Are Hands-Free Faucets the Wave of the Future?

Monday, Mar 31 2014
Posted by:
Alison M. Rice

Hands-free and electronic faucets are seemingly everywhere these days, and designer Shannon Kadwell always knows which homeowners will want one in their kitchen.

“The clients who are really interested are the ones who do a lot of cooking,” said Kadwell, a certified kitchen and bath designer at Anthony Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John, Md., where roughly 5% to 10% of the upscale firm’s kitchen customers opt for a hands-free faucet.

Compared with the traditional faucet, that's a small market, but it is one that continues to attract lots of attention from American and European product manufacturers. North Olmsted, Ohio-based Moen, which introduced its MotionSense line in 2012, is already launching a fourth style — the more traditional Brantford — in response to consumer demand. “It's really coming on strong,” said Tom Tylicki, a senior product manager for kitchen at the company.

While touchless faucets are just starting to appear in new construction, they seem to be finding a place in renovations. "People seem to be more willing to try something different in their new space," said Kadwell, who usually does 15 to 20 kitchens — many with six-figure price tags — at Anthony Wilder each year. (She hasn't yet seen the same level of interest for touchless bathroom faucets. "I think the look is too institutional for most people," she said.)

For homeowners, hands-free faucets in the kitchen offer a handful of advantages, from convenience to cleanliness. Fruit or dishes can be rinsed quickly and easily, and hands can be washed after food prep without spreading germs to a fixture's handles.

“Consumers are really looking for this type of solution in their homes,” said Denise Quasius, an associated product manager at Kohler, Wis.-based Kohler, which manufactures the Sensate touch- less faucet. The quick-responding kitchen fixture won two awards at the 2013 International Builders' Show: best kitchen or bath product and best in show.

While the details understand- ably vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, touchless faucets do have a few things in common. To work, they require a power source, which can be batteries or an AC outlet with a battery backup. (“I haven't seen a preference,” Kadwell said of the two options. “There are ups and downs for all of them.”) Water turns on or off depending on the faucet's infrared sensor, which can be placed on a variety of locations on the faucet; when a user waves a hand or moves an object, such as a plate or an apple in front of that sensor, the faucet will respond. Adjusting the water or flow typically requires moving a handle.

If that sounds simple to use, that's because manufacturers took pains to make it that way. “Many people have had a less-than-gracious experience with a hands-free faucet in a public restroom,” Quasius said diplomatically. To overcome any potential consumer skepticism, manufacturers focused on their products’ accuracy, reaction time and how intuitive they are to use.

“We wanted to make sure the faucet didn't misfire and that it worked with objects,” said Moen's Tylicki. At Kohler, designers turned to an advanced sensor that can turn the water on or off within 20 milliseconds. “It's in the kitchen,” Quasius said. “It has to be responsive.”

As consumers get comfortable with hands-free faucets in their kitchen, manufacturers will continue working on products for the bathroom. If and when they launch such products, they'll have competition: Hansgrohe already offers touchless faucets with temperature control for the bath under its Axor, Metris and PuraVida brands.

Alison Rice is a freelance writer and editor in Arlington, Va.

Kohler: Sensate is a touchless kitchen faucet that delivers water within 20 milliseconds, thanks to an under-spout sensor that can be activated by a hand or a kitchen utensil. The AC-powered unit has spray and stream functions and a magnetic docking system. It comes in two finishes: polished chrome and vibrant stainless.