Touchless Hardware Comes of Age

Nov. 2, 2020
Demand for no-touch and low-touch hardware is expected to continue after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

After the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the world was ready for “party time.” Face masks were put away, and life moved on to the Roaring ’20s.

We see a bit of that on college campuses today where too much partying in close quarters has resulted in campus closures. Some in our industry can’t wait to get back to the good old days, while others see a solid long-term trend. Your challenge is to be prepared when the opportunities are revealed.

What’s involved? Touchless or hands-free solutions can include high- and low-energy door operators, motion sensors, electrified locks, magnetic locks, exit devices, electric strikes and frame actuators. Low-touch devices include foot or arm pulls and push-to-operate latches. At the same time, we’ve seen considerably more interest in antimicrobial finishes on low-traffic openings. 

Nice Touch

In a recent visit to a health-care facility, I observed shiny, new antimicrobial lever handles and exit device push bars throughout the building. All restrooms were equipped with low-energy operators and were upgraded with Detex touchless sensors. The battery-powered AO19 surface-mounted touchless switch is less than three-quarters of an inch thick. The active infrared sensor comes with a clear-path-spectrum communicator that connects with other manufacturers’ products on the same frequency. 

Avoiding door handles after hand-washing has become an acute desire. This trend will continue to force its way into the budgets of commercial buildings in North America as well as other parts of the world.

Other market drivers include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Accessible Canada Act, which are making low-energy operators and wheelchair-accessible switches standard practice for restrooms in new public buildings.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an intense spike of interest, the connected world most assuredly will lead to more pandemics – and increasing demand for touchless hardware solutions.

The questions for the lock professional are: Is touchless hardware just a blip, or is it a growth market?  And are there underlying market drivers that are gaining momentum?

Touchless or hands-free solutions are, indeed, destined for steady growth, according to David Price, vice president of communications and corporate development at Camden Door Controls. Price observes that we might expect:

  1. “A continuation in the frequency and severity of epidemics and pandemics (global, national and regional).
  2. “New measures for infection control will be adopted by design codes and standards, including ANSI, over time.
  3. “Expenditures to reduce the spread of germs will expand from ‘high risk’ building occupancies, such as hospitals and schools, to lower risk building types, including commercial buildings and retail stores.”

Price points out that we’re in the “emerging market” phase of touchless solutions, so there will be a lot of interesting innovations.

Of course, a “monkey wrench” gets thrown into every system. The work-from-home trend or a recession could blunt the new-construction market, where touchless hardware will be specified. The good news is that retrofit, repair and maintenance markets don’t go away in a recession. In fact, tough times shift resources to upgrades rather than new building.

“The demands of the COVID-19 pandemic are accelerating the need for, and adoption of both existing and emerging technologies,” according to Peter Boriskin, chief technology officer of ASSA ABLOY Americas. “Touchless hardware is having its moment, but, looking forward, we anticipate requirements for low-touch and hands-free products to grow.”

Boriskin also sees continued growth in the use of existing wireless technology and mobile-credential apps in primary and remote locations as well. These technologies will allow better contact tracing, remote credential authorization and monitoring space use.

We’ve already seen considerable movement to touchless operation of restroom fixtures in public facilities and can expect significant interest in hands-free operation of entrance and restroom doors, according to Brad Sweet, commercial marketing leader at Allegion. 

“The Centers for Disease Control lists door hardware as a high-risk area of virus and bacteria transmission,” Sweet says. He suggests that the global health and economic effects of pandemic concerns will drive slow-but-steady growth in touchless and low-touch hardware demand. Sweet notes that third-party testing and validation of antimicrobial qualities also are increasing under Environmental Protection Agency governance.

Brand managers at dormakaba see the current health-care spike moving to a steadily increasing stream of retrofit and new-construction activity. Rumor has it that complete restroom kits, including touchless sensors and low-energy operators, now are packaged with aggressive pricing through standard lock wholesalers.

Through a single 110VAC plug-in device, door operators can power sensors and an electric strike or exit device. dormakaba’s Thomas Chaney says low-energy door operators have become extremely reliable, with the Dorma ED series being tested independently to more than 1 million cycles.

