The Case Against Public Restroom Hand Dryers:

Economist Glen Whitman has a good post criticizing one of my own pet peeves: public restroom hand dryers. I have to admit that my own objections to hand dryers primarily come down to the fact that "They fail at their primary function . . . And they take too much time in failing," as Whitman aptly puts it. But he also does a good job of refuting the health and environmental arguments for hand dryers.

A classic piece bathroom graffitiis when after the instructions for hand dryers -- "(1) Press button (2) Place hands under dryer (3) Rub hands together vigorously" -- someone scratches "(4) Dry hands on pants."
9.26.2007 6:45pm
Hear hear! This topic should definitely unify the right, center and left.

Next topic: Why do Canadians get to have better toilets?
9.26.2007 6:48pm
Spartacus (www):
How about a host of other annoying bathroom "innovations" of at best questionable utility:

Automatic flush toilets: these often flush while you are sitting on them, or standing in front of them, resulting in an unpleasant splash; or fail to flush (some have manual override, others not), resulting in disgusting toilets

Automatic faucets: most annoying when they don't turn on (there is never a manual override); but they also fail to have options for adjustibility of temperature or flow rate.

Overstuffed towel dispensers: resulting in torn towels usually thrown out and waste

Coming next: automatic toilet paper dispensers:
9.26.2007 6:49pm
jack (mail):
I'm totally with you...

...but I actually had a great experience with a hand dryer at a local movie theatre--the AMC at 600 n michigan in chicago. It's some new fangled device where you actually put your hands inside a sort of wind tunnel and get them blasted at wind tunnel-type speeds. Probably still suffers from being recirculated fecal air, but definitely the best experience I've had with a hand dryer.
9.26.2007 6:54pm
George Tenet Fangirl:
If you give your hands a good shake prior to using the dryer, it's much more effective (but paper towels are still better).
9.26.2007 6:56pm
There are no public restroom hand dryers in Iran, remember.
9.26.2007 6:58pm

No, it's "Press button; Rub hands under warm air; wipe hands on pants

And hand-washing in a public restroom is a weird thing anyway. The most germ-filled thing in there is the doorknob, which you touch after you wash your hands.

Also, there was a jackass I went to law school with who, in order to avoid getting germs, would: 1. not flush the urinal after he went, 2. crank out a length of paper towel first, 3. leave the water running after he washed his hands, 4. dry off his hands, 5. open the door using the paper towel, 6. drop the towel on the floor. So every visit he made to the bathroom resulted in a urinal full of piss, a running faucet, and a wad of paper towel on the floor. I feel sorry for whatever firm hires him.
9.26.2007 6:59pm
What's worse though, dryers or towel dispensers you have to touch to get paper?

The only good option is one of those automatic advance towel dispensers. Otherwise I use my shirt (small of the back is better than pants, IMO).

Says "the future Howard Hughes."
9.26.2007 7:02pm
Brian K (mail):
What's worse though, dryers or towel dispensers you have to touch to get paper?
definitely the towel dispensers, esp after you see someone come from a urinal and go straight to the towel dispenser to dry his hands. since he never went near the faucet you know its not water on his hands.
9.26.2007 7:07pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
What CEB said. Why do all bathroom doors open OUT? You wash your hands all nice and clean, then to get out of the room you have to go and grab the door handle which was just used by the noisy guy 2 stalls over who left before you did because he did NOT wash his hands.

Anybody remember the old bathrooms where they had the "continuous towel"? One disgusting piece of fabric which went around and around in a loop. Who the heck ever thought that was a good idea? I mean, even before germs were discovered, that should have been seen as a bad thing.

P.S. The best thing to do is flush the urinal with your knuckles. Pull out a few paper towels before washing your hands. Wash your hands. Dry with the paper towels. Use the paper towels to turn off the water faucet. Open the door using part of your jacket, tie, or shirt to keep from touching the door handle.
9.26.2007 7:10pm
I've perfected the move where I open the door with a paper towel but crumple it up lightening fast and throw it out ASAP so people don't experience the full measure of my paranoia.
9.26.2007 7:13pm
John McCall (mail):
It's unclear to me why putting one's hands in heated recirculated air is supposed to be less sanitary than, you know, walking through the circulating air in the first place. Is it because you're thinking about germs when you do it? Does that make the cooties breed faster?
9.26.2007 7:13pm
Just to add a wrinkle to this elevated discussion . . . my school has installed flushless urinals, so the urine simply drains away and all we are left with in the bathroom is "eau de subway."

