Competition in the Bathroom

For many years, a common graffito in men’s rooms was: “Wash hands, place hands under blow dryer, dry hands on pants.”  The old-fashioned low-powered dryers didn’t have enough power to dry hands well in any reasonable amount of time.  No more: about 10 years ago the Dyson Airblade was marketed, and it was revolutionary:  10 or 15 seconds and one’s hands really were dry.

I assume that they were expensive, which is why I only saw them in a few places, even in the U.K., where they originated. Today they are much more widespread.  They aren’t cheap (I see a discounted price of £615), but I bet they have come down in price.  Why?  The answer is competition: other companies are now making equally effective products, both in the U.S. and the U.K. An innovating entrepreneur may enjoy a monopoly for a while, but competitors with similar products will enter the market, forcing prices down (and increasing consumer surplus for now dry-handed users like me!).

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COMMENTS: 32


  1. Matt Hester says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  2. TommyP says:

    Does it count as in innovation if you take a wildly ineffectual product and make it do the thing it’s supposed to do? I know that’s Dyson’s raison d’être but why did companies carry on making products that just didn’t work well?

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    • Nick says:

      “Does it count as in innovation if you take a wildly ineffectual product and make it do the thing it’s supposed to do?”

      Improving upon established things/processes is the most basic definition of innovation.

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  3. Chris says:

    That kind of hand dryer is indeed effective, not just for drying the hands but for creating decent hearing loss.

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  4. JamieR says:

    I generally find the XLerator from Excel Dryer to be the superior product to the Dyson. I’ll still use paper towels when they’re available though.

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    • Daniel says:

      That’s the real competition… Put several types of driers and towel dispensers in a bathroom and see not only which one people prefer but which ones are the most cost effective. My guess is that paper towels w0uld trounce the air driers easily in both categories. An I agree the XLerator is probably the best of the air driers.

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  5. cjl73 says:

    Ummm, no, just no. These dryers already had lots of competition – paper towels, other dryers, skipping hand washing altogether, etc. The copycat devices are a trivial incremental competitor.

    Two things make them come down in price – scale and costs. The more people who want the Dyson dryer, the economies of scale can ramp up and the average cost of each unit falls (the design and development of these was a significant undertaking), and the marginal cost falls (reducing average cost) as the technology inside the device becomes cheaper. Once they can be made for a lower cost the firm has a pricing decision to make – keep it high and sell a few, or lower it and sell more. They figured they were still in the elastic range of their product’s demand curve and reduced the price to increase TR. They did this until MR=MC. Why skip the economics Professor?

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    • John C says:

      The slow growth of market share might have also been due to the fact that many places with public bathrooms already had existing hand drying technology and had low incentive to change to a more “modern” solution and throw away the old system. I can’t imagine many people make decisions about where they should eat dinner, buy clothes, or go to the movies based on the type of hand drier in the bathroom, so I struggle to see where there’s any value to the establishment in choosing a more expensive technology.

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  6. SMG says:

    These super-powerful hand-dryers also scare the bejeezus out of small children. Thanks to these things my son is afraid of public restrooms.

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  7. John C says:

    Many hospitals don’t allow their health care professionals to use this kind of hand dryer because there is reason to believe that they kick up all kinds of bacteria in the room and spread them. Personally I prefer to shake my hands well in the sink and let them air dry, which gets my hands acceptably dry by the time I walk out of the bathroom usually. Regardless of whether it’s true that the air dryers spread germs, I’m conserving energy and not generating waste, so I’m happy. Plus, if everyone did that, the savings on paper towels or hand dryers+energy should translate into cheaper products as it lowers the overhead on whatever establishment is providing the bathroom.

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    • Dwight K Schrute says:

      mythbusters covered that pretty well in an episode this year.
      They showed that the high speed air driers created an aerosol of the droplets and deposited bacteria all over the bathroom and paper towels were most effective at reducing the spread of bacteria

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    • Agee says:

      I was recently in a restaurant men’s room that had a prominent placard proclaiming, “The proper way to wash your hands”–showing the use of a paper towel to shut off the water faucet and to open the door.

      One problem: only blow dryers were provided.

