Meredith MacLeod, CTVNews.ca Writer
TORONTO — Even a guy with decades of experience servicing elevators is creeped out by pushing the up and down buttons.
Lonnie Mackenzie, owner of Abco Elevator in Regina, has posted a video that offers three tips for a germ-free elevator ride.
As you approach an elevator, he says, “think about how many interesting and unique people have touched this button and if you’re like me, it kind of gives you that icky feeling in your stomach,” he says.
He always carries a pen to press those buttons, but using gloves or knuckles work, too.
That four-minute video is a telling window into the world we live in, where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is transforming a whole range of mundane, routine experiences. A trip on an elevator is certainly at the top of that list.
If the pandemic is causing people to fear small indoor spaces crowded with strangers, and having to touch surfaces that many others touch, the steel box that is an elevator is just about the worst imaginable place to be.
That threat is real, say experts.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, it took just riding in the same elevator at different times for a woman to contract the novel coronavirus from her upstairs neighbour, an asymptomatic carrier, in China.
Health authorities are recommending elevator behaviour that once would have seemed, at best, anti-social. In Calgary, riders are advised to face the wall and some office buildings in Toronto have decals on the floor instructing passengers to stand with their feet pointed into the corner.
Even elevator executives are wary right now.
“I don’t think you or I will be getting on an elevator with 10 or 12 people on board for a long time,” said Kelly Leitch, managing director of KONE Canada.
“We all want to feel safer right now and I think this changes things forever.”
He and other elevator industry insiders who spoke to CTVNews.ca largely agree that the future of the elevator is touchless, highly automated, mobile and dedicated to moving people with optimal efficiency.
COVID-19 is rapidly shifting the conversation among developers, builders, and property managers about elevators, says industry consultant Rob Isabelle. What were seen as gadgets just six months ago, are now seen as necessary to reassuring the public.
“Just about every contractor has a pilot technology in somewhere that will be a standard five years from now,” Isabelle told CTVNews.ca from Toronto.
But right now, elevators are a pinch point in many workplaces as a growing number of people return to work but have to spread out as they get there.
Isabelle says modelling shows it would take three hours for just half of the 10,000 employees at the four-tower Commerce Court in Toronto’s financial district to get to their office in the morning.
COVID-19 is accelerating the adoption and creation of elevator technology, says Jon Clarine, head of digital services for ThyssenKrupp Elevator, who is based in Atlanta.
He expects more investment in sophisticated elevator systems because tenants will be willing to pay that cost.
“The optimum experience now has great value. Every building is looking for solutions to help tenants feel comfortable to return to work. It’s not about bells and whistles any more. It’s health and safety.”
George Foleanu, vice-president with Dupar Controls in Cambridge, Ont., says some in-demand solutions include glass-fronted touchscreens that are sealed just like a smartphone, meaning they can withstand disinfection, touchless call buttons that will summon an elevator with a wave of the hand, or direct it with just a hovering finger.
“Long term, no one wants to touch buttons and not just for COVID-19, but for colds and the flu,” said Shaun Harper, a field supervisor with West Coast Elevator. The company has collaborated with NZ Technologies that develops touchless devices for operating rooms.
Together, they’ve created a tablet-like device for elevators that allows users to hover a finger over their desired floor. It’s being prototyped in a building at the University of British Columbia.
“We believe it’s the most adaptable solution because it can be used in any type of elevator. And the existing mechanical buttons remain if someone can’t understand the technology.”
Major elevator companies are also exploring the use of voice commands and facial recognition to operate elevators. Technology has been being developed in China that uses a hologram to project virtual buttons into the air.
One technology that is found in high-end office towers across the country is a system dubbed destination dispatch in which riders enter their floor on a touchscreen and are directed to a specific elevator with others going to the same floor or those in the same vicinity. No more stopping at every floor.
“Four people going to the same floor on four different elevators slows everything down,” said elevator consultant Ray Eleid, who is based in Mississauga, Ont.
Bundling runs together improves efficiency by 30 to 40 per cent, but also improves pandemic physical distancing. ThyssenKrupp’s Agile system has been programmed so that it only directs two or three people to an elevator, says Clarine.
“It can be defined depending on that size of the car. In some cases, only one person is sent to each elevator.”
Advanced destination dispatch systems are tied into turnstiles where employees swipe their cards for entry to office towers. The system automatically summons an elevator and directs the user to which one to take.
Those systems are found in a few New York City office towers and KONE Canada is installing its first such platform in an office building in Saskatchewan.
KONE uses the same technology to direct crowds at sporting events and concerts in Boston based on a QR code on their ticket.
“This contributes to better traffic flow from the minute you come into a building and there is no need to push a button or touch a door,” said Leitch. “I think COVID will automate all of that.”
The next layer is an app that ties into proximity sensors in a building so that the system knows where you are and will call an elevator as you approach. Preregistered users are already cleared for access to restricted floors and the elevator takes you to your default floor.
If a user needs another destination – to attend a meeting or get a coffee – they can override the default floor.
“If it’s to be truly hands-free and germ-free, then an app is where it’s at,” said Eleid.
