Handwashing stations are a staple in the back of house and in restrooms to ensure restaurant staff comply with HACCP guidelines and help prevent the spread of germs and bacteria.

More recently — in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — handwashing stations are being installed in the front of house and designated for customer use. This reduces germ exposure for those not using the restroom.

All handwashing stations should include a commercial-grade sink, soap, paper towels or hand dryers and a waste receptacle.

It’s important to note that sinks assigned for food preparation should not be used for handwashing or warewashing.

There should be a handwashing station within each work area and visible to employees. Sinks should ideally be located at the entrance and exit of the work area. If sinks can’t be within the work area, they should be immediately adjacent to it. 

Local health codes govern the specific number of hand sinks needed in the back of house and in restrooms. Generally, the back of house should be equipped with one hand sink for every five employees; one hand sink for every 300 square feet of facility space and one hand sink for each prep and cooking area.

Sink Components

Health codes for handwashing sinks in commercial foodservice operations have evolved over time. In the past, there were limited types available but today manufacturers offer many to choose from that meet the necessary requirements.

Broadly speaking, the standard size sink bowl in the foodservice industry measures 10 inches by 14 inches by 5 inches. Space-saving bowls are also available that measure 9 inches by 9 inches by 5 inches.

Sinks are most often made of stainless steel for durability and easy cleaning. The steel can be type 430, which has a 16% chrome content, or the thicker and more durable type 304, which has an 8% nickel content.

Some sinks have a shallow flat bottom bowl and others have an oval bowl. Components include a backsplash, front roll rim, legs and fittings. Bowls may be fabricated or deep-drawn. Size and shape can impact installations, as sinks without a straight-line design may not fit through an operation’s door in one piece. These types must be brought into a kitchen in pieces and then welded into a single unit.

Most hand sinks are the deck-mounted faucet type. These comply with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and also can be connected to existing plumbing or a special faucet.

Traditional hand sinks mount on the wall and include a faucet and basket drain. These may incorporate accessories, such as stainless steel skirts, lever drains, left and right end splashes, trash receptacles, soap and towel dispensers, wrist handles for the faucet and emergency eye wash units, which mount directly to the faucet.

Another style, the pedestal type, is typically hands-free for additional cross contamination protection. During use, the operator pushes down on a foot pedal valve located at the bottom of the pedestal. The majority of hand sinks with foot pedals have one designated for hot water and one for cold water. Foot and knee pedals are available with thermostatic mixing valves. This allows users to pre-set the desired water temperature and access it with the push of a pedal. Also hands free, knee valve sinks are units where the user pushes on either one or two valves with their knees to activate the faucet.

The most technologically advanced type, electronic eye hand sinks include sensors for hands-free use. Battery-operated electronic eye faucets are available that can continuously recharge from the flow of water.

ADA-compliant sinks are available with a tapered bowl that starts shallow and gets deeper in the rear. The drains in these sinks are typically located in the back, so pipes don’t interfere with wheelchair access. ADA sinks generally have hands-free faucets or are wrist operated.

For larger operations or those with more space, multistation handwashing sinks accommodate multiple people at one time. These are most often wall-mounted but freestanding units also are available.

Mobile/portable handwashing sinks are geared for operations with limited space such as food trucks and mobile kiosks. This type includes a hot water supply and wastewater storage.

Some local health codes have dictated the need for side splashes, which prevent water from splashing onto the floor or other work surfaces, while others require hands-free operation.

There are limited options offered with hand sinks, such as built-in soap and paper towel dispensers. Some types provide antimicrobial protection designed to help prevent airborne illnesses.

For sanitary purposes, all service sink faucets should have a vacuum breaker to prevent backflow. Operators should install NSF-rated sinks whenever possible. These must be manufactured with radius seams, coved corners and integrally welded drain boards for the most effective sanitation.

Soap Dispensing and Hand Drying Options

Along with sinks, handwashing stations should be equipped with paper towel dispensers and/or hand dryers.

Commercial paper towel dispensers are available in a wide range of formats.

Manual dispensers store a large amount of product for minimal maintenance with restocking. Paper towels can be dispensed via a roll, in a multi-fold format via an opening or individually with a center pull down dispenser. These units come in many shapes and sizes, with some including receptacles underneath for added convenience in disposing of used towels. The automatic paper towel dispenser has become more common as it hygienically operates using motion detection. Lower cost, manual models have a lever or wheel for easy dispensing. A wide range of finishes are available, including stainless steel or plastic versions in white, black or blue.