Smooth Operators

Low-energy operators, low-touch actuation plates and touchless sensors are manufactured by virtually all door hardware manufacturers and are available widely through locksmith distributors. These operators have become a popular way to meet ADA and the newer Canadian requirements in public accommodations, as well as allow wheelchair and patient movement in health-care facilities. 

The health-care industry has used low-energy operators for some time, but we’re seeing substantial interest in areas that have high-touch entrance and restroom doors. Restaurants, the hospitality industry and schools are seen as the second-tier market after health care. As these industries move to reopen, industry leaders expect to see increased focus on touchless operation. Hospitality businesses and restaurants might be willing to spend an extra $100 to get a sensor that has the most high-tech or upscale appearance. 

BEA and dormakaba appear to have been at the forefront of creating more-sophisticated control systems for high-energy doors. Laser and active infrared-based detection protect against injury and reduce nuisance activation, while gyroscopic positioning allows for accurate control.

Reducing germ spread, however, has supercharged demand for low-energy operators and touchless sensors in a number of markets that are important to locksmiths. Existing push plates are operated commonly by an elbow, knee or other covered body part. In a number of situations, these push plates receive substantial abuse. As a result, existing push plates are being replaced with touchless actuator switches and arm- or foot-operated columns.

A number of touchless sensor types are in use. These include:

  • Passive infrared, which detects objects that vary about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from the background temperature and move at more than 4 inches per second.
  • Active infrared, which receives a focused beam that might come from the same device or another, or is reflected from a nearby target.
  • Microwave (radar) devices, which transmit a pulsed signal that measures a change in reflected frequency to determine movement.
  • Capacitance sensors, which measure the change of position of a conductive target, such as a hand. 

Request To Exit (RQE or REX) sensors have a targeted pattern that detects intent to enter or exit, rather than an alarm system’s role of area surveillance. Touchless switches are designed to detect a knowing action (wave) rather than someone standing nearby. Touchless switches typically are wall-mounted indoors or on a wall or pedestal outdoors.

Allegion, ASSA ABLOY, BEA, Camden, Detex, dormakaba and Hager provide touchless sensors with their low-energy operators. Touchless sensors also are available from Alarm Controls and Dortronics. Several innovations are enhancing the effectiveness of touchless sensors.

Hand-held transmitters can be issued to authorized persons to trigger door operators in a process similar to your garage-door opener. Battery-operated wall-mount radio-frequency (RF) transmitters also can trigger the door operator and eliminate wiring. 

BEA’s backlit microwave sensor displays a blue backlit image that changes to green when a hand-wave motion is presented within a 2-foot radius.

Camden has developed a complete range of touchless sensor options, including low-voltage and battery-powered units. A hard-wired or RF transmitter connects to the door operator. The Kinetic line of switches uses low-touch pressure to power the transmitter. This is particularly cost-effective in eliminating wiring runs and batteries for exterior bollards or wall-mounted columns. These self-powered devices provide foot- or elbow-operated actuation.

Low-touch devices generally include arm and foot pulls as well as column switches that can be bumped by an arm, knee or foot. Don-Jo, Allegion’s Ives and ASSA ABLOY’s Rockwood brands provide arm and foot pulls.

Antimicrobial finishes will continue to gain market share as health concerns work their way into building codes. It doesn’t appear that these finishes kill quickly, but they seem to reduce the ability of microbial agents to survive and reproduce considerably.

One other touchless device deserves mention — your mobile phone.

It appears there is a universal move to mobile credentials. A couple of things are worth noting: First, there isn’t an industry-standard app. You might have to have multiple apps to access different systems. Second, some apps can run in “background mode” while you are at work. This allows the Bluetooth-enabled app to authorize your access when in close proximity to a portal, door or device.

Touchless openings have become the new world order, and this will be a steady-growth market segment for many years to come. The health-care industry is pursuing touchless openings aggressively. Schools, hospitality and restaurants will follow with gradual adoption.

Cameron Sharpe, CPP, worked 30 years in the commercial lock and electronic access industry. Contact him at [email protected].