Before the pandemic, there were many reasons to be anxious about taking an elevator — from being crammed in a small space with strangers, to getting stuck between floors.
Now, as coronavirus cases exceed 18 million worldwide, many people are concerned about catching the virus, whether from someone else in the elevator or via the buttons.
Software engineer Bhavin Ahir felt the fear in the apartment block where he lives in March when the Indian government implemented what would become a four-month lockdown.
Ahir lives on the 12th floor of a 13-floor apartment block in the western state of Gujarat. The tower block is home to hundreds of people who take the elevator multiple times each day.
"There is always fear to touch the buttons, so I decided to do some developments from that side," says Ahir, the founder of an Indian electronics company, TechMax Solution.
People worldwide are finding ways to avoid touching elevator buttons. This man in Tehran is using toothpicks. Unable to leave his apartment, he set to work in his spare room, creating prototypes for a product now known as "Sparshless" (Sparsh means touch in Sanskrit).
The system consists of a panel that is fitted alongside existing elevator buttons. It allows users to select a floor by pointing their finger at each button from a distance of 10 to 15 millimeters (0.4 to 0.6 inches), triggering an infrared signal which tells the elevators where they want to go.
Sparshless units are also mounted at elevator entrances on each floor, says Ahir. Users place their hands under the arrows on the unit to indicate whether they want to travel up or down.
It's a completely contactless system designed for a world where people have become cautious about everything they touch.
Dirtier than a Toilet Seat
We've long known that elevator buttons are dirty. Studies have found more bacteria on elevator buttons than toilet seats.
Modeling shows that the risk of catching the virus from people traveling in elevators is relatively low, as the cars are typically well-ventilated and passengers spend a short time inside.
However, as the virus is believed to survive on some surfaces for up to 72 hours, it's not surprising that people feel anxious about touching buttons.
The pandemic has led to some creative solutions. In Thailand, a shopping mall has installed pedals so patrons can choose their floor with their feet. And in Japan, one toothpick company is marketing "noncontact sticks" for pressing the buttons. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people avoid touching the buttons directly and instead "use an object (such as a pen cap) or their knuckle."
In India, Ahir sought more sophisticated technology. At a shopping mall in Bangkok, a woman uses a foot pedal to choose her floor.
Making the Product
Ahir usually works from his company's office in the city of Surat, where he employs 12 permanent staff. The 31-year-old entrepreneur started his business, TechMax Solution, in 2009, straight after graduating from college. The company's key products are security devices, but during India's four-month lockdown, work dried up. During that time "we didn't raise even one rupee," he says.
Ahir responded to the crisis by developing the Sparshless system, testing the first prototypes on his neighbors. Early models were adjusted when he discovered that daylight triggered false readings. The system also needed to be installed in such a way that it didn't affect the elevators' normal workings — or warranty.
With those problems solved, the next step was finding customers. That hasn't been easy during a nationwide lockdown, says Ahir, but so far, the units have been fitted in 15 buildings in India.
Sumit and Sushila Katariya live in one of those buildings. Sumit is an elevator consultant, and Sushila is a doctor at Medanta Hospital, southwest of Delhi, who has treated hundreds of coronavirus patients since March.
Sumit Katariya had the touchless buttons installed in the personal elevator at his two-story housing complex to reduce the risk of this wife infecting the family and their visitors if she caught the virus. He says the panel has been working "perfectly fine" since they had it installed about one month ago.
Ahir says he has received inquiries from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil about the panels. He hopes to sell up to 1,500 units by the end of the year, an ambitious target for a small company with one manufacturing facility in the country with the world's third-highest number of coronavirus cases.
It's a "tough situation" he says, but "I always think positive."