Plumbing Trends: Sensor Faucets
Many times when PM reports on sensor or electronic faucets we use the term “hands-free”: An infrared sensor activates a solenoid valve and water flow by passing an object (hands) in front of the fixture. This type of singular technology serves the commercial and industrial markets well. Faucets are easy to maintain, vandal-resistant and conserve water.
But as electronic faucets have become the norm in public washrooms and lavatories, users are also looking for the convenience of “smart” fixtures in their own homes.
However, “hands-free” alone may not cut it at the kitchen sink. The dynamics of how end-users cook and prepare food - and wash up afterward - has required residential faucet manufacturers to rethink the available sensing technology to make it a better fit for kitchen applications.
One brand, Brizo®, unveiled its smart kitchen faucet at this year's International Builders' Show. The Pascal™ Culinary Faucet with Smart Technology from Brizo acts more like a “personal assistant” than a typical faucet, says Bob Rodenbeck, product manager, research and development for Brizo. Conceiving Pascal was the result of demographic and ethnographic studies performed by the company with the collaboration of a design firm. The studies involved filming and observing the way end-users interact in the kitchen.
“Some interesting things were found,” says Rodenbeck. For instance, people were discovered to use their elbows and other body parts to operate the kitchen faucet, especially after handling raw meats and carrying large pots. Also, while washing dishes and clean up, the water was left running for long periods of time.
“This helped us discover an opportunity for innovation, in conservation, ease-of-use and hygiene,” Rodenbeck says. But the research told the designers very quickly that the traditional approach of electronic faucet technology wouldn't work. Pascal instead combines both hands-free and touch-control technology to get the best of both worlds. Users can activate water flow by either “tapping” the faucet, using the hands-free option or operating the traditional single-lever handle. Pascal also integrates a pull-down spout feature for added convenience. The pull-down function also activates water flow, and when retracted, turns off the water.
In typical electronic faucets, an infrared sensor determines if the field has been intercepted by an object (hands). But Pascal uses programmable position sensitive detection (PSD), which sets a range in which to detect how far away an object is to activate the water and is unaffected by lighting, color or texture.
In the case of Pascal, the whole faucet is the sensor, and can differentiate between moving and static objects, which allows for increased flexibility. Water temperature and flow is set by Pascal's manual valve. Water delivery is the same each time the sensor options are activated. But figuring out the “water work space” in a residential kitchen took some engineering.
“The kitchen sink brings in a whole different dynamic,” Rodenbeck says. “There are varying water levels to consider; objects, such as stacked dishes and other items, entering the sensor field; as well as many more 'shiny' objects to contend with that sometimes mess with electronic sensor reading.”
The Pascal technology is a blending of proprietary Brizo technology as well as off-the-shelf components. The company worked closely with its suppliers to get the product just right. “It's the optimization of all the technology available that's key,” Rodenbeck says. “Pascal is unique because it is more responsive and intuitive to the user.”
For installers, it is a basic two-hole mount faucet with electric components - three color-coded cables are plugged in with a battery pack or AC adapter. A plumber just needs to ground the wires (a copper pipe does the trick), and it's done.
Brizo sees many benefits to this new type of kitchen fixture. For starters, the ease-of-use and convenience factor of an electronic faucet in the kitchen means it has universal appeal for active cooks, but also those with physical challenges, such as arthritis. Sanitation concerns when handling food are eliminated, since water can be activated without using contaminated hands. Finally, energy and water conservation is maximized, since built-in time-outs automatically turnoff water flow within two seconds once the object (or hands) are removed from under the spout. With less hot water running unnecessarily, less energy is consumed.
Pascal's design and functionality speaks to many different market segments: the emerging cooking-at-home market, “greenies,” universal design, home automation, hygiene awareness, etc. But Brizo found that for these markets, an emotional connection was made between the user and the product.
“Homeowners have a positive response to Pascal. It's interactive. It's an emotion-inducing product,” says Rodenbeck, who admits that the best way to understand this type of faucet is to experience it. Select showrooms will feature Pascal in April. It will be available nationally this fall, so the contractor can better convey the features and benefits to clients.
The company recently beta-tested Pascal on professional chefs in their homes. Pascal was positively received and users began to perceive it as a kitchen helper, offering flexibility to the tasks at hand. “It takes about two weeks to get used to, because we all have our habits that need adjusting,” Rodenbeck says. “But after two weeks, it silently changes the way you do things.” It wasn't unusual for the testers to admit to “tapping” other faucets, expecting the same ease-of-use from them as well. “The functionality of this faucet becomes habitual.”