Now that is real evidence that leftists have taken over college campuses and are slowly destroying America!
9.26.2007 7:21pm
My approach is generally to accept that the world is gross and full of germs and our immune systems are designed to handle almost all of them so don't worry about it.

It is true that the bathroom doorknob is gross, but it's probably not materially grosser than most other public surfaces.

Automatic faucets and towel dispensers are nifty for the same reason that automatic doors are nifty. But for some reason they never put automatic doors on restrooms. I would like to see more automatic light switches in restrooms for the practical consideration that I have been in a stall when someone instinctively (I assume) turned out the lights on their way out of the room.

The best idea in the linked post was the commenter who pointed out that burying paper towels in landfills is a form of carbon sequestration.
9.26.2007 7:29pm
Another great argument against electric hand dryers: When kick-@$$ blogs like this one finally succeed in sending traditional newspapers and other dead-tree publications the way of the dinosaur, the paper industry will need paper towel manufacturers to take up the slack and keep it afloat.
9.26.2007 7:31pm
I saw the future in the airport the other day. I can't remember which airport had them, but they had installed Dyson Airblade hand dryers. The dryer worked exactly like it should: I stuck my hands in (didn't have to push any dirty buttons!), held them in for about 15 seconds, and went on my way with dry hands. I would choose this dryer over a towel any day...except that the dryer isn't useful for anything but drying hands. Given its limited use, there may still be a place for the paper towel, even with these highly improved air dryers.
9.26.2007 7:31pm
I just realized the previous poster, jack, was probably referring to the Dyson Airblade. They're going to storm the world of dryers, just you watch.
9.26.2007 7:33pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
On the other hand, the Straight Dope already took on this subject months ago. And they actually tried to do some calculations, rather than just waving their hands at the conclusions they wanted to reach. Try linking to something with some substance rather than something that reinforces your "pet peeves".
9.26.2007 7:35pm
Zacharias (mail):
Burying a paper towel is no more carbon sequestration than burying a dead tree. Bacteria attack it and release all the CO2 that it took in when it was growing.

Burying an Amerikan aborted fetus instead of bringing it to term, however, would help the planet immensely, since the kid, if not aborted, will go on to pollute the planet with all the externalities of his coddled existence.
9.26.2007 7:41pm
Brad D. Bailey (mail):
Best graffito on a hand dryer at my law school:

Push button for a short lecture from the dean.
9.26.2007 7:58pm
In answer the question of sanitation, it appears that using a hand drier increases bacteria counts on hands while using paper towels decreases them:

So driers don't get your hands dry and spray bacteria on them.
9.26.2007 7:59pm
mrshl (www):
Ditto on the Dyson Airblades. I'm not sure arguments about most hand dryers apply to machines that work this well. My hands were DRY and it was FAST. If you're going to put a hand drier in bathroom, it should be one of those.

Elsewise, I agree. I'd rather use paper.
9.26.2007 8:05pm
Dave N (mail):
I have not seen it--but only heard about it anecdotally--but supposedly there is an automatic dispensing toilet seat protector. No thank you.

Now between this post and Senator Larry Craig, I have thought way too much about public restrooms than I either should have or would have liked to in the last month or so.
9.26.2007 8:55pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
If I remember correctly, the "continuous loop" towel came off a roll and went onto a take-up roll. I image that once the few hundred feet were used the whole thing was taken out and laundered. The freshly pulled out part always seemed spanking clean.

I've had some dryers that displace the skin and scare the water off.

My office has full-auto in the bathroom. Except that the "cold only" faucet is pretty hot, it mostly works except the towel dispenser. If you grab the towel before a little red light indicating the unroll cycle goes dark it feeds another foot -- on and on. So it's swipe, wait, rip.

For those of us who don't piss on our hands, why is unzipping our fly and urinating any more dirtiness making than most other activities?

