Mini Object Lesson: How to Vanquish the Automated Towel Dispenser

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The toilet is the ultimate venue of control. It’s where you start to learn control, as a toddler, and where you eventually lose it, as a golden ager. It’s where, on a moment-to-moment basis, you think about the mechanics of control more than anywhere else, for obvious reasons. (So you don’t pee all over yourself.) In the toilet, control is on offer first, then relief by means of it.

And yet, today’s toilet has abandoned its role as the temple of control.

With so much talk about automating driving and work and errands, we’ve overlooked the fact that full automation conquered the restroom years ago. Urinals and toilets automatically flush when a sensor detects that its user has departed the throne. Faucets activate, if briefly, when hands pass under them. Soap dispensers supply measures of cleanser in a similar way. So do towel dispensers, miserly eking out towels for newly relieved and washed potty-goers.

It’s all in the name of hygiene, of course. (In fact, Boeing just announced a self-cleaning airplane lavatory, which bathes the whole water closet in ultraviolet light.) But people hate automated bathrooms nevertheless. For lots of reasons. The toilet sensors are overly eager, often flushing themselves many times during a session. (They don’t work at all for kids, who rightly fear engorgement by the constantly flushing vessel.) The infrared sensors at sinks often absorb rather than reflect light, making them poorly responsive to the hands of people of color.

Take those automated towel dispensers. They’re not the worst offenders, but as the final trial before besting the washroom, they’re often the most memorable. And the commonest way they annoy is by dispensing a half-size towel. The machine finally responds to your sopping flail, and then you have to wait and get another to provide surface sufficient to dry your hands.

Some small relief is available, it turns out; you just have to be willing to go rogue on your work or school or church restroom. Many office and facility bathrooms use the Georgia Pacific enMotion Automated Towel Dispenser. If you consult its manual, you’ll discover that a simple switch inside the case determines the length of towel dispensed.

"S" Short towel (maximum number of hand dries) - approximately 8"

"M" Medium towel (optimal hand dry capacity) - approximately 12"

"L" Long towel (largest available towel) - approximately 16"

Other switches control the time delay between towel intervals and the motion sensor’s range—also useful features. (Warning to the prim: you will have to break into your workplace towel dispenser to change these settings.) You can also change the Dispense Mode to “Hanging Towel” so that the dispenser always presents a new towel after each is torn off, avoiding the wait entirely.

I don’t know what you prefer, but for my part, a Medium Hanging Towel is the only humane choice for modern relief-seekers. Just don’t forget to wash your hands before touching the dispenser.