But Bluetooth connectivity remains a challenge. A rider would connect in the hallway, but then has to switch to a transmitter within the car, a steel box that isn’t the best environment for stable connections. Depending on the phone, its software and its version of Bluetooth, it can be tricky, says Eleid.
Near-field communications, like what’s embedded into credit and debit cards to allow the tap touchless payment function, could be another solution, but it is still being explored.
“If there is any lag in speed of connecting, you could end up going in the wrong direction on the elevator. That could lead to frustrations.”
No building in Canada as of yet has elevators that can be controlled through apps, says Eleid, but at least two buildings in New York City are using the technology.
There is a “huge appetite” for touchless, and ultimately, mobile-based elevator systems, he says. But of course, they have to be highly secure and hack-proof. Workplace elevator apps would be tied to a having a security profile in a building.
“It can’t be vulnerable to a disgruntled tenant calling elevators repeatedly and paralyzing the system.”
Touchless, sensor based systems work for robots that deliver items in hospitals, hotels and factories because the robots are able to command the elevators to move from floor to floor. Elevators will be smart enough one day to tell occupants to stop jumping or to hold the door longer for someone accompanying children or juggling shopping bags, says Eleid.
State-of-the-art dispatching platforms are impressive and efficient, but only make sense in buildings with four to eight elevators, says Doug Guderian, president of Elevator One in Barrie, Ont.
Most buildings are small – five storeys or less – and there isn’t a return on large investment in touchless or mobile systems, says Guderian.
“Tying different technologies together can be difficult. Many elevators still run on old relay systems. There isn’t even a computer in them. They are 40 years old and very reliable but how do you get a cellphone app to talk to that?”
KICKING YOUR WAY UP
Some of the innovation coming to an elevator near you is more low-tech.
That includes large buttons mounted at floor level in halls and elevators that are hit with a shoe, or replacement of plastic or stainless steel buttons – surfaces believed to host the coronavirus for up to seven days – with copper, which has anti-microbial properties.
“It is quite remarkable because it’s very antibacterial,” said epidemiologist Colin Furness.
“Nothing survives on copper for long because it doesn’t reproduce and we don’t really know why.”
If he has to touch an elevator button, he uses a knuckle and always has hand sanitizer in his pocket.
Dupar Controls’ George Foleanu says technology is ramping up in elevators but he expects there will always be a place for the button.
“They are easy, intuitive and reliable. They always give you want you want. I’m not sure that buttons will disappear,” he said.
“Radio wave communication has been around since the 1960s and we are still pushing buttons.”
Existing technology is also being repurposed to handle the pandemic.
For instance, load weighing devices that sense how many people are on board an elevator can be used to monitor physical distancing, said Bogdan Rus, vice-president of operations at Toronto’s Element Elevators.
“If that was above 80 per cent before, it’s now set at about 20 per cent. So if two people get on the ninth floor, the elevator will skip a call at the fifth floor to go back to the lobby. Once those people get off, it will go back to that call on five.”
KONE has entered a partnership with NanoSeptic, a Virginia-based company that has developed self-cleaning products that adhere to high-touch areas such as elevator buttons, touchscreen surfaces and elevator car handrails.
They use available light and mineral nano-crystals to continually oxidize organic contaminants, which the company claims is more effective than bleach.
Ultra-violet light devices are being embedded into the handrails of escalators to disinfect as they roll underneath and systems are being used that detect when an elevator is empty and then bath the cabin with UV light or even mist disinfectant spray.
Other innovators are developing antimicrobial coatings or sprays that can be applied to buttons and handrails.
EnvisionSQ in Guelph, Ont. has developed a self-sterilizing clear coating for hard surfaces the company says kills viruses and bacteria on contact and provides long-lasting protection. The company has scaled up production to more than 1,000 litres a week, which it says is enough to cover the interior of 8,750 elevators.
A SIDEWAYS ELEVATOR
If this pandemic experience leads to a permanent reluctance to ride packed elevators in the future, that means buildings will need either more elevators or better efficiency from existing ones. And since the square footage given over to mechanical systems like elevators make no monthly income, the pressure is on to move more people within less space.
Clarine sees a growing demand for ropeless elevators, first developed by ThyssenKrupp in 2017. The company’s MULTI system travels through magnetic levitation, the same technology used by high-speed trains and would transform the elevator in a way not seen since its invention 166 years ago.
Instead of mechanical cables to raise and lower a cabin, mag-lev means multiple individually powered elevator cars float up and down and sideways within elevator shafts. The technology, which is being installed in its first building, the East Side Tower in Berlin slated for completion in 2021, allows for a loop system within a building or series of connected buildings.
Think of it like a mini-transit system, with sections of track rotating between vertical and horizontal to change directions of cabins.
“That gives a dramatic improvement in capacity with a smaller footprint for elevators,” said Carline.
It also overcomes a limiting factor in tall buildings – the interference building sway causes on traditional elevator rope mechanics that mean they can’t rise above about 500 metres.
The 830-metre, 163-storey Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, also includes the world’s longest elevator at 504 metres.