And I always thought the primary purpose of those devices was to dispense bacon.
9.26.2007 8:56pm
"Burying a paper towel is no more carbon sequestration than burying a dead tree. Bacteria attack it and release all the CO2 that it took in when it was growing."
Of course, two other considerations need to be addressed:

1. CO2 is harmless. Really. And...
2. When the Gorebot stops flying his own private jet, I'll pretend to care, too
"Burying an Amerikan aborted fetus instead of bringing it to term, however, would help the planet immensely, since the kid, if not aborted, will go on to pollute the planet with all the externalities of his coddled existence."
Somehow, I think Zacharias really believes that. Did someone tell the band to strike up Send In The Clowns?

For a little lot more sanity, see GuestPoster above. The radio doctor, Dean Edell, has repeatedly said the same thing: paper towels are immensely more efficient at removing cooties than warm air.
9.26.2007 9:02pm
I was also going to point out that "press button, receive bacon" has to be the ultimate hand dryer graffiti. There is no question.
9.26.2007 9:50pm
Paul Allen:

Bacteria attack it and release all the CO2 that it took in when it was growing.

All? No, some. If it were all, we wouldn't have any oil around today.

Moreover in a landfill the rate of bacterial activity is very low. What does this matter anyways? OCO concentration is primarily determined by ocean temperature.
9.26.2007 10:03pm
SomeFella (mail):
Hand dryers are the only products I've ever seen that have excuses on them for why they aren't something else
9.26.2007 10:06pm
Ooh. Zakarias says: CO2 bad.
9.26.2007 10:09pm
Dave N,

They're real--O'Hare airport has them.
9.26.2007 10:16pm
Using hand dryers is OK. Just avoid a wide stance...
9.26.2007 11:02pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Open the door using part of your jacket, tie, or shirt to keep from touching the door handle."

Fantastic. Life imitates art. In an old biography of Lenny Bruce, the author describes Lenny's friend, Joe Ancis, who had the Jewish germ fetish. Poor Joe faced the problem of how to get out of a men's room without touching the door handle, and he did just what you describe. The narrative was hilarious-- poking fun at people terrified of germs. Another thing that terrified Joe was touching that bar of soap (these were the days before liquid soap dispensers). I think he carried around a bar in his pocket.
9.26.2007 11:04pm
Truth Seeker:
They used to have stickers to put on the had dryer button that saId "PRESS HERE FOR A MESSAGE FROM CONGRESS."
9.26.2007 11:39pm
Truth Seeker:
For those of us who don't piss on our hands, why is unzipping our fly and urinating any more dirtiness making than most other activities?

Exactly. I take a shower in the morning. A few hours later when I need to piss, my hands are a lot dirtier than my recently washed manhood covered in fresh washed underwear. It makes more sense to wash your hands before pissing than after. (Assuming of course that I didn't sneak out for a quickie or piss on my hands.)
9.26.2007 11:44pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Ever since I worked for several months in an area in which the water supply was contaminated, I have carried a small container of water-less hand-washing gel, which is basically jellied alcohol. Then you don't have to worry about what you touch. After leaving the bathroom, squeeze a little onto your hands and rub it around. It is also handy in situations in which you can't conveniently get to a bathroom after probable contamination. The brand I usually see is Purell, but CVS pharmacies have their own off brand "hand sanitizer", which is cheaper.
9.27.2007 12:01am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Truth Seeker:

Isn't urine pretty much sterile? If it weren't, wouldn't you have some kind of urinary tract infection? So what's the problem about pissing on your hand(s). Nevertheless, I often had exactly the same thought: wash your hands first.
9.27.2007 12:45am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
A. Zarkov,

The urine of people who do not have urinary tract infections is fairly free of germs, but some people do have urinary tract infections. Furthermore, people without infections may not have bathed recently and may be wearing dirty clothes. Their hands may have been unclean prior to urinating. And let's not forget that bathrooms are also used for defecating. Fixtures and doors may be contaminated from all sorts of sources, not just contact with urine.
9.27.2007 1:00am
spring (mail):
Good that you guys are concerned about bathroom hygiene. Back when I was "dating", I was so turned off on one occasion when a dinner/dance date led to the bedroom and the fellow was "put off" by my request that he wash his hands--"ohhh, you just took the spontaneity out of it."

