Faucets: Commanding New Attention

COVID-19 has changed the way that we view new products. Touchless and voice-activated faucets are a prime example.

authors Patrick O'Toole | June 3, 2020

It’s been 30 years since the first automatic, hands-free lavatory faucets appeared in public buildings and airports. For those old enough to remember, it was then that we first discovered the joys (and frustrations) of these new whiz-bang devices. Back then, it wasn’t about a positive user experience; rather it was a new tool leveraged by facility managers to minimize water and energy loss from valves that were, all too often, left open. More often than not, the user would be left to reposition their soapy hands several times to get enough water flowing to finish the job.

In the early 2000s, a number of plumbing manufacturers brought that technology to the home. You see them everywhere today, and the technology is quite improved. There is much less frustration with the quality and response of the infrared beams and capacitors that control the valves. In addition, engineers and product managers have made a study of the ergonomics and ethnographics (detailed use cases) of hands-free kitchen and bath faucets. In the process, the category became much more intuitive and useful.

A Delta Touch2O.xt lav faucet is activated by motion in a tight radius.

Delta Faucet and its brands, including Brizo, were early adopters of the infrared faucet technology that offered touch and motion sensing on Brizo kitchen faucets in 2006. Touch is based on capacitance technology. This is where elbow and arm taps trigger stops and starts. Over the years, Delta has strengthened (and patented) its capacitance technology to the point where today hands-free, on-off capability occurs when motions are made anywhere within 4 inches of a faucet. This is particularly useful in bathrooms, where the company’s Touch2O.xt technology has thrived since its introduction in 2011.

All of Delta’s Touch2O faucets can add a voice control module, which is connected to power and mounted underneath the sink.

Then, five years ago, Amazon and Google permanently changed the game by bringing voice activation to a number of home devices. It spurred the rapid expansion of the Internet of things, also known as iOT. Today, in addition to asking Alexa to play “Blue Sky” by The Allman Brothers, we can also ask it to turn on lights, lock doors and close the shades. The prevalence of voice activation in the home has snuck up on us. In recent months that voice-activation control has even extended to kitchen faucets. And frankly, there is plenty of utility offered in voice-controlled faucets.

Acceptance and adoption of touchless, hands-free and even voice-controlled faucets has grown rapidly. Last December, when The Kohler Company commissioned a Harris Poll, it found that nearly half of all Americans are interested in upgrading their bathroom to include a touchless faucet. For younger consumers ages 35 to 44, that number was 58 percent. That was before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic less than three months later, and handwashing took on more importance.

Moen introduced its MotionSense line of hands-free faucets in 2012.

A Savvy Home Design Forum survey of 4,000 U.S. consumers found that 35 percent are more likely now than a few months ago to seek out a touchless bathroom faucet, and 38 percent are more likely to seek out a touchless kitchen faucet.

“Current events are certainly raising awareness of how messy that space can be around the sink in the bathroom or kitchen,” says Jason Keller, senior marketing manager of faucets for Kohler. “I think we are all paying more attention to hand washing, and as a result, we are seeing higher web traffic, higher sales and higher interest around our touchless products.”

Stephanie Brinker, senior director of faucets for American Standard, says her firm is seeing the same spike in interest. “In the last month, the American Standard website saw a 128 percent increase in searches for hands-free products compared with the March to April timeframe in 2019.”

With these facts in mind, we set out to gather the latest trends in this category from four large plumbing manufacturers in the U.S.—Delta Faucet, Kohler, Lixil (parent company of American Standard), and Moen.

Alexa, Wash My Hands

A true sign of the times is confirmed in the following fact. Among the manufacturers interviewed for this article who offer voice-controlled faucets (Delta, Kohler and Moen), all offer a variation of a very similar hand-washing command. Ask Alexa or Google Home to “wash hands” and their faucets will begin dispensing warm water for a period of time long enough to immerse hands in water and begin to lather up with soap. From there, the water pauses for the 20 seconds recommend by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), allowing time for a thorough scrubbing, before resuming the flow of water to rinse off.

MotionSense-enabled faucets offer sensors at the base of its faucets and on the top of spigots.

How much these hand-washing commands are actually used by consumers is unknown, but the range of capabilities demonstrated by this single command shows just how “smart” these faucets can be. Suzy Street, product manager of digital and iOT technology for Moen, helped bring the company’s U by Moen SmartFaucet to market in January, where it debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show as well as IBS and KBIS and won a “Best of KBIS” award for best new smart-home technology. Street says the range of voice options for the product broaden rapidly when customized by the U by Moen mobile app.

“With our SmartFaucet integrated with a smart speaker, you can issue voice commands for precise temperatures, precise measurements or combinations of both, just by simply asking for it,” Street explains. “You ask for any measurement from one tablespoon all the way up to 15 gallons, and there’s a list of pre-programmed commands that the Alexa or Google Home recognize.

“You can ask for one tablespoon at 98 degrees or you could just ask it to run 98-degree water. There is a third type of command that we enable through our app. They are customizable presets. For example, if there’s a coffee pot you fill up every day, you can go into your app and set that temperature and that precise measurement. And instead of saying, ‘Fill four cups of a 100-degree water,’ you can set that in the app and call it ‘coffee pot.’ Then your voice command is simplified to, ‘Hey Google, ask Moen to fill the coffee pot.’”

According to Street, the U by Moen app also logs a lot of information about water usage stats. She quickly pointed out that she had used 11 gallons of water on her Smart Faucet by the middle of a weekday morning.

