A frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry told me he had a bit of a shock the first time he encountered a unisex restroom. In New York City, he went into a new hotel—part of a chain that caters to young professionals and known to be somewhat avant-garde—and as soon as he walked in, he found both men and women at the restroom counter washing their hands. Hesitant, but needing to use the restroom, he went in, did his business, and left.
We should note that our writer is an older gentleman, and while studies indicate that most Americans do not like unisex restrooms, it is older people who are most opposed to them. However, cleaning contractors should prepare themselves for unisex restrooms because they are being found in more and more facilities, especially college campuses.
Before we start exploring this phenomenon and how it will impact restroom cleaning and maintenance, let’s clarify a few things about these restrooms, starting with what to call them. Although they are often referred to as “unisex” restrooms, this can be a somewhat outdated term. Other terms that have passed in and out of favor include “all-family,” “gender-open,” and “all-gender” restrooms. In Philadelphia, legislation was passed requiring new or renovated city-owned buildings to include “gender-neutral” bathrooms. For political correctness, if for no other reason, it is believed these terms will find their way onto more restroom doors in both public and commercial facilities in the future.
According to Kim Bellware’s article “Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Are Quietly Becoming the New Thing at Colleges,” which appeared in the Huffington Post in 2014, the number of gender-neutral restrooms in the United States has increased significantly over the past few years. The article goes on to say that more than 150 colleges and universities across the country now have unisex restrooms—and that number is steadily growing.
But what is the reasoning behind this seemingly odd new development?
"Cleaning contractors should prepare themselves for unisex restrooms because these gender-neutral facilities are becoming much more common."
There are a number of reasons, and one big one is pure dollars and cents. If a developer is constructing a 35-story building with two separate restroom facilities (men’s and women’s) on each floor, that’s a total of 70 restrooms in the building. If each restroom has six toilets and four sinks, that’s 700 total fixtures. Add to this that each men’s room has three or more urinals, and we’re talking about 105-plus urinals.
If the developer can cut all these restroom numbers and fixtures in half by building only one restroom per floor, there can be a major cost and construction savings. Additionally, this may result in more room for other purposes, such as rentable office space. Now we’re talking money in the bank for the owner of the building.
The other reason is more political. In 2005, five major American cities, among them New York and San Francisco, required that public restroom access be based on a person’s “gender identity” rather than their birth sex. In other words, if someone is a male by birth but identifies himself as a woman, he now can use the women’s restroom based on this legislation, which later spread to the United Kingdom and Canada.
This often leads to confusion, disruption, and problems. So to settle things down, many facilities figured the best thing to do is just make the restrooms gender neutral. While there are other reasons for this trend, these are the most prominent.
Realizing that a gender-neutral restroom is likely on the horizon for many cleaning contractors, it’s time to talk about actually cleaning these restrooms. The first thing you should know is that in most cases, these restrooms are larger than traditional gender-specific restrooms. Although our writer friend reported there were no urinals—for obvious reasons—the restroom did have about 15 toilets and 10 sinks. That’s 25 fixtures, and based on ISSA Cleaning Times, that means the restroom should take one person roughly 75 minutes or longer to clean effectively.
We should also note that these restrooms can be a bit messier than traditional restrooms. First, there are a lot more people using them. That alone will increase the cleaning needs. Second—and with all due respect to the ladies out there—many cleaning professionals in business today have concluded that women’s restrooms tend to be messier—and thus harder to clean—than men’s. Two common reasons for this outcome are that women often take their children into the restrooms when they use them, and women’s restrooms tend to get more overall traffic.
And not only are women’s rooms messier. A study taken a number of years ago by Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist with the University of Arizona and reported in the American Society of Microbiology, found that women’s restrooms tend to have a greater number of germs and pathogens compared to men’s restrooms. This trend will likely transfer to gender-neutral restrooms, and that means cleaning these restrooms must be done thoroughly, effectively, and as efficiently as possible.
About 10 years ago, a prominent cleaning expert advocated that the most effective way to clean restrooms was through the use of restroom “cleaning kits” that included brushes, pads, microfiber, poles, and other items specifically designed for restroom cleaning. Although these tools may prove very effective in smaller restrooms with two or three toilets and a sink or two, they simply won’t make the grade in far larger, gender-neutral restrooms. The reason is very simple: time. Because these tools require hand-cleaning fixtures and counters, they simply take too much time to do the job in a larger restroom.
With large, gender-neutral restrooms likely to be a future trend in many facilities, cleaning contractors need to find ways to automate the restroom-cleaning process as much as possible. Additionally, equipment that can hygienically clean fixtures and surfaces with few or no chemicals—part of the “green” trend in the industry—should also be considered. Considering these factors, it seems likely that more BSCs will look into using indoor pressure washing/no-touch cleaning systems.
According to ISSA Cleaning Times, these machines can cut cleaning times by as much as two-thirds. So instead of taking 75 minutes, the cleaning time would be reduced to 25 minutes. Additionally, a few years back, tests were conducted at an ISSA/INTERCLEAN trade show comparing the effectiveness of cleaning floors with a spray-and-vac cleaning system versus using high-quality microfiber floor pads. After 12 tests and using ATP (adenosine triphosphate) testing monitors, the sprayand- vac systems were shown to remove nearly 99 percent of all organic soil, which was nearly twice as much as the microfiber. These systems seem to fulfill our need for equipment that is thorough, effective, and fast.
Will There Be a Revolution?
We should expect gender-neutral restrooms to gradually make their way into even more facilities, especially those that cater to younger people. The hotel discussed earlier catered to a younger crowd, but it is doubtful—at least for now—that a gender-neutral restroom would be accepted in more traditional, family, or conservative settings. Given this, what we will likely see is not a unisex restroom revolution, but a gradual introduction of more of these types of restroom facilities. Building owners will surely test the reaction of building users over time, and if there is wide acceptance, we can expect to see—and will need to clean—many more of them.
Andrew Robinson is vice president of sales for NexDoor Cleaners, a contract cleaning company in Ohio that cleans all types of facilities but specializes on restaurant cleaning. He can be reached via NexDoorCleaners.com