Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 26° Partly Cloudy
News >  Spokane

Sue Lani Madsen: At WSU, sometimes appropriate tech bests high-tech

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Walk into The Spark on the WSU Pullman campus and it’s clearly all about high-tech highperformance.

The newly opened four-story building on the south side of campus is touted as a digital classroom hub, an all-disciplines teaching facility with a “network of flexible, technology-enabled learning environments.” Classrooms have the latest in what used to quaintly be called “audiovisual equipment.”

Lectern-mounted computers communicate wirelessly with ceiling-mounted projectors splashing digital presentations across interactive whiteboards. WSU calls it a state-of-the-art facility, and as an adjunct faculty member assigned to Room 327 for spring semester, I agree.

Except for the restrooms.

Flushing by hand isn’t a surprise, we’re used to compensating for auto-flush toilets that don’t, but faucet handles seem of an age with slate chalkboards. If you want soap, pump it yourself. Pull your own paper towels, and as many as you need to get the job done. No motion sensors or high-tech, high-velocity hand dryers. Given the automation in the rest of the building, the all-manual restrooms stand out like a Model T at a Tesla convention.

The “why” question has been nagging me all semester. In a high-tech building, why doesn’t the high-tech touch every space? The answer is the difference between high-tech vs. appropriate tech. Cost, environmental impact and function are the variables.

Depending on electricity rates, hot-air hand dryers come out as a wash on both life cycle cost and environmental impact compared to miserly, motion-sensitive towel dispensers. Whether we’re waving our hands attempting to coax out a second paper towel or rubbing them in a blast of hot air before drying on our pants, function doesn’t favor the technology. The latest high-tech, high-performance, cold-air high-velocity dryers work better and use less energy but are more expensive to install. Old school, low-tech, low-construction cost won.

Part of the reasoning behind The Spark’s manual washrooms is most motion sensors require batteries. It’s partly the environmental cost of producing and disposing of batteries, a challenge also facing practical electric vehicles. It’s mostly the labor to keep up the replacement schedule. WSU maintenance staff said they do have some sensor-driven devices in Beasley Coliseum, but it takes a huge quantity, described by a source as producing “half a 55-gallon trash can full of AA batteries after one change-out.”

WSU maintenance staff experimented with “solar” recharged faucet sensors, letting the room lights do the recharging in a typical windowless restroom in their own building. It worked great, except the lights were automatically turned off by a motion sensor overnight and the faucets didn’t work in the morning.

Faucets can be hard-wired to avoid batteries, but repairs are costly. Dave Gebhardt, director of operations for the Spokane Public Facilities District, said “some replacement solenoids are more expensive than just buying a whole new faucet.” Old school isn’t an option for the SPFD. They need automatic faucets to thwart youngsters who think plugging the drain and flooding the room is a great joke. Fortunately, The Spark has a more mature population of users. Faucet handles it is.

But what about those auto-flushing toilets? Those must be good for the environment, right? Not necessarily. The primary advantage is supposed to be hygiene, although anyone who’s had the toilet flush while sitting on it might dispute the hygiene argument. Most studies found no water savings for comparable low-flow manual toilets, mostly due to the “phantom flush” problem. Controlling the phantoms requires a different human attitude about maintenance.

Humans and high-efficiency buildings is the subject of a research project by Julia Day, assistant professor at the WSU School of Design and Construction. Day’s scholarly paper, written in collaboration with William O’Brien from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, examined how humans behave in the latest high-tech, high-performance buildings.

Researchers looked beyond the quantitative data showing poorer than expected energy use and found many examples of human creativity outwitting sensors to triumph over technology. The conclusion: Focusing on high-tech without a human touch fuels frustration instead of productivity.

Turns out The Spark’s manual restrooms are high performance after all.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.