An Amazon Alexa lights up with a voice query and activates the U by Moen SmartFaucet, which was introduced earlier this year at CES.

Similarly, Kohler’s Jason Keller also emphasizes the usefulness of voice commands used in concert with the company’s Kohler Konnect app. The app controls all of the company’s iOT and products. Those include such items as lighted mirrors and bluetooth-enabled showerhead speakers.

American Standard offers Selectronic hands-free technology on its Avery and Beale (shown) pull-down faucets.

“About three years ago, with our first visit to the Consumer Electronics Show, and the advent of voice platforms, we married up voice with our existing touchless product and integrated it into the Alexa and Google platforms. We’re now able to add even more functionality to the product; you can pour measured amounts now via voice, and you can also set presets via the Kohler Konnect app. So if your hands are messy—you’re chopping up something over here and you’ve got the pasta pot positioned under the faucet—when it’s ready, you can ask Google to fill the pasta pot, and that will quickly happen.”

Keller points out that none of this technology interferes with the design range of the faucet. All of its guts are mounted under the sink and connected via Wi-Fi to whichever voice device a client is using in their home.

Delta Faucet introduced VoiceIQ technology for its line of Touch2O faucets two years ago and has seen a rise in the adoption and use of voice-enabled products ever since. Like Moen’s SmartFaucet and Kohler’s activated faucets, Delta’s voice-control module offers a hand-washing command that meets with CDC guidelines, along with many temperature and measurement presets. Ryan Wilson, Delta’s director of trade business development, says his company’s wide use of capacitance technology enabled the company to quickly expand the number of faucet design options available with voice-command technology.

Today, Delta offers 200 SKUs with Touch2O technology, so the company chose to create a voice-command module that can be retrofitted and added to any of these faucets. “We are the only faucet manufacturer that has a standalone voice module that you can actually upgrade to an existing product. If somebody has an existing Touch2O product, they can upgrade and make that a voice product,” Wilson says. And like the other manufacturers, there is an emphasis on precision control with Delta’s voice-command function. There are precise measurements—metered dispensing—in many quantities. There is precise temperature control. And presets can be created using the company’s mobile app.

Models like the Beale and Avery Pull-Down also have a sensor door, which enables manual mode as needed.

“With the Delta VoiceIQ product, you can do a number of tasks,” Wilson explains. “You can turn the water on and off using your voice. And you can do it independently as well. You can tap the faucet on. Use it. Walk away and use your voice to turn it off. Likewise, you can turn it on if you’re in another room. You can access the water as you need it and tap it off when you’re done. But the real value comes from metered dispensing of any amount of water in milliliters, liters, gallons, ounces, cups—anywhere from a quarter cup to upwards of 70 gallons if you needed to.”

Additionally, the product comes with a “warm-up” command. “If you ask VoiceIQ to warm up the water, the water will turn on while the handle is in the hot position, until it gets to about 90 degrees, and then the faucet will automatically turn off.”

For the Lavatory

Because bathroom faucets are used very differently, voice controls are not available. Varying types of old technology are more suited to task. Kohler has a long history of offering infrared-enabled touch-free lavatory faucets. They started in the commercial market and now regularly make their way into residential settings—multifamily and single-family homes, says Kohler’s Keller. Deploying it’s Touch2O.xt technology, Delta Faucet is one of the only manufacturers to emphasize hands-free faucet control in residential bathrooms, notes Delta’s Wilson.

Kohler has evolved its approach to hands-free faucets. Ethnographic research led to its decision to place the sensors under the arc of the spigots.

“There’s no particular sensor in one spot that you have to be close to. The whole faucet is a sensor itself,” he explains. “So if you are 4 inches above it, to the side of it, underneath it, to the right side, the left side, anywhere around that 4-inch radius with our .xt technology, the faucet will turn on and turn off by itself as you get inside that—that 4-inch field.”

Early on, Delta experimented using this capacitance-proximity technology with some of its kitchen faucets but retreated when it became apparent that there is simply too much motion near the kitchen faucet to make it practical for that application, Wilson notes. For that same reason—to allow more precise control and eliminate any “ghost” activity—Kohler and Moen each have differing ways to enable hands-free activity for their respective kitchen faucets.

Moen’s infrared MotionSense technology, which was initially introduced in 2012, includes two IR sensors—one on the front base of the faucet and one on the top of the faucet, says Moen’s Street. “So if you want to just reach your hands under the faucet, water will flow. By doing that, your hands get close to that sensor and activate it. And then also MotionSense has a wave sensor on the top, if you want to wave on or off without actually touching the handle. You can do that there.”

In 2015, Moen introduced a single-sensor-on-top faucet, the Wave. This goal was to bring hands-free technology to a lower price point.

The company has also rapidly expanded the use of voice activation to control a number of iOT devices, including faucets.

Kohler has taken a unique approach to the placement of sensors on its kitchen faucets. Based on its ethnographic research, a single sensor is placed directly under the arc of the spigot. This makes activation more intentional and reduces accidental discharge, says Kohler’s Keller.

“We needed to do something more functional and much more intuitive for the home,” he explains. “We placed the activation under the arc of the spout. You can’t see it, so it’s not intruding on the design of the faucet. It’s also in a very ergonomic and very intuitive space where it’s not above or alongside the faucet. If you’ve got something dripping from your hands, you’re not dripping it onto the faucet or onto the countertop. With the sensor under the spout, you are still over the sink. All of the mess is contained in the place you want it. It’s also going to avoid any false positives [from the sensor]. QR

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