A history of the electronic faucet.

While installing plumbing fixtures in airports, restaurants or other high-traffic restrooms, have you ever looked at the hands-free electronic faucets being used and wondered how they were developed? Recent improvements and developments to hands-free electronic faucets have led to increased use in public facilities and private homes as well. As more contractors and specifiers choose electronic faucets for their building and remodeling projects, the inquiries into how these faucets work and when they began appearing on the market have become more common.

Manufacturers began developing hands-free faucets in the early 1970s under the name "proximity faucets." Many companies tried to create faucets that would allow water to flow without use of a handle or push-button, to alleviate people's fears about spreading germs in public restrooms, as well as to make faucet use easier for people with disabilities. Research showed that incorporating an electric power source and a timing function would allow for such a product.

Early product development was largely unsuccessful. The technology used to control water flow was complicated and expensive, and the wiring used to power the faucets made installation difficult. Power regulations during the 1970s also complicated development, as cost of electricity was high, and, without this source, the faucets could not function. With the failure of early electronic products, the industry aimed to improve alternative mechanically timed faucets such as metering faucets.

For nearly a decade, manufacturers put plans for developing electronic faucets on the back burner while they focused on mechanical metering product solutions. The technology for creating a completely hands-free faucet was unaffordable and unreliable, so companies put their research and development funds into creating faucets that limited the use of handles, and allowed a constant stream of water to emit from the spout at a timed interval.

The metering faucet allowed people to wash their hands while minimizing contact with the faucet handle. With a simple push on a cartridge-activated lever, a stream of water would flow, allowing people to wash their hands and not touch the handle again to turn off the water.

Enhanced metering faucets proved to be only a short-term solution to the hands-free issue. While they made usage easier and helped keep bathrooms sanitary, they often malfunctioned due to heavy usage or varying water pressures, causing water to continue to flow after the "timed" cycle or discontinue prior to the minimum required cycle.

Repairing broken faucets often shut down heavy-traffic facilities, leading to frustrated maintenance crews and patrons. Plumbers found replacing broken cartridges and other parts difficult and time consuming, further complicating the repair job. Manufacturers recognized these frustrations were mounting and began looking into electronic options again.

Electronic Breakthrough

Concurrently, a breakthrough in plumbing technology occurred. In the early 1980s, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport underwent a complete renovation. The job included retrofitting the airport's public restrooms with toilets featuring new flush-valve technology, which used sensors to monitor the light level in individual stalls. When an object blocked the sensor, a timer activated and prepared the toilet to flush when the object was removed. Faucet manufacturers studied this technology and realized that if it were modified, it could potentially work in their products.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, many faucet companies created prototype electronic faucets operated by wiring, power source and sensor technology. A big push for the use of sensing faucets came in 1992 when the U.S. government issued the Energy Conservation Act of 1992. This legislation dictated new water use levels for faucets and changed the performance criteria for metering faucets to 1/4 gallon per cycle for any bathroom, thus increasing the need for efficient hands-free products. Electronic faucets that helped conserve water and energy would not only meet the guidelines of the new act, but also create a better product for plumbers and contractors.

Electronic faucet research and development efforts became even more critical with the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Plumbing manufacturers were keenly aware of this legislation, which required all public and commercial buildings/facilities to be equipped with products accessible to handicapped people. They developed products such as grab/slide bars for tub/shower units and faucet handles that required less than 5 pounds of force and no pinching or grasping to activate. With the creation of a sensor faucet, a person would be able to operate it without the use of hands or fingers, making it an ideal ADA compliant product.

In the mid-1990s, with improvements in sensory technology, many faucet companies had either successfully brought an electronic faucet to market, or were developing improved products. The issue was raised about who would be responsible for wiring the faucet during installation. Many wondered whether it was the job of the plumber or the electrician to set up the faucet's power supply. Plumbing contractors believed that total responsibility for the job should be theirs, while electricians took the opposite position. Decisions on this issue differed in various jurisdictions, further complicating matters. Unfortunately, the result was a rejection of electronic sensing by contractors for their projects. Manufacturers realized the need for an alternative power system.

The option of battery packs as a primary, or alternative, power source solved this problem. With the elimination of hardwiring, plumbers could install electronic faucets in less time and without the assistance of an electrician. Additionally, since the product ran on battery power rather than electric currents, it easily could be retrofitted on existing piping. The energy efficiency and cost effectiveness benefits of battery-powered faucets led more organizations to install them in their facilities.

More offices and buildings placed hands-free faucets in their restrooms, and they increased in popularity. As people began to learn of the faucet's hygienic benefits and ease-of-use, the products became much more accepted and requested for use in new building and remodeling projects.

Better With Age

Sensing technology has improved over the years. One of the biggest problems in early electronic faucets was accidental activation due to mirror reflections, or light level changes in a room. Manufacturers, like Delta Faucet Co., developed digitally calibrated electronics that automatically adjust to environmental conditions, preventing false faucet starts while maintaining operational sensitivity.

This same technology allows the faucet to adapt to various sink sizes, shapes and finishes so water continuously flows without interruption. It eliminates the need for manual adjustment of the sensors during installation thus saving valuable time and money.

Gradually spout styles evolved to mimic those offered in popular residential models. Heavy-duty cast brass and decorative coverplates enhance the look of these faucets as well. Most recently, the addition of specialty finishes, such as polished brass and pearl nickel as alternatives to chrome, have provided companies with a step-up option to match other fixtures and fittings in their facilities.

The most recent advancements in sensing technology created two new categories of electronic faucets, Mixing/Metering electronic faucets and Mixing/Sensing hands-free electronic faucets. Since metering faucets have remained popular choices for commercial building projects, manufacturers researched ways to marry this technology with electronic solenoid technology to help eliminate the use of manual mechanical valves.

The result, an electronic Mixing/ Metering faucet that uses touch-button activation to provide 15 seconds of uninterrupted water flow unaffected by water conditions, pressure or temperature. Rather than pushing down on cumbersome spring handles, a user just taps a solenoid-valved button to turn the faucet on.

The addition of an above-deck mixing valve to hands-free electronic faucets has created a product that satisfies users' demands for good-looking, hands-free products with readily available hot/cold adjustment. Mixing/Sensing hands-free electronic faucets not only allow for 30 seconds of continuous water flow, but also allow users to preset, or adjust, the temperature of the water being dispensed to satisfy their needs.

Today, electronic faucets are as much a part of our culture as electric hand dryers and auto-flush toilets. There are even electronic faucets made specifically for the home. Residential hands-free electronic products are ideal for children and the elderly, as they offer a pre-set temperature control that helps prevent scalding injuries from water that's too hot.

Additionally, since these faucets are preset to shut off after approximately 30 seconds, accidental flooding can't occur if a person leaves it running. And, because they are hands-free, they help reduce the spread of germs and keep the vanity area clean.

Further research and development will allow manufacturers to continually roll-out enhanced features that will make electronic faucets more convenient to use, as well as easy to install. As new technologies are created, the electronic faucet will continue to evolve offering new solutions to plumbers' and contractors' needs.