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Electronic systems: touch free and hassle free

By Fiona Ingham

As is the case with new technology, the development of electronic systems has not been without its problems, but as the technology develops, so the benefits increase.

“Cobra first put electronic taps on the market in the late 1990s,” says Pc, national training manager. “The first units were very expensive and difficult to set,” he explains. In 2004, Cobra marketed the Cobratron range, as the company has it today. The company was able to offer it at less than half of the previous price — this made the units available at almost the same price as the manual mixers, which also made them affordable for the domestic market. Electronic soap dispensers only became available in 2010. The technology is always improving and the company now has units activated by motion, proximity, and touch using piezo technology.

The advantage of electronic mixers is that they are mostly touch free. People no longer want to touch fixtures in public areas, which makes the concept of electronic taps very popular. Another advantage is that they can be customised to individual needs, such as flow time and sensitivity.

Being electronic, the expected disadvantage is that these units are dependent on a power source, either batteries or 220V transformers. “New technology has been developed in the form of the Power Box. This unit uses water flow to generate the electricity that charges a capacitor. The capacitor stores enough for four days of standby power,” says Gordon.

Public education

When the technology was introduced, people were generally very sceptical of electronic taps, as they didn’t understand how the taps work. The biggest obstacle was that people didn’t know how to turn the taps on. They were being twisted, turned, and struck, which resulted in a large amount of abuse. These days the public — in general — has a better understanding of how they work and breakdowns are usually due to a lack of power source: either the batteries are flat or municipal power failures.

The trend in the past was to use electronic systems in public areas; however, corporates are using them more and more as green building ratings are enforced.

Gordon says that infrared technology depends on a signal being transmitted. As soon as the user puts their hand under the tap, the sensor activates a power pulse to the solenoid to open it. As soon as a return signal is no longer transmitted, the sensor sends a reverse signal pulse that causes the solenoid to close and the tap is shut.

No matter what the signal source is — infrared, proximity, or piezo — the workings of the electronic mixer remain the same. Instead of using a cartridge or a head part, the tap uses a solenoid valve to open and close the unit. The same technology is used to operate a urinal or flush valve — the only difference is that once the sensor observes an obstruction, such as the user getting up from the toilet, it pauses until the obstruction is removed before it operates the valve and makes it flush.

It is advisable that if a plumber has never installed an electronic unit before, the manufacturer is contacted for training, as specific guidelines need to be considered. For example, dirt strainers are vital when electronic valves are fitted, Gordon explains.

Installer education

According to Jan Klopstra, specifications consultant at Geberit, Geberit electronic systems were developed in 1972. However, Geberit no longer produces electronic soap dispensers as it is not part of their core business and the main challenge with these is their maintenance. Service suppliers tend not to fill empty units, and if the batteries go flat or a power failure occurs, the unit does not function. Vandalism in South Africa is a big issue, and with soap dispensers, users are easily frustrated and tend to break the units to access the soap. They sometimes even go so far as to steal the soap from the dispensers.

Dorianne Isaacman, head of marketing and retail sales at Geberit, says the company receives feedback from the professionals as well as the public about their systems. Geberit provides technical service, support, and back-up on all their products. “We are contacted to attend to products that may not be functioning optimally,” she says. Isaacman goes on to say that the company often receives good news stories via e-mail from various product users, as well as from consumers with whom they engage at the various exhibitions that the company participates in. One of the highlighted topics from the users is how much they enjoy the benefits of touch free technology, and especially the more hygienic electronic urinals, as one is assured that the urinal is flushed.

More public areas and offices are starting to use electronic applications, as generally this results in far less maintenance, because the less the public touches the equipment, the less chance there is of the fixture breaking. The water savings are also substantial, as the volume of water discharged can be pre-set, making it a far ‘greener’ application.

Nonetheless, Klopstra says South Africa faces challenges when it comes to electronic products. Generally, the problems stem from lack of knowledge, understanding, and technical know-how from both the user and the installer.

Some reasons why electronic products may not function properly in public areas could be that they were not installed correctly, or the public has damaged them as they don’t understand how the electronic units function. They tend to push and prod the product to make it work and in some cases, they break or push out the glass that covers the infrared unit, thinking it is the activation button.

Geberit has a strong focus on educating and upskilling the plumbers, installers, and maintenance teams on how to install and maintain Geberit products as and where necessary.

One of the biggest challenges faced in office buildings and public areas is the high rate of maintenance staff turnover, which would mean that the new workers are insufficiently trained on the products. This lack of knowledge and experience can cause more damage as they try to service the unit themselves, instead of phoning the manufacturing company to assist them. In the case of Geberit products, the service offered is free of charge within the warranty period, says Klopstra.


People with disabilities

The company says it has seen an increase in the use of electronics in projects to cater for people with disabilities.

There is a trend in the corporate world to be more environmentally conscious, which is leading to either an upgrade of manual systems to electronic systems, or the specification of electronic systems. Electronic products are the ideal choice when it comes to the environment, because they are more water wise and conscious about health and hygiene.

“One product which stands out is the electronic tap with a self-sustaining power supply,” says Isaacman. A small generator on the water supply pipe makes the touchless tap independent from either electrical or battery power supply. Whenever the tap is being used, the flowing water charges the hydroelectric turbine that produces electricity.

The tap works electronically, which means water is saved by pre-selecting the amount of water you want it to discharge. The tap works efficiently without using electricity and generates power from the very water that passes through it. The power produced is stored in a rechargeable battery to ensure it stays operational.

The unit’s self-sustaining power supply is still charged with only intermittent use and is suitable for commercial washrooms. Back-up is available through a battery charger and analysis tool.

Automatic basin taps

Geberit’s automatic basin taps for public and semi-public areas make for economical water consumption. These touchless taps are powered from either mains power or battery power. “With the recent innovation for the pillar taps, Geberit’s type 185 and 186 have a further option of being activated by a self-sustaining power supply, which works independently of any mains and battery sources — making them more reliable with less maintenance,” says Isaacman.

“Mounted directly on the angle stop valve of the freshwater pipe, a tiny generator uses the water pressure in the pipe to generate electricity. This is then stored in a rechargeable battery that provides the basin tap’s control electronics with the necessary energy,” she says.

This miniature power plant doesn’t need many uses to keep the basin tap operating for long periods. The automatic tap has to be used for only an average of 80 seconds a day to supply the rechargeable battery with enough energy. The high-performance rechargeable battery has a service life of at least 10 years.

Klopstra adds that the independent power supply taps are suited for public areas with medium-to-high numbers of visitors, such as airports, stadiums, schools, and museums, as well as washbasins in buildings with ecological and energy certifications.

Thanks to the rechargeable battery’s long service life, the maintenance intervals are considerably longer than they would be for normal battery operation, keeping maintenance costs down. Since the generator solution means there is no need to install power points, it also reduces the amount of planning work on site. Additionally, the unit is supplied complete with all of the components pre-assembled in the factory, creating a ready-to-go unit.

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