The benefits of paper towels are quick drying and simple use, along with being hygienic. However, the downside is this method is not as environmentally friendly as hand drying since more waste is created.

Automatic hand dryers have become popular for those seeking an eco-friendlier solution. Similar to paper towel dispensers, these systems are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Providing touch-free use as opposed to the old push button models, today’s versions have quieter motors, keeping sound levels to a minimum.

The benefit of hand dryers is there is minimal maintenance with no restocking of paper towels. However, keep in mind that not only are these dispensers more costly to purchase and run, but they will require part replacements with high-volume use. In addition, there have been hygiene concerns around those not washing their hands properly spreading germs while drying via droplets released in the air.

Another key component to handwashing stations, soap dispensers are available in manual pump and automatic touch-free formats for distributing liquid, foaming and spray soap types. In addition to providing hygienic use, touch-free models are easy to use and limit the amount of soap dispensed for cost savings.

The most common soap dispenser type, wall-mounted liquid models, are easy to install, however counter-mounted versions provide a more seamless integration into the station. For stations with multiple sinks, the counter-mounted type is recommended. Soap can be dispensed directly from the container or from a bag-in-box set up.

Soap dispenser size is determined by both volume and frequency of use as well as the area it’s being used in. For high-volume, it’s recommended that soap dispensers accommodate 30 ounces or more of product to reduce refilling.

Purchasing Guidelines

First and foremost, prior to setting up handwashing stations, operators should check with their local health department to verify the requirements.

If the sink is located close to food preparation, cooking or clean ware, side splashes on the sink will be required to keep those areas protected. Healthcare facilities may also need to provide touch-free operation using electronic eye faucets, knee valves or foot valves.

In the back of the house, operators should have a hand sink in every workstation. A general guideline is that these should be located no more than 20 feet from each work area, although requirements are subject to local codes.

Operators should ensure that the sink bowl size is appropriate for the operation. Smaller bowls tend to cause splashing and are more difficult to work with. Polished sinks with finished, fully welded edges are preferable as they are less likely to harbor bacteria.

If used in the front of house or public restrooms, aesthetics comes into play. For example, if wall-mounted sinks will be in a public area, it is worth considering different skirting options that enclose and conceal the plumbing for a better aesthetic.

Hand sinks should be specified with wall and side mounting brackets that ensure it is straight and securely mounted.

From a cost standpoint, faucets with convenient wrist blade handles are affordable and functional. Note that larger 8-inch on center faucet assemblies require certain specs from manufacturers, since many times these are designed for 4-inch on center installs.

Ensure the faucet is coordinated with the sink size so it doesn’t take up too much of the sink bowl or is situated too close to the edge. The faucet gooseneck should not be too narrow or sit too far back since this makes it difficult to reach the water for handwashing.

For ease of use, operators should consider sinks that offer hands-free operations. The type where the flow of water regenerates the unit’s battery so it doesn’t need constant replacing will be more costly.

If the hand sink will be built into the serving area counter, an undermount sink that is up to local codes may be preferable. Because the seam between the counter and sink can harbor bacteria, drop in sinks may be required by the municipality. For drop-in and undermount sinks, the most popular size is 10 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches deep.

Many institutions request foot pedals, but there are mixed opinions on use. While there’s no dealing with an electronic eye that’s out of adjustment with this type, one of the main issues is that even if pedals go up, it’s one more thing to clean around. Plus, these sinks can cost twice as much as wall-mounted units.

When purchasing hand dryers, although the newer high-speed type uses less energy and dries faster, keep in mind that these models are louder and may not be suitable for some locations. For areas with limited space, recessed hand dryers and hand dryer accessories are space savers. Because electric hand dryers require appropriate power to function, voltage requirements should be verified.

When choosing soap dispensers, note that the foaming type has become more popular. This is because even though these economical models dispense less soap with each pump, the foaming action increases the volume and hand coverage. Soap type includes solutions with moisturizer and a choice of scents.

Those looking to add handwashing stations to the front of the house or locations with no plumbing or power can consider a rolling cart with jugs of water below. This not only eliminates the need for pricey replumbing, but also is transportable for versatile use.