SOME PRODUCTS SPEND AN ETERNITY on the cusp of being the next hot thing, but never gain enough mass appeal for one reason or another. You can add electronic faucets to this list.
The hands-free electronic faucet (e-faucet) first appeared in Chicago's O'Hare Airport in the 1980s—or so the story goes—and can now be found almost everywhere, including rest stops and restaurants, hospitals and hotels.
Because it is activated by a wave of the hand, the faucet's most obvious benefit is hygiene, but its automatic shutoff feature also saves more water than a conventional unit. Preset temperatures are an added bonus.
TECH TALK Despite their familiarity with e-faucets in public places, consumers have balked at putting them in their homes: They understand the faucet, but they simply don't trust its reliability. “The technology has developed a bad reputation that comes from people's exposure with the faucets,” says Ed Detgen, director of marketing for Bolingbrook, Ill.–based faucet manufacturer Danze. “It has been an imperfect technology.”
One reason for this unreliability, manufacturers say, is that the motion-sensing infrared technology used by most faucets does not read dark colors well. Shiny, reflective surfaces such as stainless steel and glass also confuse the faucets and contribute to unpredictable activation.
The hygiene argument also has not resonated with home buyers to the degree that manufacturers hoped. “Contamination is much less of a concern in a residential bathroom,” says Mark Tegge, product manager for commercial faucets at Kohler, Wis.–based Kohler.
Then there is the issue of price and aesthetics. Typical units start at around $400, but they can go higher—a lot higher. And for all that money, consumers get a cumbersome-looking faucet that is short on style. There hasn't been a desire to put one in a house “because the products looked commercial,” says Tegge.
Still, a reliable, good-looking e-faucet with all its benefits has its proponents, and manufacturers are bullish. They say that the new technologies are far superior, and they believe that hygiene will become more of an issue as the threat of a super-flu grows. “Part of what we do is think ahead,” says Joan Bostic, president of KWC America in Norcross, Ga. “People are busy, and they want things clean. They don't want to have to think about touching a faucet.”
NEW MATERIAL This manufacturer optimism has resulted in a wave of new, nice-looking e-faucets.
Indianapolis-based Delta Faucet Co. recently introduced Pascal to its Brizo luxury brand. “The unit combines hands-free and touch technology,” says Bob Rodenbeck, research and development product manager. “The sensors look down the water stream and know how far away things are in the sink.” As a result, it differentiates between a moving object and a static object, so placing something in the sink will not activate the faucet.
Danze's new dual electronic faucet, Parma, operates hands free or with a conventional single control. “We designed it to be reliable,” Detgen says. “It is not affected by color.” The faucet is proximity-based, so the sensor activates when a hand or an object is within 3 inches to 3½ inches.
Kohler's product, the Wellspring secondary kitchen faucet, employs Tripoint technology, which measures the distance between the faucet and the user's hands. Commonly found in auto-focus cameras, the technology will operate even if the strength of the beam is weak, Tegge says.
New e-faucets have more style going for them than their cumbersome predecessors, and manufacturers are hoping that the cool designs and the improved technology will give the category a shot in the arm. Prices are still high—with some topping $800—but most of the brands target the high end of the market, so the price is relative. “It seems that there is some sort of yearning for hands-free faucets,” Detgen says. “The question is, will [the new products] capture attention and move markets?”