two trades,” says Jim Fleitz, director/marketing, Speakman Co. “And oftentimes, you needed to work around a third tradesman — the tile contractor.”

Battling Misperceptions: The pressure on the manufacturer was battling the perception that battery-powered electronics required frequent battery changes. Most manufacturers we talked to said this was actually a misperception since battery-powered faucets never required the kind of frequent attention plumbers thought they did.

However, since perception is often reality, manufacturers set about making great strides to extend the life of the batteries — be they lithium or regular everyday “C” batteries.

Speakman, for example, is in the final testing stages of a new model that promises to power up to 500,000 usages before requiring a battery change. At an average use of 200 cycles a day, that’s about five years worth of service from one lithium battery.

One way the company cut power consumption was by using an intermittent beam of infrared light instead of one that’s constantly on. Essentially, the beam is on for 2/10 of a second and off for 8/10 of a second. End-users obviously can’t discern any difference when they place their hands under the faucet.

To further cut consumption, Speakman incorporated a magnet that “captures” the coil that opens the solenoid valve.

No matter how long it is between battery changes, manufacturers have also found ways to make maintenance a much simpler affair. Some manufacturers, for example, have placed the electronics in the body of the faucets. That means no twisting and turning under counters or cabinets. “The only thing you’ll find under the counter with our faucets is the hot and cold water feed,” Rossi says.

Many other manufacturers have also made strides in improving the way electronic faucets work. Sloan Valve, for example, introduced a fiber optic faucet designed to isolate the electronics from the flow of water. Infrared signals are transmitted to and from the faucet through a 2 millimeter fiber optic cable. The faucet also houses a microprocessor that automatically adjusts the faucet’s sensing range, depending on the type, depth or reflectivenss of the sink on which it’s installed. Speakman also has coded the infrared beam of its new still-in-the-testing faucet so it will be triggered by its own beam and won’t misread light signals from other sources. The Chicago Faucet Co. incorporates a motion-detecting sensor on its Eagle Eye line designed to eliminate sensitivity to light, color and reflective surfaces that commonly trigger many electronic faucets.

Keep in mind, hard-wired models still exist. In certain instances, they are the best choice. At least one manufacturer we talked to produces a model in which the power source is completely optional.

“This could be installed as a battery-operated faucet, and later it could be changed to a hardwire; all you’d need to do is change two wires,” says Michele Hudec, director/marketing and general plumbing business manager, The Chicago Faucet Co.

Above all, the goal for most manufacturers was to make technological advancements, yet treat electronic faucets as if they were run-of-the-mill, regular faucets.

“Our electronic faucets literally install like faucets,” Hudec says. The Chicago Faucet Co. introduced its first electronic faucet back in 1982. About 20 of those first-generation faucets are still in use at a children’s hospital in Chicago. The company, however, didn’t find too many customers for electronics back then.

“The industry didn’t become ‘ready’ for electronics until the 1990s,” Hudec adds. “But the technology also has been refined. We’re finding out there is a lot you do in terms of space-saving and efficiency.”

Besides technological advancements, the styling of electronic faucets has the potential to improve to the point that residential customers may want them.

Delta’s Motts says she has already seen evidence that customers will use electronic faucets in low usage rooms such as powder rooms.

“Consumers are already asking for them,” Motts says. “I think it’s only a matter of time. And I think it’s sooner rather than later that we will see electronic faucets in the residential market.”