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  8. Alex says:

    Can someone knowledgeable please weigh in on how hygienic those Dyson blow dryers are? While I agree they are neat and technologically advanced, I find it impossible to not touch the sides when putting my hands into it. Knowing other people have this same issue I can’t imagine they aren’t covered in bacteria. Thoughts?

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    • Joe says:

      I wouldn’t guess the sides are any worse than the handles on the sink or the door; at least the sides are only touched by people who did wash, after all (and kids playing?). I manage to not touch the sides, but I don’t doubt some do not. There have been some studies (like http://www.ebpsupply.com/files/6613/4970/6267/Original_Text_Journal_of_Applied_Microbiology.pdf for example) that relied on volunteers using the various dryers; one can assume they would make some mistakes like touching the sides, especially back in 2010 when that study was done when Dyson Airblades were still relatively uncommon.

      From what I’ve read, hand dryers can be bad at transferring bacteria in the air they recirculate; Dyson has filters to prevent this (though how good those are, who knows). The paper towel industry of course suggests paper towels are still better, which is probably true; not so much because of crosscontamination but because physical rubbing of paper on skin will remove quite a few bacteria. Conversely, the warm air dryers probably improve bacterial conditions, as they operate at a nice healthy temperature for bacteria.

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      • Alex says:

        Ha, that’s awesome! Didn’t expect someone to actually come up with a study for me.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      They’re probably much cleaner than the door that you push open to leave, and no worse than the knob you push on the old style to turn it on. If you are willing to touch the restroom door, then you probably don’t need to worry about the hand dryer.

      If, on the other hand, you prefer paper towels because (after drying your hands on them) you can re-use them as a ‘glove’ to protect your now-clean hands from touching the dirtiest place in the restroom on your way out (jacket pockets also work for this), then I’m not sure what would be a good option for you.

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      • Violent Violet says:

        As long as there is a subset of people who wet their hands for the “show” of washing their hands, and those people use their wet, cooties-covered hands to open the bathroom door to exit, I’ll pick paper towels over air dryers, using the paper towel to open the door.

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  9. Joe says:

    I’m not sure the article was sufficiently detailed enough to explain the issue, particularly to those who haven’t experienced the gamut.

    Dyson’s AirBlade is significantly different than most hand dryers; it doesn’t use a very loud burst of air, nor is it heated. Rather, it uses the air to effectively ‘wipe’ your hands dry by pulling the water down. Much more sanitary (in particular, it keeps the germs enclosed in the air dryer) and not very loud (at least, it doesn’t scare my 2 year old, though he won’t use it). There are some imitators, most notably (and effectively) a Mitsubishi that I wonder whether it might have predated the AirBlade (otherwise I’m sure Dyson would charge a fortune for the patent rights).

    The XLerator is a completely different concept; super-loud super-high pressure air. That is far superior to the old fashioned World Dryer or whatnot; it actually does get your hands dry reasonably quickly, although it scares off small children and is probably energy-inefficient. I don’t know the timing to market, but I’d be willing to bet that the Dyson entry forced the hands of some of the folks on the market – the World Dryer and similar were all terrible and all very energy-inefficient.

    To TommyP, it certainly counts as innovation. Most of innovation is taking products that don’t work and making them work, or products that work and making them work better. In some cases it’s small incremental changes and some cases it’s huge changes, but I think it’s hard to argue that in this case Dyson (and XLerator and a few others) made significant improvements.

    Daniel/Jamie, while you might think that, I certainly don’t think that air dryers are less cost effective – Dyson claims theirs cost 97% less than paper towels, for example (Assuming 0.01 per paper towel and 2 towels per customer, which passes the smell test to me; 97% is probably based on a very high usage amount, as the dryer has some standby cost that towels do not). Even if you ran a dryer on 15 amps (far more than a Dyson, and probably others, use), for 30 seconds per customer, that’s 0.75kW*0.5m/60m/h per customer, or .006 kWh/customer; at .10 per kWh , that’s .0006 per customer actual use vs .02 per customer for towels – a significant cost savings indeed, which means you’d make back that $600 after 35000 customers or so. Certainly sounds reasonable for a high-traffic area (airports, movie theaters, etc.) at least.