Here's a suggestion: when there are no paper towels (1 only) or (the best) cloth on a roll, do as I do and rearrange your hair with clean damp hands. Open door with the left--eat with the right.
9.27.2007 1:10am
Two words: air dry.
9.27.2007 1:12am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
My mother tells a story about, as I recall, Orson Wells, who once announced, at a dinner party at his home: "I am afraid that due to an error by the caterers, there are no more napkins. However, from time to time a shaggy dog will pass among you.".
9.27.2007 1:21am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Bill Poser:

You should know if your own urine is sterile. As for surfaces and fixtures, how long do germs remain infectious on rest room surfaces? I think some respiratory viruses are pretty robust, and you can get the flu from shaking hands and then touching your eyes or mouth.

I noticed that the Mayo Clinic has hand-cleaning solution at every station in their big outpatient facility with signs encouraging patients to use it. Of course the place is full of sick people so it makes sense. On the other hand, other big medical centers generally don't. Nevertheless the immune system in healthy people works very well, and I think a lot of people are overly neurotic about germs. My guess is that airplanes are much worse than restrooms, especially nowadays because the airlines have cut back on the ventilation to save fuel.
9.27.2007 2:30am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
People may be overly germ-conscious, but public restrooms are probably one place where care is warranted.

Sanitation in many hospitals is not nearly as good as it should be. Staff really should be washing between patients but often do not. The rate of nosocomial infection is disturbingly high. The British health authorities have just initiated a major reform with the goal of reducing nosocomial infection, which includes forbidding physicians from wearing ties (since they get loose and flop around and contact things). Here's a BBC article.
9.27.2007 2:49am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Here's a CBC article about the hand-washing problem in hospitals. Among other things, it says that doctors are the worst and frequently ignore the hand sanitizer stations.
9.27.2007 2:52am
Eli Rabett (www):
Air hand dryers are the triumph of the market. They don't require someone to put in fresh towels, you don't have to order and store supplies. Another reason why living in libertarian America is such a treat. OTOH, the pubs in Ireland have nothing else. Only bad thing I could say about that country.
9.27.2007 8:36am
Adeez (mail):
OK, I read every comment so far, and am shocked no one brought this up:

There're environmental concerns of the dryers as well. Obviously, they waste electricity. So another issue is the burning of coal verse the production and wasting of paper.

And to the santizer users: I feel ya. But for the medical/bio experts here: isn't there a danger that overuse of santizer can lead to resistant germs a la antibacterial soap?
9.27.2007 11:55am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I figure developing an immunity to alcohol is a lot harder than developing an immunity to something complicated like penicillin.

There is the dictum: "A city boy washes his hands after he urinates, because he doesn't know where he's been. A farm boy washes his hand before he urinates, because he does know where he's been." (The gentleman who told me this added "I'm careful, I do it both." Having once had genital poison ivy I can see the benefit in washing before.)

Good point Adeez about the electricity in making hot air, versus the energy cost in making trees into paper, versus the energy cost in washing towels.

I've seen dispensers of hand sanitizer at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (where they also have masks that people who are coughing or sneezing are encouraged to wear) and at St. Joseph Medical Center in Nashua. I had a portable bottle at my desk last winter, but it didn't help. (Riding the bus didn't hurt; going for a medical appointment with an NP who was just coming down with a nasty flu-like infection hurt an awful lot.)
9.27.2007 12:21pm
AnonymousDryerSex (mail):

Not to mention the fact that Gay men constantly have sex with me while I'm waiting for my hands to dry.

I'm just mining my own business and ... Tap!Tap!Tap!
9.27.2007 12:48pm
Dantheman (mail):
Eli Rabett is correct. Air driers are used solely because they are cheaper for the owner of the facility where they are located. Since most public facilities, like airports and stadiums, have little competition, there's no incentive to choose anything other than the lowest cost. And even where there is competition, like shopping malls, since remarkably few people choose them based upon the bathroom facilities, there's still next to no incentive.
9.27.2007 1:49pm