No time to waste

Carole Armstrong from Delabie provides specification advice to help schools increase hygiene levels while reducing water wastage, especially following building closures during the pandemic

Social distancing, hand hygiene, Legionella prevention – the new academic year poses some serious challenges. Welcoming students back to the classroom is anything but simple. Year or study groups are now divided into bubbles, requiring exclusive access to facilities; hand sanitising units should be available at entrances; hand washing has increased exponentially; and staggered lunch and break times have modified usage patterns. Specifiers must factor in the new reality in schools and colleges in order to futureproof education facilities.

The fight against bacteria
Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory tract bacterial infection that affects people with chronic respiratory problems and those with a weakened immune system. Legionella bacteria occur naturally in water and develop where there is stagnant water and a source of nutrients, such as infrequently used pipes or rusted water storage tanks. They multiply at temperatures between 20-45°C and can be harmful if inhaled in aerosol form.

All water systems are subject to biofilms – collections of microorganisms that attach to each other and to any surface in contact with water. During recent building closures, if the system is not regularly maintained and flushed, bacteria can easily develop in biofilm. Even the different usage patterns associated with education bubbles may have consequences for the water system. Former low usage areas (such as re-allocated staff toilets) may face more intensive use, while showers in changing facilities may have been moth-balled, resulting in stagnant water in the pipes. An increase in water flow can dislodge waterborne bacteria from even well-established biofilms. Conversely, bacteria will also develop in biofilm found in under-used parts of the system.

The solution is simple: prevent the water from reaching the temperatures at which bacteria multiply and limit water stagnation in the installation. Government guidance recommends regularly flushing pipework. This can be done by opening all taps and allowing the water to flow for a minute. However, manual flushing is labour intensive and expensive.

Washing challenges
Students and teachers now have to wash their hands more frequently: when entering the premises; after every break; before and after every meal, and after every toilet visit, sneeze, cough or nose-blow. NHS guidance on how to wash hands correctly recommends using soap and water where possible, and then drying the hands thoroughly with a disposable paper towel.

But how often do students forget to turn off the tap? Traditional basin taps typically consume 9 litres per minute. If hand washing takes 32 seconds, including wetting, soaping and rinsing, and the tap runs throughout, total consumption is 4.8 litres per use. Typically, we wash our hands four or five times a day, but recently this has risen to at least 12 times a day. The impact on consumption is significant – increasing from 24 litres to 57.6 litres per person per day.

Washing our hands more often takes its toll on washroom facilities. Can taps and soap/gel dispensers cope with this increase in frequency of use? Conventional products have parts that wear more easily, resulting in leaks, wastage and more frequent repairs. And even the most durable mechanisms require maintenance when used intensively. Specifying durable, reliable products that are easy to maintain will guarantee a longer product life for the tap or soap/gel dispenser.

Technical solutions for sustainable hygiene
For ecological reasons, we should minimise over-consumption of water. Compared to traditional basin taps, self-closing mechanical or electronic taps can optimise water usage. They can minimise the water bill without sacrificing user comfort. The valve closes automatically after seconds (mechanical models) or after removing hands from the detection zone (sensor-controlled models), and the flow rate is limited. The user can therefore wet their hands, apply the soap and rinse without the tap running continuously.

Specifiers can prevent water stagnation and avoid bacterial development by choosing electronic taps with a pre-programmed duty flush. An automatic rinse activates every 24 hours after the last use, running for 60 seconds. A piston-operated solenoid valve (rather than one with a rubber membrane – behind which a small amount of standing water always remains) is an additional advantage in the fight against bacterial growth.

For optimal hand hygiene, soap and gel dispensers should be reliable and easy to operate. The push-button on mechanically-operated dispensers must withstand intensive use and regular cleaning and disinfection routines. However, electronic soap dispensers provide the hands-free solution for maximum hygiene.

Hygiene is likely to remain firmly on the public health agenda. Washing hands is an essential weapon in the fight against the spread of germs and bacteria. Those who specify sanitary facilities in the education sector must provide hygienic, water-saving and reliable solutions for students and teachers. By understanding the risks and specifying products designed to address these challenges, the risk of contamination can be easily overcome.

Carole Armstrong is marketing and communications manager at Delabie