    Whether customers would prefer it or not over paper towels is probably a two part question. Some might prefer it right now (including me, I prefer both Dyson and XLerator over hand towels), and some might learn to prefer it (such as when they learn to use Dyson properly, or even the XLerator, which does much better when you shake off first and don’t keep your hands too close together initially). My only objection to them is that they don’t open the door for me, meaning I still touch the germy handle if it’s not a push-door.

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    • Joe says:

      Follow up on my calculations – Dyson uses 1400W, XLerator uses 1500W, and a ‘traditional’ hand dryer uses around 2200W. So my calculation is about right for XLerator or Dyson, and would be a bit higher (but still far lower than paper) for a traditional hand dryer. (XLerator also assumes 15 seconds per dry, not 30, which is about the same as Dyson, but I’m going to assume for both you have more like 30 including time where nobody can use it, and spin up/spin down time, and carry the ‘standby’ cost in that bucket as well).

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    • Phil Persinger says:

      Joe–

      While I see no reason to doubt your figures, my totally personal observation is that– unless you’re talking interstate highway rest areas or franchise restaurants– you don’t really see many of these machines because the first-time cost for any of them alarms the typical “small-volume” rest room owner, who will often strike the item when confronted with an initial construction budget.

      Where we do see hand dryers, I can imagine that their availability has little to do with customer preference. Instead we might consider marketing tactics which may emphasize the “coolness” of these machines (as opposed to hard-to-quantify, actual economics), tax policies which place no penalty on the purchase of “premium” equipment and corporate algorithms which calculate that the purchase of this equipment will be offset by reduced maintenance/personnel costs over the period until the next re-model.

      Personally, I prefer towels since I like to wash my face and glasses occasionally– and neither fits profitably into a Dyson or XLerator.

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    • Bill McGonigle says:

      Also, paper towel dispensers have fairly low maintenance costs.
      Does the Dyson go 35,000 cycles without needing any replacement parts? I don’t know, but it’s very likely doesn’t go forever.

      Also to figure in: the installation costs are considerably lower for paper towels (figure $350 for an electrician to install the outlet in the right space in the wall for a dryer). There are also labor costs to replace the towels, though perhaps the minimum-wage youth you set on the job is already a sunk cost.

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  10. SAO says:

    I tried a Dyson hand dryer. I still dried my hands on my pants when I was done.

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    • Joe says:

      If you’re still drying your hands on your pants, then you’re doing it wrong; cost-effective or not, a properly used Dyson Air Blade dries your hands as advertised. It’s a very different experience than a normal air dryer, though (given it’s scraping your hands clean of water rather than heating the water or overpowering them like an XLerator) so it definitely has a learning curve.

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  11. Bob says:

    I wonder how much money is saved when you don’t need to buy as many paper towels as you used to because the blow dryers are actually drying.

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  12. duggo says:

    I prefer a paper towel as I can use it to open the door.

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  13. Doug says:

    No thanks, please give me paper towels. Otherwise I’ll come out and just ask for napkins.

    These never work well enough.

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  14. RZ says:

    My biggest gripe with these is that in most women’s restrooms, there are too few hand dryers. It’s common to see 10 or so stalls, 6 or so sinks, and then just two hand dryers. So I’m guessing that either they’re still expensive (even in the prices dropped), or companies with large restrooms are too cheap to buy more, or not everyone is expected to wash/dry their hands.

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  15. Jake Peters says:

    I seem to recall that, in Japan, Mitsubishi had these “blade style” hand dryers at least 12-13 years ago. Back then, they were new to me, but they were not new to Japan, and therefore might be much older. And, they work at least as well as the Dyson

    So, don’t be too sure that Dyson really pioneered this capability. It may have done so, but only for the western world.

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  16. DrJ says:

    I first saw a Dyson had dryer in a WC in Bath, England. It was awesome enough I encouraged my studies to go potty just so they could try it out. They agree it was great.

    When I can get one for $200 it’ll go into my home….

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  17. Ben says:

    Another problem with these dryers is related to how to get out of the bathroom with your clean hands intact. Your hands may be perfectly clean, but unless it’s a doorless entryway you then need to push/pull on the door without an intervening towel, contacting the same surfaces that people did who skipped the hand-washing altogether and immediately contaminating yourself.

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