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The rise of smart buildings – and smart washrooms?

We’ve all seen it: washroom queues, dirty or broken facilities, empty soap or toilet paper dispensers. And what kind of image does that leave with you about the place you’re visiting?

The truth is that washrooms leave a lasting impression on visitors to any building. And as more buildings become ‘destinations’, building users, owners and tenants are demanding that impression should be positive. Increasingly, facilities managers (FMs) are looking at smart buildings to reduce operating costs and improve visitor/user experience. But to reach their full potential, building owners and FMs should also consider including the latest technology to create smart washrooms.

What is a smart building?

Smart buildings monitor and control important systems within their structure such as heating, lighting, ventilation and air-conditioning. The aim is to make the building as efficient as possible by minimising costs and optimising energy usage. 

Sensors provide data so that immediate changes can be made, for example, to maintain a predetermined temperature.  Some of these sensors feed automated systems that take actions without human intervention, relying on staff to only set or reset predetermined control parameters. Sensors also provide information for future analysis. This information helps FMs to take decisions, develop plans and implement actions to help run the building more effectively and efficiently.

Why smart buildings?

Our lifestyles are changing – where we work, the kind of work we do, and how and when we relax are different to previous generations. This has a major impact on buildings. At work, more of us are commuting further while others are commuting less frequently. Offices must, therefore, accommodate constantly changing occupancy by offering hot-desking, flexible working hours, collaboration spaces, quiet zones and well-being facilities.

Smart buildings help the working environment to continuously adapt to changing conditions. They can help maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity – even changing it throughout the day to suit ‘biorhythms’. They can adjust lighting levels to synthesize ‘natural’ light conditions. Since staffing costs can account for up to 90% of operating costs, a relatively small increase in productivity can represent significant value to the business. A pleasant environment can increase staff productivity and improve staff retention. Therefore, employers are keen to create comfortable workplaces that provide the right balance of stimulus and relief for staff.

Leisure-time activities are also changing, with many people making use of destination facilities. Large shopping complexes, for instance, now provide multiple food outlets and restaurants. Some even incorporate cinemas and bowling alleys. The aim is to give visitors a complete experience and to keep them on site as long as possible.

The data provided by smart building systems can also indicate, for instance, peak energy use or capacity limits for specific areas of the building, so extra resources can be deployed or measures taken to keep other systems working effectively. This is vital in heavily trafficked locations such as shopping centres, museums, airports and other travel hubs. Smart buildings can indicate busy hot spots, such as popular lounges or check points that result in queues, so that managers can make sure they have the right people in the right place at the right time. Minimising the effects of these bottlenecks helps ensure the building supports time-sensitive scheduled services, such as airline fights, without causing delays.

How does smart technology work?

The key to success for smart buildings is wireless networking technology (the Internet of Things). Before the introduction of wireless networks, sensors deployed around a building needed to be connected through expensive wire-based infrastructure (typically Ethernet). Wireless networking does away with this, massively reducing installation costs and making it cheaper, easier and quicker to install or reconfigure sensor networks. All you need to know is where your sensor is, what it’s sensing for you, and to provide a power supply.

Signals from the sensors are relayed by the wireless network to the software used by building operators. In addition, signals can be sent in the opposite direction to control units for air-conditioning, heating and lighting (as examples), as well as providing alerts for manual intervention. The IoT also enables cloud-based portals. These free FMs from their desks and allow them to receive alerts and check dashboards on mobile phones and tablets, as well as on desktops. FMs can, therefore, quickly deal with multiple maintenance tasks and other interventions from anywhere.

The rise of the smart washroom

The success of smart technology introduced to facilities management has meant we can learn from it and adapt it for use in washrooms. In essence, a smart washroom is no different. Data and information gathered from the smart washroom can be used to improve the visitor experience.

Washrooms play a huge part in delivering the overall experience – both in work and particularly during leisure. If a successful shopping centre, transport hub or public attraction can keep visitors on site for longer, it can help encourage greater engagement and higher revenues. During that visit, each customer may pay multiple visits to the washrooms. So it’s important they play their part.

Applying the smart-building principle to create a smart washroom offers opportunities to improve quality of experience for users and gain management efficiencies. For example, sensors can be deployed to manage and control important systems to ensure that fragranced, cleaning agents in toilets are dispensed correctly. Other sensors can monitor busy hotspots and indicate availability of cubicles to minimise queues and ensure that all cubicles are used more equally.

The same approach can be applied to basins for handwashing. Sensors can be used to control water flow and temperature, flush pipework to prevent Legionella infections, manage soap consumption and report usage. Alerts can be emailed to facilities staff so consumables are replenished appropriately. All this leads to toilets that look and smell cleaner, resulting in a pleasant visit to washrooms for users.

Hygiene insights lead to business benefits

For businesses, smart technology provides efficiency at multiple levels while always putting user needs and experience first. The overriding objectives for a washroom are to ensure it’s clean, well-stocked and its facilities all function well. Therefore, the same principle of monitoring and influencing interactions in smart buildings applies to washrooms, too. While smart technology has been available to help achieve these objectives, its implementation has (until recently) lagged behind some other areas in smart buildings. Now, integrated solutions that are accessed through a portal, monitored in real time, and with analytic capabilities are set to provide a true picture of use. The smart washroom has arrived.

The principles established by integrating smart building data – such as making sure staff are where they are needed when they are needed – can be applied to smart washrooms. The technology can be used to track usage. Where traffic is heavier than expected or the way the facilities are used doesn’t match predictions (for example, one cubicle being used more often than others), these systems can help ensure that cleaners are deployed to a washroom as they are needed and not to an abstract schedule.

The data insights that smart technology can provide allow for greater efficiencies in where, when and how often cleaning teams are needed to maintain washrooms to the same standard as other parts of a building. Reducing the frequency of manual checks and inspections means that manpower can be deployed where it is most effective and productive. And better-planned cleaning, replenishment and maintenance mean smart washrooms are well-maintained and available for users at all times.

Increasingly, people are becoming aware of the impact that both working and leisure facilities have on the environment. As this trend increases, it will become even more important that building owners and FMs can demonstrate how their premises are minimising the impact on the environment. 

Smart washrooms can visibly help improve sustainability with their dynamic, real-time management features by reducing consumption of water and consumables, lowering waste from plastic containers and, thereby, having a smaller impact on the environment. If users can see that the washroom is well-maintained (for example, taps aren’t running unnecessarily) and well-stocked (nothing is running out, but equally, there are no empty packages or roll cores around the room) they will take away a better impression – both of the quality of the washroom and its environmental credentials. FMs could even publish statistics on posters and websites, taken from their systems, that show the savings made by installing smart technology. Used carefully, data can improve both the way the washroom is run and demonstrate to users and stakeholders how well the washroom is performing environmentally.

Ultimately, much of the benefit of smart washrooms will be seen in user satisfaction. Better availability and cleaner, more pleasant washrooms mean a better user experience. And in high-traffic leisure destinations, happier users are good for business.

Increased benefits for all

Smart technology provides the opportunity to make washrooms easier and more efficient to manage while, at the same time, making life more comfortable for users. And the introduction of IoT and wireless networks eliminate the complex network infrastructure otherwise needed, adding flexibility, sustainability and simplicity of operations. The technology’s inherent versatility means smart washrooms can simplify the facilities management team’s workflow.

Smart washrooms help make a smart building truly ‘smart’. They help bring about a better user experience across the whole building and deliver it with more efficiency and with greater efficacy. 

smart hygiene

Jack Lyons

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